Manners …Children and Dogs

How do we teach a dog “Manners”?

Same way that we teach children. We show good leadership. We are consistent. We are vigilant and we persist until certain behaviours are “proofed” in the child or in the dog.

Some people imagine that a dog can be taught “manners” almost instantly. And they have scant understanding of what is appropriate in different settings. So people find themselves in a setting with their dog, say, arriving at a boarding kennels.  Another dog is standing close by and barking at the new arrival.

And the owners of the arriving dog ask their own dog to …sit.

Right in front of another barking dog!

And then they proceed to insist that their dog should “sit”. Actually, they insist on,

“Sit!….Sit!….SIT!  Sit-sit-sit!  SIT!!! ROVER!!!  WILL . YOU.  SIT!!!!!”,

(Rover rarely does sit…but perhaps he may do. On the tenth pleading).

Of course, anyone who knows even a little about dogs and their training will know that this is an unreasonable request of poor Rover. No dog wants to sit and place himself at risk right in front of a dog that is busily threatening him. Self preservation kicks in and kicks back at all the owner’s frustrated exhortations. It is not fair on the dog to ask this of it in these conditions.

But there are things that we should ask of the dog.

And we should ask them consistently and we should persist in our asking / training until we get them consistently every time from our dog.

Things like waiting until the dog is told he may come forward, for example. This is basic training and something most people could do successfully with their dogs. And it represents “manners” for the dog as well as providing a safety technique for his every day management.

Why should we let our dogs drag us out through gates and doors? Or into cars and out of them? Training a dog to wait until he is told to move forward can save its life.

I once suggested (foolishly, because it was to a man who already knew everything) that the dog he owned  and which we had bred and reared and loved really should not be allowed to just bound  out of the tailgate of his car each time he opened it up. He didn’t see the need, however, to teach her the simple command, “Wait!”

I confess that I was not a little angry to hear, some months later, that she had charged past her owner from out of the rear of his car, bolted across a road,  and had got killed.

Just a little manners taught to her might have saved her life.

Children too can benefit from being taught “manners”.  Perhaps such teaching might save them too in some of the  situations that life will throw at them.

One time I found an old book dating from the early 1960s on the subject of “Courtesy” and written with the teaching of children and young people in mind. It was produced by the Christian Brothers and was, in fact, approved for teaching in schools in Ireland by the Irish Department of Education. It would have been in use in Irish schools probably around the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s.

I took the little book in to the senior Primary class that I was teaching (in the new millennium) and the children were fascinated by some of the ideas in it.  I was quite taken aback by their level of interest.  Many of the social conventions it contained were long outdated; perhaps through lack of use rather than lack of need.

I was astonished to find how few of the points made in that little book were familiar to the children. Many of the ideas that one would take for granted that a child of twelve or fourteen would surely know, were quite new to them…

 Why should you not speak with food in your mouth?

 Why not sit as close as you like to the fire?

Is it always wrong or rude to listen in to other people’s conversations?

Some of it they thought was hilarious and we all laughed outright at such offerings as,

“Do you stare at people, or cast your eyes around aimlessly in a giddy manner?” 

They were perplexed by such strict social rules as govern how to greet other people or how to introduce people to each other. (For those who are interested“A man is introduced to a woman, a boy to a girl, one of lower rank to a superior”)

Many of the points gave rise to much discussion.

 What could not be claimed about that little book was that the children found it boring. They were interested. It introduced concepts that some of them had never come across before and, surprisingly, they were keen to discover.

Perhaps they had an innate sense that knowing such things might save them in some tricky social situation in the future?!

But maybe not.

Perhaps young people today do not need such outdated “manners”. Isn’t education all about accepting the child as the person he is?  Who really cares whether someone says Thank You or not?  Why should children be encouraged to involve themselves in such servile acts as holding open doors for other people?  Surely all this “manners” stuff is a throwback to Victorian attitudes towards children?

I would argue that even in our modern times, with all our imagined advances, all our glitter and gadgets, we are still human beings and we are still needful of being able to live successfully within a social group.

One of my friends, who is a teacher, once asked a student to leave his classroom because he said the student  had displayed a lack of manners. As he exited, the student sneeringly asked his teacher,

“What’s Manners anyway?”

And he got this masterful response…

“Manners is … realising that there are other people in the world besides yourself”

Oh yes!

And sometimes we do not seem to be doing that too well in our society today.

Young people no longer know how to greet a person from an older generation, for example. Nobody teaches them how to do this anymore.

