Teaching the way dogs learn
After what has been a very difficult year for everyone, we had all hoped to be moving towards 2021 with renewed optimism and realistic hopes for a return to some form of normality over the coming months. And indeed, with two vaccines approved for use in this country, we have every reason to hope that there is light at the end of this very long tunnel.
However, we are not there yet. Infection levels are extremely high, and restrictions look likely to become more stringent in the near future. Hospitals are becoming overwhelmed, teachers and parents fear for the safety of children returning to school, and doctors are taking to the airwaves and social media to plead with the public to stay at home.
I have continued to teach outdoor lessons so far throughout the pandemic, insisting on social distancing and face coverings at all times – and I thank all my existing students for their uncomplaining cooperation with my rules – but today I have come to the conclusion that this is just not good enough for the current climate and that I have no alternative but to defer face-to-face teaching and to take all training online until infection rates have fallen.
In the absence of consistently clear and effective leadership from our government in combatting this pandemic we have all had to learn to rely on our own judgement. My conclusions may not be the same as the Prime Minister’s, or yours, or another dog trainer’s, but over the last year we have all of us been placed in situations where we have needed to weigh up the available evidence and make tough choices regarding our safety and the safety of other people.
Meeting one-to-one in an outdoor public space is still legal at the present time, but dog training is an often unpredictable business especially when it takes place in the park. Other dogs run over to solicit play or ask for treats, and their owners are unable to call them back and have to come up close to put them on the lead. Children are drawn to our lovely hard-working pups and want to come and pet them. Joggers approach unexpectedly and quickly while we are practising a Stay, breaking social distancing. Leads get tangled, and frayed tempers impair judgement. Over the last nine months I have found that it is simply impossible to spend an hour training a dog in a park without coming into close contact with other members of the public and I simply cannot justify the risk this currently poses to them, to my students, and to me.
This has not been an easy decision, and I am honestly furious that it has become necessary. I know it will cause disappointment to many of you, especially those who are new dog owners looking forward to those early park lessons. It is deeply disappointing to me too; getting outside to work with you and your pups has been a wonderful consolation this year, and teaching entirely through a screen without that face-to-face contact will be a tremendous challenge for my mental health and wellbeing. Nothing, however, is more important than protecting our NHS and the health of the general public, and to try to persuade myself otherwise would be pure selfishness when the news tells us that hospitals are rapidly running out of beds, staff, and oxygen.
As we await the roll-out of the vaccination programme that we hope will protect the most vulnerable members of our families and communities and ultimately bring us back together, it is our duty to do all we can to help each other get through these next few months as safely as possible. If we are to give the vaccines a chance we must all take personal responsibility for reducing transmission.
I thank you all for your patience and your commitment to training safely.
Happy New Year,