Winston – The “Untrainable” Setter

Winner: Best essay overall

Author: Tina Ward, CPDT-KA

Tina Ward, CPDT-KA
Tina Ward, CPDT-KA

"This dog is untrainable. He’s a setter.”  Victoria heard these words often in her first sixteen weeks enrolled in traditional basic obedience classes.  Still, she had grown up with Irish Setters, and she loved her young dog and knew he was trainable.  But the highly recommended trainer was unsupportive and the classes not helpful. Angered at the casual dismissal of a dog and breed she loved, Victoria vowed to find another way to work with her dog.

Turning 50, Victoria faced a life choice. She could watch her husband slowly deteriorate from Alzheimer’s, or she could fulfill her lifelong dream to have Irish Setters.  She grew up with the breed, one a champion at Westminster, and she well remembered the close communication with the setters of her youth.  Checking regional breeders, she chose the dog of her dreams, Winston, a male setter of notable pedigree.  She hoped the puppy would slow the progression of her husband’s Alzheimer’s, and indeed he was helpful with her husband.  Winston was sensitive enough to alert Victoria whenever her husband might be disoriented. This “untrainable” setter was acutely sensitive at home and grasped the special task of supporting a husband whose faculties were diminishing.

Soon after Victoria bought Winston home he had his first HOD episode, a debilitating and painful bone disease.  While walking in their neighborhood, the five-month pup unexpectedly collapsed, yelping in pain.  A UPS driver saw him drop and helped Victoria get the distressed dog home.  Winston was diagnosed with Hypertrophic Osteodystrophy (HOD) and would suffer from recurrent bouts over the next two years, with accompanying anorexia and anxiety. 

This setter pup also demonstrated little concern for self preservation, a trait shared by adolescents of many species. In addition to falling out of trees in hot pursuit of squirrels, Winston launched himself through a bay window after a chipmunk on the sill.  Too bad those inches included several window panes.  The nicked artery and pain from this window encounter as well as the HOD bouts only added to a young dog’s anxiety, especially in having his legs and paws handled.

I first met Victoria in a Canine Good Citizen (CGC) prep class.  I was enrolled with my rescued dog as was another of the Dogs With Issues trainers in our club.  During the first class I observed a hyperactive, unfocused adolescent Setter fearful of having his paws handled.  The CGC instructor singled out Winston to demonstrate how to work with a dog that jumped up on people by walking directly into him.  But this training method dramatically escalated his hyperactivity.  Victoria tried everything the instructor suggested, but had scant luck in completing the class exercises or in keeping her dog under control After the class was over I introduced myself to Victoria, explaining that I also owned a hyperactive dog and I thought I might be able to help her.  After finishing the CGC class, Victoria next enrolled in our Shy Dog class. 

Victoria’s earlier work with Winston started in obedience classes that used negative corrections.  In contrast, our classes utilized a clicker and positive reinforcement of desired behaviors.  For our shy/fearful dogs, we use classical conditioning to lessen anxiety levels.  In Winston’s case we focused on lessening his anxiety to handling, as well as his separation from Victoria.  There were many challenges to overcome, including that Winston had little interest in food or toys.  At first he was too anxious in class to eat, and it was months before he accepted a food treat in class. Even then it had to be something smelly and delicious such as liverwurst.  Very gradually Winston did gain confidence and he began to respond to the clicker.

Victoria and Winston shared a strong bond.  That bond and her dedication would be what made the training possible.  But Victoria faced her own challenges.  The clicker was awkward to use, and her timing was off.  She was inconsistent with her cues, giving commands as inconsistent phrases with conflicting visual cues.  Physically she limped badly from a deteriorating knee. 

Victoria and Winston
Victoria and Winston

In addition to the Shy Dog class work, we worked together at her home.  In the frigid cold of winter we worked in her garage on off-lead heeling.  As Victoria walked around the garage, Winston would get a click followed by a treat every time he was in heel position. Over time he grasped heel position as Victoria and Winston navigated figure 8s, serpentine and other obedience turns and stops.  We worked on general manners with exercises such as “go to mat” when the front door bell rang.  We practiced waits at the top of staircases, and drop on command as an alternative to eagerly running to greet.

To improve Victoria’s handling skills, she worked with my well schooled dog, Jemma.  When I taught riding long ago, we always put a novice rider on a well trained horse. Similarly I thought that working with a well trained dog would help Victoria.  I made vocabulary lists of cue words for Victoria to learn, and whenever she gave conflicting commands, Jemma would just stop and patiently wait.  When Victoria’s verbal cues agreed with her physical movements, Jemma would heel and perform with alacrity and confidence, often to Victoria’s disbelief, “She did it!”  And I would reply, “Yes, you gave her what she needed and you’ll get there with Winston too.” 

