Wednesday, 1 January 2020

Another New Year

Jill Wylie has now seen 90 New Year’s Days arrive and pass. This morning, 1 January 2020, she is astonished to be still alive, albeit rather short of breath and memory. Here are two little New Year pieces from her archive, which remain as fresh and relevant as the day they were penned.


The part of my brain that watches the time for me seems unable to accept the idea that a day begins in the middle of the night before. Day is light and night is dark and no amount of complicated clockwork can alter the sensible simplicity of it.

So the midnight celebrations of the New Year mean nothing to me. While everybody else is singing Auld Lang Syne and congratulating each other on surviving this long, I am ;left out with the stars, or more likely asleep in bed.

But when the dawn comes, then is the hour. That first little bird yawns and clears his throat, and this is one morning I don’t mind hearing him.

Suddenly he comes fully awake and sings out, “Wake up! Wake up! It’s here! It’s here!” with such glad surprise you’d think he’d never seen dew before.

The other birds tumble out of bed and begin shouting out their New Year resolutions at the top of their voices. I usually keep mine secret but they never do. They all talk at once and none listen so i suppose the effect is the same.

This dawn is not like any other. No dawn ever is. Yesterday was last year. Last night belonged to yesterday. This is a brand new day, the very first of the very first month. And here comes the New Year shouting up over the hill, flinging its rays, like arms, wide across the sky, the world, to every living thing that cares.

I would like to start the year like that – unscarred by yesterday, undaunted by tomorrow, fresh and keen as morning.


PS. Actually the new year comes with the rains.



Come the new year I’ll grit my teeth and try to count the costs and the losses, the despair and the devastation of the last year. But now, with the hooves of Christmas ringing on the wind, there must surely be some more pleasant things to write about. Life at Wildwoods, I’ve been reminding myself, isn’t all dramatic rescues, exhausting patrols, frantic chases after rabies suspects, and bitter battles to save our precious wildlife and wild places from poachers and fires against unrelenting odds. Ordinary, homely, peaceful scenes can usually be found here and there amidst the chaos.

Several times a year, for instance, a pretty bantam lays her eggs in a basin in the old downstairs bathroom we use as a laundry. I don’t mind, really. It’s better than nesting in the shrubs where predators abound. She comes and goes, as we all do, through the low-silled window. A cheeky Somango monkey and a very small round mouse also pop in now and then to see if she’d left any grain in her dish. This time she’s hatched out two little chicks, a cock and a hen, and every evening she tucks them up for the night in a nest of hay on the ironing table.

To conserve water we rigged up a shower over the ancient bath tub. The chicks have got used to the light going on and off: sudden day, sudden night. At first, when we switched it on, they’d stretch and yawn, rubbing their eyes and saying: is it time to get up? Now they just make drowsy comments in soft, whistling voices. But when i draw the shower curtain back and start to dry they stand up and preen their feathers and flap their little wings like the flapping ends of the towel. The moment I stop they settle down to sleep again.

Later, when the smells from the kitchen which tend to drift into that room have dispersed I close the window against night-time predators. The bantams really relax then, safe and secure. They even snore. When we have chicken for supper we tell them it’s pork.

Eventually, when the little cock chick starts trying to crow, the dogs will herd them gently down to the hen house each evening to join the rest of the flock, because that is one sound you don’t want before daybreak from your downstairs bathroom.

Almost every day a sleek lizard somehow gets into the sitting-room through an ill-fitting window and can’t get out again. I find him on the wide sill, nose pressed against the pane, eyes gazing longingly out at the garden. I have to reach across him to open the rather stiff window. If he panics and flops onto the floor there’s no way he can get out unless he slithers and slips right round the room to the door. usually he gets in a corner and exhausts himself trying to climb up. So I plunge after him, slither and slip on my stomach – more becoming, I always feel, than bottoms up – and guide him to the door or catch him and let him out through the window. Sometimes he makes a dive for the curtain and hides in the folds. If he misses the return dive we’re back to the slither syndrome and all that en-tails.

Lately he has waited for me to open the window for him, tapping his nails impatiently on the sill. The other day I stroked his tail as he waddled out. He stopped and looked at me with his south-side eye, muttered something I didn’t catch, and went unhurriedly on his way. The next time I stroked him from nose tip to tail tip. He came back in for more. I see the unfolding of a beautiful friendship.