Most of the time, if today’s teenager is able to utter anything at all in response to an adult’s  greeting, only  something guttural between a cough and a growl falls from their lips. Or else it is the insipid, meaningless, and gifted to us from certain T.V. shows,


There is a general coarsening evident in our society now. Certain elements of the media in this country showcase the trend rather too well. We have presenters on national radio and T.V. who no longer hesitate to use words that often fall with a very nasty thud on the ear.  Standards of behavior on our national broadcaster leave a lot to be desired.

We should expect better.

If more of us kept simple, old fashioned, “Good Manners” at the forefront of our minds we might find living today a lot more pleasant. We might hesitate before we “post” stuff on social media sites.  We might think before we open our mouths. We might expect that invited guests to shows on our national T.V. channel (Such as that recent Late Late Show on R.T.E.1   February 16th 2015) should at least treat us with respect.

Some of the carnage on our roads, for example, is simply a result of poor “manners”.  We get behind the wheels of our cars and promptly forget that  “ there are other people in the world” besides us.

Some of the adults we all encounter in our daily lives could do well to read a book like the one that the Christian Brothers produced all those years ago. One thing they did  get right maybe.

Both humans and dogs live in social groups and need to learn how to get along with their fellows.

Good manners oil the wheels of any social group and keep everything running smoothly.

We really shouldn’t neglect to teach “manners” despite how advanced we may think we are today.

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Dog Training and Mentors.

Dog Training and Mentors.

In dog training it is difficult to both observe and simultaneously to train the dog. What “feels” right to us might look very different to the onlooker. When we feel that our dog is in the correct heelwork position, for instance, perhaps we might be surprised to be told that our posture is anything but helpful and that we are in fact putting the dog wide, forward or behind us. It can be hard to tell just by looking down at the creature.

Step forward the Mentor.

What is a Mentor? Someone who listens to you and offers you informed guidance and help?

A Mentor, in short, is someone who knows a bit about the thing. And someone who has your best interests at heart.

You can find lots of the former…those who know plenty. The latter? Not so much.

Some people have plenty of knowledge. But they do not care whether you have it or not.  I have known people who started out as good teachers of others. Until the people they were teaching became the competition. Then the teacher stopped teaching. Not a teacher who had the best interests of the student at heart. The mark of a true teacher is one who feels genuine joy at being outshone by his own student. Because then he knows that his teaching has been successful.

Early on in my dog training life I was fortunate to fall under the influence of Kathryn Gillard. Kathryn needs no introduction to anyone who has been a competitor in Canine Obedience in the British Isles in the last thirty years. Gifted with the ability to train her own dogs to the highest standards (she won the Dog Obedience Championship at Crufts in 1999, for example) she also could observe someone else’s work, identify what was wrong and then suggest a suitable “fix”. She was a good teacher.

I have had other mentors since Kathryn but I credit her with introducing me to the challenge of Obedience.

I have also had the pleasure subsequently of helping other people with training their dogs.

Firstly, if we have a Mentor then we should treat the teaching they give us with respect. This means several things.

It is not up to us, for instance, to bandy our mentor’s teaching about to all and sundry. Some people put in many years developing their ideas and honing their techniques. If they share them with us, we should value them. Our mentor may not appreciate our becoming an expert overnight on what is, after all, someone else’s hard won experience. Added to this is the possibility that we will fall short in our explanations of someone else’s ideas. Misunderstandings can occur and things get watered down and adjusted. Furthermore the instruction from a good mentor is individualised and does not always transfer to another dog and handler.  Then a method is open to doubt and to ridicule when it doesn’t work in adopted hands.

If we have a Mentor we should expect that other people too should respect him or her. This means that we do not accept advice from people who have not earned the right to offer it. If someone is made aware that we already attend a trainer then it is disrespectful of them to effectively attempt to undermine our belief in our own trainer. It is a sign of a professional in any field that he gives due respect to all members of his profession.

These are people who do not know us and who have no interest in our progress. What may seem like an instant fix given by someone who does not know us or our dog may prove very much the wrong thing to do. We might pay dearly for our experiment afterwards.

I once took a lesson in an element of horse riding from an allegedly experienced teacher. Her charging towards my horse, mid lesson, without warning and grabbing my foot in the stirrup caused my usually quiet mare to panic. The mare reared… and I ended up flat on the ground unconscious. The good lady had taken no time in getting to know either myself or the animal she was going to work with. She just acted without forethought. I was the one who paid for it though. I had a very painful back for many months afterwards and a permanently damaged hand.

Knowing the person we are mentoring is essential for effective teaching. Knowing the animal is too. Taking advice from a stranger who knows neither is dangerous. Yet, I constantly witness judges in the Obedience rings giving unasked for, and inexpert, advice to competitors at the completion of their rounds. Why? They do not know either the person or the dog and are thus expert on the training of neither. And it is the ultimate insult to the competitor’s own mentor.

