Interview with Youtube prodigy Lucy Irvine
By Laure-Anne Visele: Interview date Nov 2013. Release date Mar 2014.
About the author
I am a dog trainer, freelance writer and behaviour therapist. I graduated in Zoology, certified in dog training, then specialized in dog behaviour problems. I co-founded OhMyDog! (dog training school in The Hague) and in my ‘spare’ time, I obsessively read and write about dog behaviour.
Behind the scenes with dog pros
This interview is part of a series of talks with dog professionals around the world. I’ve interviewed behaviour-curious vets, certified dog walkers, assistance dog trainers, university lecturers, etc. I have these chats to get you a fly-on-the-wall view of what goes on in the world of pet professionals.
How I heard of Lucy
In the Summer of 2013, a seventeen-year-old girl shared the stirring story of her determination to train her dog with humane methods, despite the overwhelming influence of compulsion-based trainers in the region.
The video moved me so much that I hopped in the car to visit Lucy, its creator. Read on for our chat about modern dog training, bomb-proof dogs, and animal-assisted therapy.
There’s something about Lucy….
LV: How come you speak such perfect English? [Lucy lives in French-speaking Belgium.]
LI: I am British. But I’ve lived my whole life in Belgium.
Bit by the dog bug
LV: Tell me about your passion for dogs. Is it a new thing or a life-long obsession?
LI: As a little girl, my bookshelves were packed with dog books, and my walls were plastered with dog posters. I used to cut out all the pictures off dog magazines!
LV: A bit of a dog nerd, hey?
LI: I have been called the “two-legged dog breed encyclopedia.” And I just can’t leave it if a TV show gets something wrong about dogs: “THAT’s not a German Shepherd. That’s a Malinois mix.”
[Sounds familiar, husband?]
Spanish holidays? Forget Ibiza
LI: I worked at a Spanish dog shelter this summer. It’s run by two retired Brits who found a dog hanging from a tree one day. They started feeding the strays as they realized that otherwise, they would get shot or beaten up.
At some stage, the shelter owners had to survive on dog food themselves. When someone wrote about their situation in the paper, they turned into a proper shelter: Pepi’s Refugio. They still have more dogs than they can deal with, and they’re desperate for free vet care and volunteers. If you want to help out, you can donate here.
My next dog will definitely be from Pepi’s
LV: Is Inja from a shelter?
LI: No. I originally wanted a shelter dog, but we thought we’d start with one less likely to have issues as he is our first dog.
We got him from a Belgian breeder, at eight weeks. The pups lived in the breeder’s home, with the family.
I’d dreamt of having a dog as long as I can remember. After years of pleading, I begged for a cat. That’s how it was settled: “We might as well get a dog then.” If there’s something my dad wants less than a dog… That was 2012. That’s when we got Inja.
A journey through intimidation-based training
LV: What’s been your experience with the local training schools?
LI: We had lots of fun in the puppy class: he was often top student, and I was very proud. But the school handed out choke chains for the “out of control” pups, and they leash-popped dogs who pulled. The groups were also huge – sometimes more than ten pups. That’s a lot of waiting around.
When we joined the next level, this Beagle was getting jerked around on a prong collar. I couldn’t stand watching that! And they stopped using rewards from the age of six months. By then, the dogs were “supposed to listen to you out of respect”. The thing that struck me is that they completely ignored that each dog finds different things rewarding. In their opinion, if the dog doesn’t want to work for the treats, he is being stubborn.
So we moved to a school that advertised itself as science-based and force-free. But leash-popping was still going on, and they gave out e-collar instructions. It was tough to keep my mouth shut. There’s also times when we would get singled out. We’d be told everything we did was wrong, and that Inja had no ‘character’.
LV: [Having met this placid wonder that is Inja] But a bomb-proof dog is a gift! I’d kill for a dog like Inja.
LV: So how far did you go at that school? Until what level?
LI: They don’t work with formal levels, with a curriculum and exams. They did the same thing every week: heeling, stay, recall, changing position, then fetching. They also wouldn’t really advise you on specifics. They’d just ask you to ‘practice more’.
LV: Mmmmhhh, this elusive pursuit of the perfect school sounds familiar. So you do a lot of independent training then?
LI: Yes. I’ve been using the Kikopup videos a lot. Emily Larlham’s great! I even went to one of her seminars. We’ve also started playing around with agility (on tree stumps, etc.). He does a slow-motion weave. That’s typical Inja. He’ll do what you want, just in his own time.
But, after months of searching, I’ve finally found this Dutch-speaking school.
LV: But you’re in the French region. Are you going to learn a new language so you can take your dog to different school? That’s dedication for ya!
LI: Yes, I’m now learning Dutch. The trainers are friendly, the school has a proper curriculum, and there’re explicitly against leash-jerking and scolding. We’re also registered for the agility class. I think we’re going to have a blast!
LV: What’s your proudest achievement with Inja?
LI: We have passed all our tests for Activ’Dog, an Animal-Assisted Therapy organisation. Activ’Dog helps isolated old people and disabled kids. They also organize bite prevention presentations in schools, teaching the kids about dog body language.
Activ’Dog only accept dogs with exceptional temperaments and obedience skills like a solid sit, not pulling on the leash, not jumping up and not snatching food. These are essential obedience skills when dealing with elderly people. They also test the dogs’ reaction to sudden sounds and movements, and to being bumped with a wheel chair. Inja was his aloof self: he just ignored it.
Of course, they don’t accept shy dogs, but Inja loves interacting with people, he loves being stroked. If I noticed he was uneasy or stressed about it, I would stop without hesitation.
We’re now at the intern level, so we’ve passed all the tests and just need to build up practice hours.
LV: So what’s the next step? Would you like to pursue dog training as a career?
LI: I’d loved to study something related, like animal behaviour. Right now, I am with the Cambridge Ethology Institute. It’s so interesting and I am actually having fun learning.
LV: If money wasn’t an issue, if you could go crazy, what would be the dream?
LI: I’d love to own my own dog training school, and give agility classes!
One day maybe, Lucy will grow the ranks of next-generation trainers in Belgium. One thing is for sure, force-free dog training could use more advocates like her.