A pair of tiny sunbirds, in an effort to elude marauding monkeys, build their nest each year on a branch so low it almost touches the window. The nest is a beautiful little rondavel of grass and fibres, bound with spider hammocks from the virginia creeper, and lined with the soft silk of wild kapok. It has a domed roof, a porched entrance and a high sill to keep the weather out and the chicks in. And there they sit, feet up on the little sill, and watch TV through the window. Of course, when the chicks have hatched, we draw the curtain on certain programmes. They can have the cartoons!

A bushbuck doe I’ve been monitoring lost her first fawn to an eagle and the second to a jackal. She hid the third in a part of the forest only paces from the kitchen door, where she would indirectly benefit from the dogs’ efforts to guard my free-range bantams. Success was here and she has hidden her new baby in the same place. I saw it there the other day, a perfect sculpture in chestnut and gold, caught in a leaf-filtered ray of sun, gazing at me with great dark eyes, ready to run should its mother run. I called softly, my special call, and the mother watched placidly as the dogs and I went by, her last season’s fawn still at her side. We know each other well, this doe and I.

Christmas means so much to us, but nothing at all to the birds and animals unless our greetings of joy and goodwill go out to them, too. Remember them; care for them; and may the coming year be kinder to you all.



Wednesday, 25 December 2019

The Search for Christmas

‘Christmas! Christmas! That’s all I hear about these days,’ grumbled the Basset, treading on his ear. ‘Whatever it is, if it’s more than two feet tall, I can’t do anything about it. It will have to find its own way around.’

‘I hope it bounces!’ sang the Pomeranian, demonstrating vigorously, but no one listened to him because he was still very young and rather brainless.

‘I’m going to the beauty parlour to get ready for it,’ said the Poodle smugly, ‘so it must be someone important.’

‘What’s a beauty parlour? asked the Pom.

‘Oh, clipping and combing, pulling and powdering – all that jazz,’ replied the Poodle. ‘You’ll find out when you’re older. Right now I’d better make the best of the time that’s left,’ and she trotted off, giving a naughty laugh, in French.

‘You ought to know what Christmas is,’ said the Basset to the Great Dane.

‘Why should I know?’ asked the Great Dane.

‘You just look as if you ought to know,’ said the Basset irritably, treading on his other ear.

‘You’re treading on your ear,’ remarked the Pom.

‘Oh, am I?’ said the Basset. ‘I do beg your pardon. Do you know what Christmas is?’ he asked the Dachshund.

‘Mmm-m-m!’ said the Dachshund, and sat down for a long, long think.

‘Maybe it’s a new chair,’ muttered the Basset. ‘I’ve heard them talking about Christmas chair...’

‘Poof!’ interrupted the Alsatian. Everyone sat up attentively for, as you know, Alsatians are often in touch with the Police and may have access to secret information.

‘We’d better all go home,’ he advised, ‘and try to find out more about it. ‘We’ll meet again tomorrow, same time, same place.’

The Basset put his nose down and went through his house like a vacuum cleaner, looking for Christmas. The Poodle went to the beauty parlour and did her best to listen through the cotton wool in her ears. The Great Dane found a tree in his house and was told to go outside and find a tree of his own. The Pom had such a wonderful time wrecking decorations she forgot what she was looking for. The Alsatian took secret notes in short-paw and the Dachshund had a long, long look.

When the friends met again at their favourite place in the park, between the signs Keep off the grass and No dogs allowed, they all had the same thing to report. Christmas was something about giving.

‘Everyone gives someone something,’ summarised the Alsatian, consulting his notes, which he had written on his tummy for safekeeping.

‘Thought as much,’ said the Basset gloomily. ‘What have we to give anyone?’

They all thought the same thought. Bones! Lovely smelly buried treasure bones!

‘No good,’ said the Basset, treading on both ears at once. ‘Tried giving them bones years ago. Didn’t appreciate it.’

‘Well,’ said the Poodle, ‘there’s that dog behind the garage. She hasn’t got anything.’

‘She has too,’ piped the Pom. ‘She’s got puppies in the storm drain.’

‘That’s not very good,’ frowned  the Great Dane, ‘It’s going to rain.’

By the time they found the dog behind the garage, it was raining hard.

‘Hey!’ they called to her. ‘Do you want some bones?’

Not much more than bones herself, the mother dog was hauling the last of her four puppies out of the flooded storm drain. They all rushed to help her but, frightened, she snarled at them.