Of course, a person cannot be rude unless they know they are being rude. All else is simple lack of thought.

But we should think.

If we are the Judge we ought to think things like …

“I am here to judge, not to teach these people”
”Unasked for advice is unwanted advice” .
If when judging we are perchance asked for advice, the proper response is, “I think you would be better to ask your trainer about that…since your trainer is the one who knows you and your dog.”

If we are the Competitor we should think things like…

“Why on earth would I expect this person to advise me since he doesn’t know me or my Fido here from Adam?”
“Why would I disrespect my own trainer by asking advice from someone else?”
“If I want this person’s advice then maybe I should make an appointment later with him and pay for the teaching”
“Why am I so selfish that I stand in the ring keeping other people waiting while I ply the judge with questions?”

It has happened to us all at some point. You get your dog ready to go into the ring and compete. You warm him up, get to the ring entrance, only to have to stand and wait while the Judge vomits volumes of helpful “Advices” over the previous competitor…who may or may not have invited the “help”.

Get out!!!” You want to scream, “You have paid for your turn to compete here…not for a training session!”

Many people make an income nowadays from sharing their dog training expertise with others. If you need advice there is no shortage of trainers out there who will be happy to oblige. It is your job to find a good one. Do your research. How somebody competes in the ring themselves is one good indicator. Their track record (how many dogs, how many breeds, how many disciplines, how many wins) is another. Consider their personality and their attitude. How do they relate to other people? (Remember it is you, not your dog that they will be teaching!).

And don’t be fooled. Just because someone is a competitor does not make them a teacher. Some people don’t want to share their knowledge. Some pretend to share their knowledge …but keep much to themselves.

And some can’t share their knowledge. They can’t teach.

Oh, they can seem like they’re teaching. They can look like it too. They want to be generous with what they know. But they just do not have the skill of observing the miniscule elements of an exercise, reflecting on what they see, isolating a problem and thinking up, out of their experience, a suggestion. And then successfully communicating that suggestion to you.

If you want to pick a good trainer for yourself and your dog I suggest the following…

Step 1 Ask the person if they offer classes or private training sessions. If they do, proceed to Step 2…

Step 2 Ask them for directions to somewhere, say, the nearest airport.

If they leave you confused and uncertain about moving your car along the roads then don’t let them give you directions on how you should move your dog.

They just ain’t got it. They can’t communicate. Can’t teach.

And so…

Step 3 Find someone who can.

Step 4 Listen to them. And treat them and what they share with you with respect.

So research with care and choose your Mentor wisely. It’s a competitive world out there. And remember that ninety five per cent of those you meet around the Obedience rings really do not care what problems you have with your dog. The other five per cent are probably delighted you have them!

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Context Matters……for Dogs and Humans

Context Matters… for Dogs and Humans.

Place provides the context for dogs. History provides the context for humans.

“What should I do next?” asked the man with the Labrador dog.

“Well, I think you might train that behaviour now in some new locations” I answered.

“Oh, I never thought about that. Great idea!” the man smiled in delight that he had a new technique to work with now.

Afterwards, I thought about that.

Of course, it is not a new technique at all. It is (I think) a part of what anyone who is involved in training does. A core principle if you like. If we want the dog’s behaviour to be reliable then we train him in different locations. We vary the context. We change the place where the dog is accustomed to being worked. And if we increase the distraction level by moving the dog into a new Context, we compensate for this by reducing our demands on the animal. We don’t ask as much initially from the animal in the new context.  Because learning in the context of Place is important for an animal.


And then I remembered that not everyone knows this. Including myself when I started out in training dogs a long time ago.

My first competition dog was a large German Shepherd Dog and, because I knew no better, I determinedly “trained” him every day in the same way and in the same place. Then when we went to compete at a dog show it all fell apart.

We live and learn. I know better now. And so do most of my friends who still compete. I think.

Understanding the “Context Factor” is vital. If we train dogs then we learn – eventually – the need to introduce the trainee dog to varied contexts …the local park, the football pitch, the shopping centre, the car park and so on.

If we teach other humans then the context factor is equally important for understanding. For humans, the important context factor is History.

In recent years, a Minister for Education in the current Government of Ireland, Minister Ruairi Quinn, proposed that History as a subject should no longer be effectively compulsory for the Junior Certificate, the state examination taken by Irish teenagers around the age of roughly 15 years.

I believe this to be a great mistake for our country.

No History, no Context.

Teenagers arrive at Leaving Certificate level three years later and they are expected to study things like English literature. What in English? What are they to study? How can they understand their reading if they have no understanding of the contexts of what they are reading?

