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Man’s best friend just loves to work: What it's like to train dogs

By Heather Large | Staffordshire | Attractions | Published:

They say a dog is a man's best friend and that is certainly true for John Fitzpatrick.

John Fitzpatrick at Cosford Dog Training

He's been training our canine pals professionally since 1981 when he first qualified as an Royal Air Force Police dog handler.

Now he runs his own training school at his farm in Codsall Wood and competes in working trials with his Malinois Jimmy and Alice.

"I love seeing how dogs' heads work and how they solve problems. I love seeing how they make progress in training and look to me for reassurance and guidance when they get confused and can't quite figure something out.

"I couldn't live without dogs. I once did get asked 'could I live without my dogs?'. And I suppose the answer is probably yes but why would I want to?," says John, who is known as Fitz.

From mechanic to dog handler

His service career spanned 36 years, beginning at the age of 16 in the Royal Navy as an aircraft mechanic, before transferring to the Royal Air Force Police at the age of 18 to become a dog handler.

Fitz served at home and abroad, including in Northern Ireland, The Falkland Islands, Iraq and Afghanistan, before retiring in 2013 as the senior instructor at the Joint Service Dog School, based at the Defence Animal Centre, in Melton Mowbray, in the rank of Warrant Officer.

John Fitzpatrick at Cosford Dog Training

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Now he offers guidance at all levels from basic pet obedience through to training for professional handlers through his Cosford Dog Training school.

In the RAF, the dog’s main role is to guard aircraft on military bases and in hangars while they might also be used for detecting drugs and explosives as well as for protection.

But Fitz says that when it comes to our canine pets, there are three behaviour essentials we will always want in order to live happily side by side.

"You want your dog to walk nicely on a lead, to come back reliably when they are called and to settle down when you need them to. Those are the essential things, anything else is a bonus," he tells Weekend.

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Caution

He believes dog owners have a responsibility towards their fellows as well as other members of the public and advises exercising a little caution while out and about.

"When you see someone with a dog, you should always call your dog back and put them on a lead. It's a foolproof way to avoid any problems.

"If you see a dog on a lead then it's on that lead for a reason - it might be aggressive towards other dogs or scared of them.

John Fitzpatrick at Cosford Dog Training

"I could have a dog that's terrified and someone else's dog is jumping all over it. It's best to put it on a lead and then check if it's OK for them to say hello to each other.

"It's the same with people. Not everybody likes dogs so if you meet someone put your dogs on a lead before asking if that person is OK with dogs.

"If you're entering a field and can't see if there is sheep in there, then put your dog on a lead first. It only takes five minutes to get past the distraction.

"If people use some common sense with their dogs, then everybody will be happier. Even people who don't like dogs, don't mind a well-behaved dog," says Fitz.

Rewards

He uses reward-based training which sees the dog rewarded for the desired behaviour he wants to see - this may be in the form of a food treat, favourite chew toy or verbal praise.

"You start off teaching your dog in a quiet enclosed space and then you ramp up the distractions so that they learn to ignore these.

"What I've done with my puppies is that I've taken them out on a lead to the horses as they are nice and quiet.

John Fitzpatrick at Cosford Dog Training

"I start throwing the ball with the dog on a line until the dog realises that horses are rubbish and it's better to play with the ball.

"I've then done the same with the alpacas as they are more skittish until the dog doesn't give them a second glance and then the chickens as they will chase the dog and get under their feet so it's more of a test.

"It's important to find out what will motivate your dog to work, which will usually be related to what they were originally bred for. A spaniel might like to chase a ball and a Jack Russell might like a furry rat-like toy.

"If you can harness what they were bred for and find something they really want then they are going to work much happier," says Fitz.

Police dogs

His dogs - four-year-old Alice, seven-year-old Jimmy, and 12-year-old Welsh Sheepdog Tilly, who has now retired from competitions, - assist in training classes and during sessions with dogs undergoing behaviour modification.

Jimmy has produced two litters of puppies for West Midlands Police, and has many pups serving proudly in several other forces

Just before his second birthday he became Reserve Champion at the British Police and Services Canine Association Service Dog of the Year Trial.

John Fitzpatrick at Cosford Dog Training

He repeated this feat in 2014, before becoming the Champion in 2015 and regaining his title the following year.

Alice has proven to be a quick learner having progressed through nine levels of working trials competition in just 18 months.

Working trials develop and test many canine skills - obedience and control, intelligence and independence, searching and tracking, agility and fitness.

Earlier this year Alice earned two Tracking Dog open certificates of merit and is working towards a championship trial. Her training schedule was published in Fitz's book Educating Alice.

Tilly initially completed her training as a drug detection dog and featured in the Churchill Insurance Dog Boot Camp tutorials in support of the Animal Heroes TV Programme.

John Fitzpatrick at Cosford Dog Training

Now her main job is to pick up items that have been dropped on the floor and return them to her owner.

Fitz says one thing they all have in common is their eagerness to work and the enjoyable they get from it.

"Jimmy just loves to work, he would work all day if he could. You have to tell him that's enough now, go relax, play with your ball.

"When Alice first started we had trouble applying the brakes because she's that eager to get started.

"All of my dogs enjoy the process of working, not just for the reward but because I think they genuinely just enjoy it and get a buzz out of it," says Fitz.

Heather Large

By Heather Large
Special projects reporter - @HeatherL_star

Senior reporter and part of the Express & Star special projects team specialising in education and human interest features.

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