‘All right, all right!’ soothed the Alsatian. ‘I’m the Police, come to render assistance.’

They gathered up the shivering puppies and all took shelter under the Great Dane – all except the Dachshund who was mostly out in the rain. He gave a long, long sigh. ‘What do we do now?’

‘In my house,’ said the Alsatian, who was a trained observer, ‘there’s a red coat thing with white wool around the edges.’

‘So-o-o?’ yawned the Great Dane wetly.

‘It’s got a cap thing with a wool beard on it that would make a nice nest for the puppies.’

‘Not much good to us here if it’s over there,’ drooled the Basset sadly; but the Great Dane was frowning heavily at the Poodle.

‘Weren’t your ancestors smugglers’ dogs,’ asked the Great Dane. ‘Small boats slipping into coves, laden with contraband...’

‘Well, yes,’ admitted the Poodle uncomfortably, ‘but I don’t think girls ever...’

‘Of course they did,’ said the Great Dane briskly. ‘You run along and smuggle the cap thing.’

‘But I’ll be seen,’ wailed the Poodle, lifting a forepaw rather pathetically.

‘We’ll have to create a diversion,’ decided the Alsatian. ‘We’ll go to the front of the house and bark in our biggest voices.’

‘What about me?’ interrupted the Pom. ‘I haven’t got any biggest voices!’

‘You just stand there and look beautiful,’ advised the Alsatian, ‘while you,’ he indicated the Poodle, ‘nip in through the back and smuggle it.’

He looked thoughtfully at the Dachshund. ‘You’d better stay here,’ he decided, ‘and keep the family surrounded. Come on, men. This way! Let’s go!’

Outside the Alsatian’s house they took up strategic positions. The Alsatian waved his tail three times.

‘Boof!’ boomed the Great Dane.

‘Voetsak!’ shouted the Alsatian.

‘Wooof! Wooof!’ bayed the Basset.

‘Weef, weef!’ yelled the Pom, while out from the back of the house ran the Poodle, high-stepping though the mud, the crimson hood with its white beard trailing behind.

‘It belongs to someone,’ she said worriedly, when once more they were gathered around the mother dog and her shivering puppies. ‘It belongs to Sandy Claws or someone.’

‘Never mind,’ said the Alsatian smoothly. ‘We’re going to give it back. Now put the pups in and I’ll take one side and you,’ he said to the Great Dane, ‘take the other...’ The rest of his instructions became muffled as he and the Great Dane lifted the hood and moved awkwardly towards the houses, the puppies cradled and swinging between them and the mother trotting anxiously beneath. They dumped their burden on the very first doorstep.

‘Look what we’ve got for Christmas!’ squealed the children in delight. ‘Oh thank you, Mum! Thank you, Dad!’ and they hugged their astonished parents and the puppies all at once.

‘It worked!’ sang all the dogs together. ‘Christmas worked!’

But the little mother dog crept sadly away. She was thin and dirty and she had ugly, hairless scars where people had thrown burning sticks at her to chase her away. No one would want her.

‘Hey, wait! Come back! It’s Christmas!’ cried the other dogs, racing after her.

‘I’ll look after you,’ declared the Alsatian.

‘I’ll shelter you,’ rumbled the Great Dane.

‘I’ll take you to the beauty parlour,’ promised the Poodle.

‘I’ll talk to you,’ offered the Pom, and the Dachshund gave her a long, long wink.

Then all the children from all the houses, attracted by the noise, ran out calling, ‘There she is! There’s the mother! The puppies need their mother!’

‘I want her! I want her!’ they all cried at once. ‘Oh, isn’t she thin? Isn’t she sweet?’ And soon the mother dog was giving her puppies their first lesson in eating from a dish.

The rain stopped and the sun went down. The Christmas beetles tuned their fiddles and their bagpipes and the great Dog Star shone down with a smile so bright it seemed almost close to tears.


Printed in Mutare SPCA News, 1972.

Sunday, 8 December 2019

Return of the robin!

We've neglected this blog for far too long - but like the robin, it's back. Jill Wylie wrote dozens of short pieces for the papers, SPCA reports, and herself - charming, humorous, redolent of her mantras: Be attentive to life; praise life; save every possible life. Here are two encounters with birds:


He’s back! His rich repertoire of impersonations includes some numbers I haven’t heard before and I just wish I knew the composers.