And so, we have bright, intelligent, eighteen year olds who declare, for instance, that the poetry of Yeats is “not relevant” to them in their modern lives in new millennium Ireland. After all, he wrote all his unintelligible poetry a hundred years ago. Some teachers advise their classes to avoid the poet  Yeats altogether as he is “too difficult”.

And so there is no examination of where that “Terrible Beauty” arose from. No hope of students spotting any corelation with modern day aspiring revolutionaries. No possibility of linking The Arab Spring and its like to our own history and culture. And no hope of seeing what such movements could possibly lead a people into.

What drove the Omagh bombers? Same spirit that drove recent men in Paris maybe?  Has Yeats’ “Rough Beast” that “slouches towards Bethlehem to be born” at last found its embodiment in ISIS?  Modern contexts for a poet that wrote his “stuff” a hundred years ago? Surely not.

Context is hugely important for understanding. It is important for an animal to experience varied contexts if we wish to make its learned behaviours reliable in all situations.

Context matters.

We humans learn from contexts too. If we wish to truly “understand” something then we need to examine it in its context. Native Americans knew this truth when they encouraged us not to judge another until we had “walked in his moccassins”.

Take the study of English poetry, for instance, Some students seem to imagine that a “Poet” gets up in the morning , stretches and decides,

“Today I’m going to write a poem about… Fish. Or Clouds, maybe”.

If the student wishes to appreciate the poem he’d better learn where it came out of.  A knowledge of historical background is a basic essential.

For example, why was John Montague (a poet on the 2015 higher level English Leaving Certificate course) sent from America back to Ireland at the age of four? This happening in 1933 colours much of his poetry. It affected his relationship with his parents, for a start. Was he just abandoned? Was he not loved by them? Rejected? Was the truth of the matter really that his mother, as Montague claims in one of those Leaving Cert poems, had “wanted a girl”?

Young people study Montague’s poems. Some of them learn a bit about Montague’s biography. But many of them have no awareness of the Great Depression. Never heard of the Wall Street Crash, let alone know the date of it. Can’t appreciate the poverty, the fears, the pressures. Don’t know that Montague, despite his pity me poems, had two older brothers who were also despatched to be reared by relatives in the homeland. Maybe because of the dire circumstances their parents were in back in America. Bright kids trying to engage with the poetry of a man like Montague without any reference to his poetry’s context. It’s unfair.

Speaking of the Wall St. Crash? What about our own “Most Destructive Own Goal in History that sunk an Entire Nation”?  ( Prof. William Black at Irish Banking Enquiry February 2015). Is our financial circumstance today in any way similar to America in 1929? Can we perhaps look forward to our own Great Depression? Connections anyone?


Or perhaps History does indeed “teach us nothing …except that History teaches us nothing”. 

In our country the study of History is increasingly being seen as an irrelevance. After all, why would we need to know about stuff that happened in the past? What’s that got to do with getting a job at Google?

And so, in my local, large, all girls secondary school where more than a hundred youngsters will be sitting their Leaving Certificate next June guess how many of them will sit the History paper?

None of them.

Not one.

Next year, our Government will spend a great deal of time and energy and lots of millions in trumpeting the Anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising.

I suspect there will be a lot more than the one hundred young ladies who live in my locality for whom it will all be a complete waste of energy.

No Context you see

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Get ready to bail out …IRISH WATER

Irish taxpayers are prepared to put their shoulders to the wheel again in the name of patriotism…this time to bail out Irish Water.
Get ready folks…get ready to bail!
First you will allow them to put in water meters. Then you will have to pay for water. Then you will pay for their debts, just like we did for the banks, when Ervia, owner of Irish Water, goes burst!
In this country we are CONSISTENTLY CLEAR about one thing…the taxpayer can be leaned upon in every emergency.
According to ratings agency Standard and Poors the controversial Irish Water will be bailed out by “extraordinary government support in the event of financial distress”. The ratings agency considers that there would be a “high” likelihood of such government largesse in the event of Irish Water getting into difficulties.
Reporter Donal O’Donovan in today’s Irish Independent is reporting on this latest development. Worth a read folks…especially as YOU will end up picking up the tab if/when Irish Water comes a begging banklike.
The improved rating that Standard and Poors has given to Irish Water ( an upgrading from BBB+ to A-) means that Irish Water has now got a better licence to borrow money…which you and I will be forced to repay when the dam bursts (again). No responsibility need be taken on board by the semi state company because Good Ole Irish Taxpayer has their back. This is a licence for irresponsibility. And so far, Irish Water’s track record with finances doesn’t inspire confidence.
One wonders…since Standard and Poors feel so confident in handing out their Upgrade, was there perhaps a reassurance given to Irish Water by Government that they need have no worries about repaying debts? Did anyone, by any chance, whisper the word “Taxpayer” into a watery ear?
Just wonderin’ !