Victoria worked with Winston daily – always with the clicker and positive reinforcement.  He earned his kibble meals with short training sessions with countless repetitions of commands in the 4’X 8’space between Victoria’s stove and sink.  They trained in different locations from parks to parking lots.  We worked on separation anxiety in pet stores by having her walk beyond view and then return while I held Winston.  We started with just seconds of separation, only gradually extending to minutes.

Winston graduated first from the Shy Dog, and then from the Rowdy Dog classes.  I recommended that Victoria attend classes at other locations where she took Rally and later Novice Obedience.  She continued in our advanced Dogs With Issues classes. 

After this first year, Winston was ready for his first AKC trial, entered in Rally Novice and Pre-novice Obedience.  We had a small group of trainers and students, all with dogs with issues, whether fearful, rowdy, or growly.  We set our crates together and calmed each other’s dogs in the stimulating show environment.  We arrived hours before classes started to give everyone time to get accustomed to the show environment.  Being Winston’s first show, he definitely wasn’t letting Victoria out of his sight.  Winston’s first class was Pre-novice and he got a 4th place ribbon!  Pre-novice is a training level class, intended as preparation for Novice Obedience and the Companion Dog (CD) title.  Victoria was delighted that he completed the pre-novice exercises, including the stand for exam by the judge.  Next came the Rally ring, where they finished the course, but not with a qualifying score. This was such an uplifting start - Winston and Victoria had competed in their very first AKC event and both gained experience and confidence. 

Last spring Victoria took another step in fulfilling her dream of a life rich with Irish Setters when she brought home a female puppy, Shaylee.  In my experience, shy/fearful dogs often do well when paired with a confident dog and this was indeed the case.  Winston adored his boisterous little sister and followed her everywhere, bringing her all of his own favorite things. Wiser now, Victoria clicker trained Shaylee from the pup’s arrival at eight weeks. At the remarkable age of six months and seven days, Shaylee passed the CGC test (one of the youngest setters ever to earn the CGC certificate). 

At the two year mark of Winston’s positive training, Victoria and he returned to the AKC ring to compete in Rally Novice. This time all the diligence, hard work resulted in qualifying scores at three consecutive trials. To the supportive cheers of all their training buddies, Winston earned the title of Rally Novice (RN), with several ribbons to his credit!

There remained one big hurdle for Winston yet to pass, the test that had introduced them to me, the Canine Good Citizen test.  For a dog with issues, the diverse parts of this test can be incredibly difficult – calmly greeting a stranger, walking past a strange dog, being examined by an unfamiliar person, as well as the dreaded three long minutes of separation.  Winston passed only two of the ten sections the first time he took the test, but they kept trying, each time succeeding at one more behavior. Just two months ago, Winston finally passed on his seventh try, and you could see both dog and partner glow with pride over the achievement.  This “untrainable” Irish setter now carried titled initials after his name – Winston, RN, CGC. 

This is by no means the end of their journey together. Victoria last month had knee replacement surgery and intends to run when the judge calls “fast” in the heeling exercise of the Novice Obedience trials they’ll enter next spring. This has been a wonderful journey to watch and be part of.  I have seen a dog and owner both with significant health issues, but who loved each other dearly, work together and learn to communicate with positive reinforcement and the aid of a clicker.  There’s no longer any doubt, this Setter is definitely and emphatically trainable! 

About Tina Ward

Tina Ward, CPDT-KA is a trainer for the Greater Saint Louis Training Club and the Shy Dog Classes at the Humane Society of Missouri.  Her goal is to enhance the lives of owners and their dogs through knowledge, communication and understanding.  She shares her home with two rescued/rehomed Golden Retrievers, one of which is a dog with issues that inspired her to begin working with owners of dogs that had special needs.  When she's not working with dogs, she's a musician in the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.

About Victoria Hollowell

Victoria Hollowell is a professional biologist and the scientific editor at the Missouri Botanical Garden in Saint Louis. A lifelong dog person, she is currently loved by two Irish setters. Winston is now a solemn gentleman, three and a half years old, and continues to train in obedience and rally obedience events. He's joined by Shaylee, his boisterous, one-year-old companion in mischief, and she makes people smile in both the conformation and rally obedience rings. Victoria remains committed to the "dog with issues" training curriculum for non-traditional dogs, for the sheer, non-traditional joy of this.


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