So where’s he been all this time? He starts with an impressive rendering of the Fish Eagle’s famous call, so I take it he basked away the winter months on Lake Chikamba’s balmy shores, around the mountain in Mozambique.

His “Crowned Eagle” is pretty good, too. He even gets the variations of tone as the eagle somersaults in display. At the sound of this the dogs used to rush out to protect the bantams and scan the skies, until they learned to detect the subtle differences from the real thing.

Much the same happened when he first imitated the lazy whistle of the builder across the way – an amazingly low note for such a small bird. The dogs hurtled out yelling about trespassers being bitten, chewed up and prosecuted, only to slink home, embarrassed to the roots.

We, too, have to watch for these subtle differences. Being involved in the bird atlassing project it’s important not to think you’re listening to the composer himself, live on air, and mark him on your card, when in fact it’s a plagiarised version by NR.*

It helps to know a bit about the local birds. I mean, when you hear a Fiery-necked Nightjar good-lord-delivering-you at midday in sweltering October you might not be fooled. But if you didn’t realise that the Black-crowned Tchagra, a favourite with the robin, would be calling from the woodland rather than from the deep forest where you’ve been hearing him, you could easily add him to your list by mistake.

Others are not so obvious. His “Starred Robin” effort, for instance – from the LP which includes such well-known hits as Heuglin’s, Cape and Whitebrowed, as well as medleys and variations of many other songs – comes from the right place at the right time with the right pitch, tone and uneven rhythm. And how does one robin manage to sound like a whole flock of Bee-eaters?

I once watched several Natal Robins having a ding-dong in this forest. Some macho-dominance thing and not, as I first thought, united action against an enemy. For half an hour they threw at each other every birdsong in the book, cursed Crowned Eagles down upon each other’s head, cuckoos in their nests, shrikes and hawks upon their children and their children’s children. The result was like several radios on at once, each tuned to a different station.

I could have stopped it quite easily, I’m sure, by reaching out my hands and catching some of them. They paid me no attention at all, so busy were they working out new abuses.

Later I found a nest in that area, perched insecurely up where the roots of a strangler-fig fingered over rocks, in easy reach of my wild cats, servals, civets, genets, cuckoos and shrikes. In fact, I first noticed it when it was being raided by a boomslang. And there was a nest on the ground under a fern root near the rubbish pit, soon cleaned out, as I anticipated, by a giant rat. There are other nests around, many in ridiculous places. It seems that, in general, the Natal Robins lack a comprehensive home-planning policy, an area of concern that should be addressed as a matter of urgency.

Why do you suppose this robin imitates birds the way he does and makes such a thing of it, such an art? If it really is a smart idea why aren’t all the others onto it? Is there something different about his vocal apparatus that they can’t match? When he’s onto his own personalised see-saw song you can understand it’s the old routine: I’m me! This is my place! All other NRs take note!

Does he then go on to declare, “and that goes for you, too, Crowned Eagle! And Bulbul, and Nightjar, and Emerald Cuckoo, and Starred Robin and Heuglin’s and shrike! And you, too, builder-across-the-way ...You all keep out of my space, you hear!”

If so, there’s inflated ego for you.

On the other hand, I suppose he could just be having a load of fun and taken out a copyright on the game.

* Natal Robin. This was written before the Grand Names Change a few years ago. Now known as the Red-capped Robin-Chat, despite the fact that its cap isn't red at all, but a sort of rusty brown-grey. What were 'they' thinking?



This morning a tiny bronze mannikin, racing the dawn wind with his fellows, hit the window – bup! I ran to reach him before the cats, who know that sound as well as I do and are snatch-quick off the mark, while around him the excited twittering of his flock turned to shrill cries of dismay.

As he lay in my hand, eyes closed, head lolling, I could feel a million pulses still flying him full-tilt down the wind, and the stunned, incredulous gasps of the cells of his body panicking for instructions from a brain gone blank; then rushing to emergency stations, throwing switches, shutting down systems, stopping traffic. Swift, precise procedure as laid down for Dealing with Shock.

Or was it to be Dealing With Death? How can you tell from the outside?  Would those cells decide to give up the ghost, fold down upon themselves like hands prepared for burial, and leave, bowed and cowled, on the long lonely journey back to the soil – perhaps to become, in time, grass and seeds for other little mannikins?