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History, Homelessness and Revolution in Ireland.

A homeless man was found dead in a doorway this morning in Dublin just metres from the beautiful and historical mansion, “Leinster House”, in which our elected leaders spend their days. Poor man. The members of our parliament will be able to walk past the doorway in which he died on their way home this evening. That’s as close as this country’s homelessness crisis will ever get to most of them.

They are lucky.

I wonder how many of our T.Ds really listen to pleas for action on homelessness from campaigners like Fr. Peter McVerry. McVerry, and his like, insist that many more people will die. It is inevitable, they warn, because things have never been this bad before. Sr. Stanislaus Kennedy, founder of Focus Ireland, says that she herself knows of forty five families made homeless in just the past month. We are definitely in crisis, they say.

The message does not seem to be making its way through the fine doors of Leinster House. There just ain’t enough happening nor happening fast enough to make us believe that the politicians see this as a “Crisis”. A crisis would command more attention.

What we have at this moment in our history is an avalanche of homelessness brought about by the bad deeds and spinelessness of those in control of our financial institutions in recent years.  And now, weeks from Christmas, entire families are being forced from their homes and people are dying in doorways. Shame on all of us for allowing history to repeat itself.

One of the saddest things I have heard on Irish radio in recent days was a woman who spoke about how her children, experiencing homelessness for the first time, were most worried coming up to Christmas.

They asked her how Santa would be able to find them now that they had no house to live in.

How on earth does a parent deal with that?

Children are the ones who suffer most because they suffer confusion. They do not understand that they have no chimney for Santa this year because powerful men in some bank very far away from their house did very bad things. And they don’t understand that nobody will help them.

Peter McVerry talks of Irish parents who choose to put their children into care because they will not bring them onto the streets with them. Hobson’s Choice indeed.

Our Shameful Past, when thousands of Irish were put on the road, is taught in our schools. I know this. I taught it.

I taught kids about the Famine, about Land Agents and Landlords, about Rent Arrears, about Land Clearances, about Emigration and about death.

The word “Eviction” had to be explained to the kids I taught. They learned how to spell it. Nowadays I doubt it takes much teaching. They can live it as well as spell it.

We learned in class about how there was no state care back in those days for the homeless and the helpless and the sick and the dying. The children were wide eyed at the notion that you could be just left somewhere to die.

The term “Rack Rent” should be easy to explain to a lot of kids today as well. This isn’t confined to the pages of their history books either.

And no kid could ever understand the cruelty of burning a family’s home following eviction to make absolutely sure it could not be reoccupied. Taking a house off people who needed it and putting it beyond their reach. Why? They asked …sure, why did the people have to leave if the Landlords were so well off that they clearly didn’t need the houses for themselves? I was never able to come up with an answer that had the word “Justice” at its heart.

The thing was …I thought I was teaching history. Perhaps I wasn’t.

Today we have elderly people thrown out on the street in their night clothes by burly “official” men, the locks changed on their home’s door to prevent re-entry. They can go wherever the Hell they like.

We have no homes for people. Even to rent. I once taught about “Absentee” Landlords. Well, they haven’t gone away either, you know.

Ireland once again witnesses vast numbers of her young people taking off for foreign places to try to put some sort of life together for themselves. There will be empty chairs at Christmas tables and tears instead of laughter in many Irish homes. Talking on Skype just ain’t the same and you can’t get a decent hug off the pixels.

It has been often said before…”History teaches us nothing except that history teaches us nothing”.

There are many voices calling now for a “revolution” in Ireland. Revolution never goes too well for The People. Pick me one where nobody got hurt.

But, as Pope Francis tells us in his recent, Evangelii Gaudium, “Poverty begets violence”.

And violence begets revolution.

And more and more, I think of the W.B. Yeats poem that I taught in school, “The Second Coming” and those final lines which painted for me their picture of imminent Revolution and mayhem, the ones that always made me shudder…

“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”


We need to be aware that sooner or later, people will cease to be content with having nowhere to live. People will become angry that their loved ones are dying in doorways. Perhaps we will indeed have more of our sad history repeated, and Ireland will see yet another terrible Revolution.

Do we want that?

If we don’t then we need to be telling those in power in Ireland that we are not happy today.

If YOU are reading this then maybe you also feel that a Revolution might not be the best way forward for Ireland.

Tell them so!

Email your T.D. if you are in Ireland. Email our Irish leaders no matter where in the world you are. Tell them what you think about this crisis.

They need to know that we in Ireland are not yet gunning for another revolution …but it could happen as long as we do nothing about the Crisis things.