Quick! Turn him right way up and keep him warm. Warmth means life. Fool them into thinking Plan A still holds! Put him in the dark warm recovery box kept ever ready for just this situation.

Dark. Pretend it’s night. Pulses, stop flying; slow down for sleep. Quiet, now. Total quiet. Wait an hour or so. Pray. I read somewhere You count every sparrow as it falls. Well, Lord, please count this one as it rises. Just this once. Won’t cost you a thing, honest. Wait on, until time to try ...

Softly, softly, I felt him in the dark. Warm. Supple. Pulses ticking over quietly. Cells holding steady. Feather whispering to feather: Hey, are you awake? Where are we? Should we go now?

I carried the box out to the garden, well away from cats and walls and windows, and eased the cover back. Daylight! He stared at me: Hell, what’s that? Doesn’t move so forget it for the moment. Cautiously he checked himself out – balance; batteries; fuel; oil in the joints; toes flex, unflex; right wing, left wing – cocked his head, took his bearings from the sun, and .... OK, let’s go! Let’s try! Loop, swoop, and away! Sun in the eyes! Sun on the wings! Fly, baby, fly!

Come on, you miserable old day, do your worst. Fetch me every stinking problem you can cook up and still I’ll spend you smiling. For I hear my little bird laughing with the morning. I even thought I heard him call, Thanks! as he reached again for the wind.


Wednesday, 29 November 2017

New Jill Wylie book launch

Book launch

Double Bill

Dan Wylie: Raven Games: New and Selected Poems

Jill Wylie: Barefoot & Pawprint: A Kenya childhood
WHERE:  National English Literary Museum
Worcester St, Grahamstown. 
Tuesday 5 December, 17.30 for 18.oo.
All poetry and animal lovers welcome. Both these books make for wonderful Christmas Season gifts.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

The Training of Tawny - Part 7

Grooming, performed regularly, is the best possible way of developing trust between you and your animal - and essential in working dogs to find ticks, treat hidden wounds, and so on. And it's a good moment to reinforce some of those important basic commands.


At six weeks old a puppy is intensely curious. “Tawny, look!” I would call, poking my finger at anything of interest within reach of her nose: a bone, a fallen bird’s nest, an insect, perhaps.
            Before the first day of doing this was done she came snuffling up to see what I’d found as soon as she knew the word. (She’d forgotten it by morning but remembered it again after breakfast.)  Actually it was my hand I wanted her to notice more than the word, for this was the first step in learning hand signals.
            Soon she learned to follow my finger to the object of interest when I described a small arc  in the air on the way.  Then we moved  to objects not on the ground, gradually to arm’s length left and right. Pointing straight up still foxed her.
            When she was eight weeks old I could call her to look  without pointing and she would stare at my hands, waiting for an indication, and by that I judged the lesson learned well enough for the present. Later this could be extended to other forms of finding and searching.


Like all very young puppies Tawny sat down every few moments throughout her waking hours. It seemed a shame not to take advantage of this stage, which soon passes. Virtually all I had to do was teach her a word for it.
            I watched for it and tried to coincide my command with her action; better still, anticipate it. I did this a great many times and after a week or so she seemed to have got the connection without even realising it. There was something rather vague and automatic in her response, but it was a start. By then I was also ready for formal grooming during which this command and the next (“Lie”) would be taught anyway.
            At first Tawny was not easy to groom. She wriggled and rolled, chewed the brush and my fingers and tried to turn the whole exercise into a game she didn’t really want to play. I gave her a cloth to play with and merely stroked her with the brush, making soothing sounds. Very soon she began to like it and then had to be taught to take her turn and not interfere when I was grooming another animal. This would seem a small matter but it was very important for Tawny, for there were going to be times when I’d have to give my full attention to another animal – one that was injured, say – and I didn’t want to have shut Tawny away every time I did so.
            Formal grooming followed a routine procedure.  The same time every day, and in a sequence that was regular and predictable. First Tawny was given a good rub over with the brush and fingertips to loosen any dirt and stray hairs. Then she was required to sit while her head and chest were groomed and her ears, eyes and mouth examined.
            Because of the groundwork already done the Sit was now hardly a problem. Occasionally when her mind was on something else, Tawny needed a little physical assistance. Then I placed the palm of one hand against her chest to prevent her moving forwards and with the other hand over hips and tail-head, slowly push her down into the sitting position, giving the command several times and praising her calmly when she was sitting securely.
            It is a crazy feature of training a puppy: you manhandle her into the position required, then praise her as if she’s achieved it all by herself!  But it works.
            Tawny was not being trained for obedience competitions and so was not required to sit exactly so. As long as she was sitting where I wanted her to sit, it didn’t really matter if she sat a bit crookedly or something.
            My hand signal for Sit is slapping the palm of one hand against the fist of the other where the thumb and forefinger join.  This is not a convention signal; I evolved it simply because it resembles no other. Tawny was a year old before I got her onto this. I could have taught her as early as eight or nine months old but at that time she was learning many things and this particular hand signal was a lesser importance.