Phone Number 0035316194000

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Dogs – The Mondegreen factor

A “mondegreen” occurs when the listener hears something that was not actually said by the speaker. Church choirs must shoulder the blame for many of the better ones. I love that “Lead on Oh King Eternal” has been heard as “Lead on Oh Kinky Turtle”, or that “Gladly, the Cross I’d bear” is oft heard as “Gladly, the cross eyed bear”. Delicious!  My personal choral mishearing continues to be, “Oh My head! I have vipers in my hair”


The words are actually sung…”O’er my head I hear voices in the air”. I think.

The origin of the “Mondegreen” makes me smile. In a 1954 essay by Sylvia Wright, an American writer, she explained how she, as a child, always misheard the words of a Scottish ballad about the death of the Earl of Murray, The song’s lyrics tell of the earl’s death and how “they laid him on the green” but the child heard him die side by side with his faithful companion, “Lady Mondegreen”.  I love it!

And Wright argued in her essay that she much preferred her version of the ballad since the poor earl, accompanied in his final agonies by his loving Lady Mondegreen, made for a much more romantic picture. Hence, Wright gave us “Mondegreen” for the mis-hearing of words and phrases.

Song lyrics or poems are the usual and rather exciting source of the mondegreen. “Dead ants are my friends, they’re blowing in the wind” I believe makes a more arresting image than “The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind”.  And I’m sure that many people would find “She’s got a chicken to ride” far more intriguing than the correct, “She’s got a ticket…”.

Dogs can experience mondegreens as well. They can mis- hear. The language we speak to our dogs is not composed solely of sound. They “hear” more than our words. Dogs “listen” also for our hand signals, our shoulder movements, our head turns, our arm placements, our leg actions, our foot movements, our facial expressions, our emotions, our breathing, our smells, and more besides.  All of these comprise “language” for our dogs. We often think we are “saying” something to our dog – but the dog may be hearing something different altogether. Doggie mondegreens!

Let’s look at a simple sound mis- hearing first. I was, once upon a time, inclined to train my rather sensitive dog with lots of ongoing verbal praise. As he worked in heelwork position beside me I burbled constantly in a happy, light tone.

“Yes!”, “Good Boy!”, “That’s it!”, “Well done!” “Niiiiice!” “Yay!”  I’d prattle to him. And he mostly happily high stepped it out along beside me. Except when he would occasionally lose confidence and lag a little. Seeing a video of our training one day revealed something. His loss of confidence occurred every time I said the words, “That’s it!”


Look at the last three letters. S-it. Closer inspection of the video showed that the dog’s hind end was suffering gravitational pull at those moments. Doh!

But that’s an easy doggie mondegreen. What about all the times we unintentionally allow mondegreens to happen non verbally?

I watch people setting up their dog for the Sendaway exercise and pointing to the Sendaway box. Pointing is a human gesture. It only causes the dog to be attracted to our hand, not to where we are pointing. This surely defeats our purpose. We want to get the dog to look forwards yet our body “language”, our hand cue, causes the dog to look at us. Result? Misunderstanding on the dog’s part.  Mondegreen!

Then there are the people who use the policeman’s splayed hand Stop! signal just as they leave their dog and want it to stay. Dogs are attracted by movement. How many dogs misinterpret this attractive gesture and confidently follow their handler out of the stay? It happens. Maybe the last thing we should be doing if we want a dog not to follow us is to waggle an attractive, scent filled hand in front of his face.

And just a last one for now, (though you’re probably thinking of lots more), what about the handler in the Recall exercise who wants his dog to wait and walks off and then puts his hand in his pocket three paces out? We say one thing (“Wait!”) but the dog “hears” another because the dog interprets ALL our language, not just what we say.

And of course, just like the essayist Sylvia Wright far preferred her own interpretation of the language, the dog in this instance will also prefer his “mondegreen”. When his handler sticks his hand in his pocket the dog will not hear “Wait there until I call you!”  He will hear “Treats!” Mondegreen.

So how do we avoid the mondegreen factor in our dog training? Well, we try to make sure that the dog really does hear what it is we are trying to communicate. We check that they are listening. We reinforce the right move on the dog’s part. We “proof” our training.

For instance, if we say “Stay!” and then gently roll the dog’s ball across its path, will the dog really hear our Stay command? Lots of praise if he does. And couldn’t we work this up to a time when we will be able to say, “Stay!” and fire the dog’s favourite toy forward at the same instant…the dog will eventually learn to “hear” our Stay request.

Many dogs, for example, mis- hear their handler’s “language” if the handler changes his body position. Will a dog maintain a sit stay for instance if the handler walks away …and then sits down? Many dogs will misinterpret the language and will move towards their handler.

We need, as handlers, to realise the import of our, even slightest, movements for our dogs.

If, in the Agility ring, we would like to be mainly voice cue handlers I wonder what would happen if we ran towards the A Frame and yelled “Tunnel!” ….lavish praise indeed for the dog who really hears us and goes into the tunnel. On the other hand, if we require to make our dog more body signal conscious in the ring we might do it the other way round…say tunnel (softly at first) and indicate the A frame with our arm signal. And hope the dog listens to our body language and rockets up the A frame, taking his cue from our body signal and not from our words.

We need to help our dogs to hear what we are really saying. We won’t win in the competition rings with mondegreens!

Our poor dogs. Thank God they don’t have to listen to church choirs. Dog only knows what they might hear.

In our village church yesterday morning we read Psalm 22. You know the one; about the Good Shepherd? I was all set to slyly enjoy the Mondegreen. But they’ve changed the words! Mrs Murphy isn’t there any more. We had, “Surely goodness and KINDNESS shall follow me all the days of my life” instead of goodness and MERCY… (“Shirley, good Mrs. Murphy shall follow me all the days of my life”).

I missed the mondegreen. And if God has a sense of humour I’m sure He misses it too.

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WATCHING THE DOOR- Cheating Death in 1970s Belfast by Kevin Myers

I stumbled across this book in the bargain basket of my local bookshop. I bought it because its author’s face was fresh in my mind from “The Troubles I’ve Seen”, U.T.V’s excellent series on Northern Ireland’s recent history, and also because I was familiar with his writings in various newspapers over the years.
Today, November 21st, 2014 is the 40th anniversary of the Birmingham pub bombings, an atrocity in which 21 people died and scores were mutilated, for which nobody has ever been convicted and for which innocent people served prison sentences. It behoves us all to remember what living in these islands was once like. The pages of Kevin Myers book is a good place to look for a picture of those days.
The book didn’t deserve to be found where I found it …but what a bargain! This is a book that should be read by anyone in Ireland who is under the age of fifty. And especially by anyone under the age of thirty. It examines why The North is the way it is, strives to understand why Northern Ireland’s disparate peoples are how they are and shows why we, in The South, haven’t a clue about The Troubles. It is by far the best book I have come across to give some insight into those terrible times.
It is a book that should be on every seventeen year old’s book shelf. It should be a Leaving Certificate and an A Level History set text. It should be required reading for every southern Irish person who lived unconcernedly through a time when Bad Things happened but, conveniently, they happened Up North.
“The Troubles”, as we so usefully sanitised the barbarity of Northern Ireland, provided a vague backdrop to my childhood and teenage years. I was always aware, from the television news mostly, that The North was a violent and dangerous place. So I simply resolved not to go there. Problem solved. And although my life later presented me with opportunities to venture Up North and I now have many friends from that place, I am aware that there are people from the twenty six counties who stuck with their childhood resolve and never did travel beyond the border.
Not so, Mr. Kevin Myers.
Myers graduated from U.C.D. with an honours degree in History. Without any journalistic skills or experience whatever he found himself appointed a junior reporter in the Belfast bureau of R.T.E. News in 1971. He was full of youthful arrogance and bravado and, as he tells us, he had “an amazing nose for danger”. Luckily for him, people on both sides of the political divide liked him well enough to trust him and tell him things. And thus began a defining decade in Myers’ life.
Kevin Myers spent from 1971 to 1978 working as a journalist in Belfast. The book’s title is more or less self explanatory and inside the pages we are brought on an eye opening tour of 1970s Belfast and we quickly learn why it was wise to sit watching the door. Part documentary of the horrors of the times and part personal memoir, Myers manages to mix total barbarity with his own very human, at times brave, at times foolhardy, experiences in Belfast. There are moments of hilarity as well as deep reflections on the situations he finds and the characters he encounters.
Myers writes with great honesty. He often flails himself for what he regards are his mistakes. He treats his twenty something naivety with irony whilst also crediting his earlier self with trying to be objective in his views and balanced in his reporting. He paints his earlier self as being a somewhat less than likable, cocky man- about- town, full of his own sense of purpose and confident in his abilities. But he is able now, from his current vantage point of age and experience, to look back and wonder at the people he met, people whose “soul knew no pity”, whose “ conscience no sin” or men who were so deluded in their thinking that it was almost impossible to communicate with them. He describes, for instance, an attempted conversation with a character and declares that it was “like talking to a man who thinks that Martians run the post office and are stopping his mail”. We see the young man with his sense of invincibility, who could find gun battles “intoxicating”, being able to thread a clever way through all the murder and mayhem and remaining journalistically even handed, being judged now, not unkindly, by his mature self. This is the attraction of the writing.
The book is filled with shootings, bombings, maimings, stabbings and many described in hellish detail. But running parallel to the over arching terror screaming from the pages is the story Myers’ own private life in the city of Belfast.