The next step in Tawny’s grooming routine was to have her forepaws brushed and examined, especially between the toes for grass-seeds and such like. Once she was sitting, I wanted her to lift each of her paws in turn when asked. “Paw,” I said, “Give me your paw!”, lifted it myself, praised her and groomed it. Then the next one. Because I wanted her to stay sitting I spoke softly.
            After a while I noticed that she shifted her weight off the paw I indicated even before I touched it. I increased the praise and soon she was putting her paw into my hand, though with no great enthusiasm. She much preferred to lie on her back, a position she felt was so irresistibly endearing as to solve any problem she might encounter, and give me both paws together.
            This is another lesson that is more easily taught when the puppy is around six weeks old than later on: if she is to learn to shake hands now is the time to begin, because puppies of this age naturally bat their paws at each other and at anyone else, especially someone who will bat back, Occasionally, as I batted paws with Tawny, I would catch a paw gently in my hand and say, “Oh paw! Clever girl!”
            I could have speeded up her learning considerably if I had done this with her often. As it was, the lesson was mainly confined to grooming time once a day.

            Confusion can arise, though, at this early age,  - for example, this puppy was also being taught not to jump up with her paws.  That’s why I confined the lesson to grooming time, and always thereafter insisted that Tawny be sitting down before presenting a paw.


Saturday, 22 April 2017

The Training of Tawny - Part 6

I've run out of Tawny pics, so have to repeat ...

At first, as we’ve seen, this command pertained only to toilet-training. Not until that problem had been overcome was its use extended to other circumstances.
            Tawny wanted always to be with me. Why should she go outside when I was inside? What was I up to? She viewed the whole idea with the utmost suspicion.
            To overcome this I made use of the pantry, which has only one door. The dogs are not allowed in there because it is a very small space and they soon realise that they get trapped in there and trodden on. When Tawny followed me in to the pantry I pushed her out with a firm ‘Outside!’  After about a week of this she came to realise that she couldn’t sneak out any other way; only then was she able to accept the command and wait patiently in the kitchen.
            Once that part of it was achieved it was no problem to use the command in regards to other rooms, and then to the outdoors – but only ever for good reasons.  One of the best reasons was to get the dogs to take their bones out of the house; they soon associated ‘Take it outside’ with the fun of chewing on their post-meal evening bone. Then one could use the command for any reason – always, preferably, quietly and firmly delivered rather than furiously, even if you are cross about something.


‘Down!’ I use to mean ‘Don’t jump up’, rather than ‘Lie down’, which gets its own command.   There are few things more annoying, not to mention painful, than having a dog jump up on you just when, for a change, you’re impeccably dressed.  And if your dog does it to your visitors it’s embarrassing, the people standing in a clump while you skid around their hemlines slapping ineffectually at an exuberant dog.
            Many owners decide to slam this habit out of a puppy right from the start, but I consider such harsh treatment to be grossly unfair – a betrayal of the trust the puppy might just be starting to place in you, and thus ultimately counter-productive.
It is basic and natural behaviour for a puppy to greet her mother by touching noses and “kissing” her. In the earliest stages, naturally, this stimulates the mother to regurgitate whatever she’s managed to hunt for her brood; and to do this, the puppy must jump up. From this it has developed to puppy-talk for “Mum! Hallo!”  What then if “mum” turns on her and slaps her down?  This might happen later, when the pup is much older and should be hunting for herself, but not at this early dependent age. We expect our dogs to learn an awful lot of our language; I think we should make an effort to understand at least a little of theirs.
So I was quite gentle with wee Tawny when she greeted me this way. While greeting her enthusiastically in return I would bend down to her rather than have her jump up, just pushing her down at the same time. When the first wild moments were over, I gave the command “Down!” firmly, coinciding whenever possible with the moment when her forepaws touched the ground, for emphasis, and praising her calmly when she stayed down. I think she understood the principle of the thing quite early but was unable always to contain this exuberant and instinctive behaviour.
As she grew sturdier I grew firmer, and when she was ten or eleven weeks old I moved the lesson to Stage Two by meeting her leaps with my raised leg, causing her to lose balance, and giving the command sharply.  At the same time I was careful to keep my hands out of the way, behind my back or tucked in beside me,  This is I think of the greatest importance. I often see owners using their hands to push or knock the dog down; but this makes it harder and longer for the dog to learn the lesson. It is precisely those hands whose attention the dog wants, and as long as they are coming towards her, even crossly, she thinks she is being greeted.
Because I was pretty sure Tawny actually understood the command, her first few lessons in Stage Two were mild, and that was all she needed. For quite a while she still jumped up, but at a small distance: she’d prance on her hind legs, paddle her paws in the air, but was careful not to put them on anyone. Just once in a while, when she was quite beside herself with joy, there would be a bit of a slip.
The owner of a tough, older dog  would probably have to be a lot sharper on this than I was with Tawny. He’d have to be ready to bring his knee up smartly to the dog’s chest as he jumps up, knocking  the dog backwards, if necessary with increasing severity until the lesson is learned. But it is too easy to injure a young puppy by doing this: at an early age, you have to be gentle, and you have to use your hands.  A great many puppies learn the lesson right there, and never even have to reach Stage Two.
Provided the trainer is consistent, persistent and firm, I have seldom known this method to fail.   But here is the trick: if she’s jumping up in greeting, I knock her down with the knee, snapping the command simultaneously – and then immediately go down to her and greet her lovingly, so that she understands that it is not the greeting that is at fault, but her method.  If it’s excitement about going for a walk, again I give the command, but swing away and invite her to come and get on with the walk.


Puppies have a way of getting underfoot that can be positively dangerous. Right from the start I took a whippy, leafy twig with me whenever I walked with Tawny.
            I first stumbled over her a couple of times to show her the hazard, saying “Mind!” sharply. Each time she got in the way after that I swished the twig at her, telling her to mind in the same tone. It took three days of countless repetitions for her to understand.  She was then just seven weeks old.
            When she was three months old I extended the command to mean that she should move from her position even when she was remote from me.  By this time she knew the word well, but only in relation to avoiding being trodden on.  The first time I tried the extended meaning was when she was standing too close to the wheels of a visitor’s car that was about to move away.  When I called her to “mind” she looked across to me and wagged her tail in acknowledgement, then looked all around as if to see who was about to trip over her. Her tail dropped a bit, she looked at me again, moved her tail apologetically and put her head on one side questioningly. I went to her and drew her away from the wheel, saying, “Mind, mind car!”
            Opportunities such as this didn’t occur as often as (nearly) getting trodden on, and it took another three months before she would readily move from her position on command, especially when she could see no reason to do so.  Again, consistency is the key: there always needs to be a reason, as she would always find out.  “Mind” remains one of the most useful and flexible of commands.


Tuesday, 28 March 2017

The Training of Tawny Part 5

 The collar

In keeping with tradition, when Tawny turned 8 weeks old she was given a collar – the softest, lightest one possible. It was, in fact, an old one rubbed soft with white wax floor-polish and worn by many puppies and several fawns.  It had been clipped short so that just a fraction protruded beyond the buckle. No matter if it wasn’t strong enough to hold her: its only purpose was to get her used to the feel of it.
            She jumped and rubbed and scratched and moaned as if she felt a string of grass-seeds strangling her. I took her immediately on an interesting ramble to take her mind off it.  By the next day she hardly noticed it, just as one stops noticing the feel of a wrist-watch.
            Several days later, when the collar no longer meant anything to her, I took it off again. Thereafter I put it on when we went out for a walk, and took it off as soon as she got home. In this way she soon connected it with an exciting walk and welcomed it.
            At least two weeks went by before the collar was used for any form of control, and then a very light lead was attached to it for her first lesson in walking to heel.
            Living in the bush one is faced with the dilemma of whether to leave collars on the dogs permanently or not. If they go off hunting on their own, will they get hitched up on a branch or on the horn of a buck they have bayed? Would the tusk of a wild pig get under it and break the dog’s neck? On the other hand, many dogs caught in wire snares around the neck have been saved from strangulation by their collars. Once one of my dogs, leaping between me and a cobra we’d disturbed, took the full force of the snake’s strike and was unharmed.
            My dogs, thank heavens, never leave the house without me and in the bush are always nearby. So a dog in training has her collar put on to go out and removed when she comes home. If one of the dogs is fierce or bouncy and I’m expecting fragile visitors sometime that day, I leave the collar on after the dawn walk and remove it after the evening exercise. I never leave a collar on any dog when I go out without them; I always feel that if there was any trouble between the dogs and the labourers or intruders I’d rather the dogs were not too easy to grab.  A young dog I once helped to treat had been caught by the collar and brutally beaten with grass-slashers over every part of his body, while his owner was away.