In his twenties, largely, throughout the book and a “handsome” young man to boot, Myers lives a life of personal liberty despite the physical limitations that surround him. He manages to drink with alcoholic abandon, make friends and acquaintances on both sides of the social divide and his sexual adventures can only be viewed with a mixture of incredulity and envy. There are many laugh out loud moments at the young Myers’ antics which, almost guiltily for the reader, manage to make bearable some of the black horror at the heart of this work. All of his exploits are told frankly and he is often harsh in his judgments of his past behaviour. And all of the writing is laced with a wry humour and a sardonic wit that keeps the reader willing to continue the journey despite all the sadness and the misery along the way.
Myers brings his jaundiced wit to his presentations of many of the characters he introduces us to and he has the ability to recreate their “dialogue” with a very believable accuracy. He seems to relive moments at a deep level and can bring the characters alive on the page so that many of the movers and shakers of terrorism appear as cretins and buffoons as well as dangerous, their outlandish affectations and life views almost comical as well as deadly, as they clearly were. The affect of the writing is to make such people human for the reader as well as easier to meet on the page and Myers’ reflections mitigate, though never excuse, their evil. While he brings a balance to his presenting of such characters and his understanding of them in their Belfast surroundings is objective throughout, we are nevertheless left in no doubt that he was certainly afraid of some of these people and was under no illusions about the seriousness of their threats to his life.
Among the many unforgettable characters in the book, Belfast itself is one of the most disturbing. The reader is constantly aware of the city as a brooding, dismal, damp, dark and threatening being. It is a hostile, uncertain place where the stranger is always suspected by the natives as being of The Other Side. It offers little to recommend it as a suitable place to spend the days of one’s youth. A holiday which Myers takes in West Cork shines out as a comparison for how other folk were living then. That Belfast and its depredations had completely infested his soul then is appreciated now by the mature Myers. He wonders now at his youthful self who actually felt sorry for his friends in west Cork who, “were enduring the boring and predictable world of utter eventlessness, in which each day would end with them going to bed without ever facing the possibility of death”. He states that the two parts of the island of Ireland “knew virtually nothing whatever about one another” and that Northern Ireland is “not another version of Ireland, it is simply a place apart”. How right he is.
Much of the writing is lyrically beautiful and his metaphors and similes are almost always so good that you wish you had thought of them yourself. But there are also times when words jar on the ear and spoil the reading. We come across “to all extents and purposes”, for instance. Bernadette Devlin is a strangely attractive “women”. And does a telegram boy really do a little “mistral” dance? Nothing very major but the carelessness of the editing also permits sentences, not uncommonly, to drop out a word altogether. These are slippages that cause an uncomfortable read and the book is let down by them. Mr. Myers makes sure to thank his editor at The Lilliput Press at the start of his work but the book deserves much better.
Myers is the best kind of observer. He is not one of Them nor one of Them. He is a journalist but he manages to be also humanly involved. While he has a sympathy for all sides he still remains journalistically aloof, distant yet present, and above all, balanced.
There is no human being with a heart who could fail to be moved by the pictures painted in these pages. Myers writes too well. The detail is too stark. He has seen too much of bombings where human tissue is reduced to a confetti of “pink smears” or where human skin “crackles” in flames; too much of the tit-for-tat killings where, “Each morning brought a harvest of bodies of the stupid, the unlucky and the gullible who had died terribly”. Myers must, of course, have been personally affected by his experiences. He speaks of his nightly “visitors”, whom he christened “Jimmy and Seamus”, who regularly brought terror to his dreams.
I take my hat off to Myers and to all his colleagues of that time.
Should anyone have to see what Myers and his journalist colleagues saw? Should any society have to live through such horrors? How does a People come back from such a place? What scars remain?
I hope that today’s twenty something year olds never have to witness what the young Kevin Myers and his contemporaries witnessed. I hope that young people in every corner of these islands remain innocent.
The Birmingham pub bombings occurred on November 21st 1974. I saw that on the news at the time. I was barely a teenager.
The Dublin/ Monaghan bombings happened in May 1974. That was the only time that any aspect of “The Troubles” impinged even remotely on my life. I feared that my beloved piano teacher might have been hurt in Dublin. (She wasn’t).
How lucky was I to have known so little of the strife of 1970’s Ireland which was happening only a couple of hours’ drive away. Reading Kevin Myers’ book brings this starkly home to me. It also underlines for me how lucky we all are on this island that, despite continuous rumblings, we are in a very much better place now. But, lest we become complacent (think Syria, for instance), it is worth reminding ourselves how quickly things can spiral into chaos.
Read this book people. And appreciate.
(Reviewer : Rosemary Daly, B.Ed. Hons.)

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