The lead

Once Tawny was used to wearing a collar she was shown the lead, a light leather one to start with. She was allowed to smell it and play with it for several minutes while lying down before it was attached to her collar. Gentle tugs were then made in a playful way; after which, with the lead on, I played with her in the house.
            In spite of these preliminaries, thrice repeated, she was like a fish on the end of a line the first time she went out on the lead. I let her pull long enough for her to realise that it wasn’t going to break but not long enough for her to panic, before sitting down and calling her into my lap for a hug. Each time she began to jump around on the lead I distracted  her attention in some way to bring her in closer to me and only then trying a few more steps forward.
            On the third time out I could see she wasn’t jerking on the lead in fear but in fury. I put a lead on well-trained TellMe and placed Tawny on her own lead between us.  On command TellMe walked soberly to heel and in no time at all Tawny saw what it was all about and more or less resigned herself to the task.
            Now I could change her light lead, which really wasn’t strong enough for control, to a nylon one with a length of chain at the clip end. I find with new puppies the noise and weight of this short length of chain, although very slight, tends to worry them too much to be the first to use.
            Like many pups, Tawny thought of picking up the lead about six inches from the clip and carrying it. In this way, although she still had to come when told, she felt she had some control over the exercise. It’s a pretty sight to see a little dog trotting alongside her owner with a loop of lead in her mouth, but it doesn’t allow for fine control over the dog. I aim to have my dogs as sensitive to a touch on the lead as a horse is to the rein.
            I use several types of lead – the light leather thong for beginners; the nylon cord with 10 inches of light chain attached to the clip end with a swivel clip; another fashioned in the same way but a quarter again as long; the slip-lead – a strong leather strap of standard lead length ending in a metal ring through which the hand-hold can be passed to make a choker less harsh than a choke-chain; a smart all-chain lead with a leather hand-hold loop for town wear; and a 15-foot training lead of light nylon rope.  Bay is so tall that her collar is at my waist, making a standard-length lead unnecessary when she is walking to heel. So for town wear, when she has to stay at heel all the time, she has a very short chain lead with a leather hand-hold. The chain-work on all these leads, as with choker-chains, is all of flat, smooth, flexible links. When I exercise or work the dogs in the bush I usually take only the all-leather slip-lead because of its versatility. It can be collar-cum-lead as it is supposed to be, a lasso to catch and hold a calf, a halter for a horse, a rope to help me climb a tree, a tourniquet, and heaven knows what else.

The choke-chain collar

Sensitive, light-boned Tawny proved easy enough to manage without resorting to the choke-chain, but I use them for the other dogs.  If used intelligently the choke-chain can be a useful aid in controlling a powerful animal, or in teaching a strong, stubborn puppy exactly where she should be when walking to heel – because when she is in that position you relax the pull on the lead and the collar becomes completely slack, not merely less tight as with an ordinary buckled-on collar. Most puppies soon learn which the most comfortable position is, and that deviating from it brings an immediate tightening of the collar.
            I am totally against the practice of leaving a choke-chain on a dog in place of a buckle-on collar unless the ends are tied to de-activate the running-noose action.
            There is often some initial confusion as to the correct and safe way the choke-chain should be worn.  Here it is, step by step:

           1. Attach the lead to one ring of the choke-chain, thus ‘identifying’ one ring.
            2. Feed the entire chain through the other ring to form a circle.

            3. With the dog at your left side, facing the same way as yourself, put the circle over her head.   The chain of the collar should travel straight from the lead across the back of the dog’s neck and round her throat. (If it goes from the lead under the throat, it can tighten with a vicious turning motion which can be very damaging to the dog’s throat.  If you try to put it on when facing the dog, it’s easier to get it on wrong.)