When I took my very first Kerry to a highly-recommended training program, I was told right away by the instructor that he would be hard to train. “Terriers,” she said, “have minds of their own.”
My first thought was “Well! So do I!” (Which just goes to show you that I deserve to have a Kerry.) My Simon was a true terrier and indeed had his own ideas about things, but the three cardinal rules – Patience, Persistence and Consistency – worked very well on him and we loved him through all five years of his regrettably short life.
Still, some aspects of the Kerry temperament do mean that their training requires a bit more patience, persistence and consistency than with other breeds. Let’s take a look at a few of these characteristics.
Independence. Probably the most important of these is their independent spirit. An explanation one often hears is that they have for hundreds of years been used as “earth dogs,” breeds whose job it was to go underground to root out rats, ferrets, badgers and other “varmints.” (Until 1968, the Irish Kennel Club tested Kerries – and several other terrier breeds -- for “gameness,” requiring them to bring a badger to bay in its sett in order to qualify to enter the judging ring.)
While underground, the dogs couldn’t hear the voices of their handlers, so they had to make their own decisions about how to accomplish their job. (This use in hunting also is sometimes invoked to explain why some breeds are given beards, falls, and docked tails. The facial hair protected their vulnerable eyes from rodents’ claws, and their tails were shortened to make them less likely to break off if the handler wanted to drag them out of a burrow for safety’s sake.)
Your Kerry’s independence means that he considers commands before obeying them, and sometimes he or she will “argue” with you. I see this often when out walking with Jamie in a large natural area near my house. Occasionally I’ll want to go one direction down a path, while he wants to walk somewhere else. He will stand perfectly still, pointing in the direction he wants to go. I have learned to stand equally still, facing the direction I want to go. (I read somewhere that it doesn’t help to point with your hand or your nose. You need to have your FEET pointed in your intended direction too. This advice seems to work.) Our arguments don’t last too long, though sometimes I have to resort to tugging on his Gentle Leader head collar to be really persuasive.
High energy. Another quality that Kerries display in abundance can be somewhat challenging when it comes to
instilling good manners: they are high energy, boisterous creatures. Some years after I’d started on my adventures as a Kerry owner, I went as a spectator
to the Westminster Dog Show, together with a group of friends who are fanciers of other breeds. The first day, I was struck by the lack of barking,
whining or other noises I associated with the presence of dogs -- there might be yip now and then, but no sustained barking at all. The next morning
at 9:30, however, I suddenly I heard a chorus of barking from the floor of the arena and looked down to see…the Best of Breed judging of the
Kerries! Even at the top U.S. dog show, a bit of their natural rowdiness shows through.
Boisterousness means it can be hard to gain your dog’s attention. When fully aroused (usually by another dog that is staring or lunging aggressively), my Kerries sometimes have NOT wanted to settle down. Sometimes the only way I can get them to interrupt their barking is to grab hold of their beard, and look them in the eye, and say “Quiet!” (If a passing dog doesn’t lunge or stare, though, Jamie will offer a sit and watch quietly as it passes. For this good behavior, he always gets praise and sometimes a treat.
Toughness. A third trait of terriers is toughness, meaning a willingness to take risks and confront danger, and which also shows as stoicism in the face of pain. Quite a few Kerries are dog-aggressive, and most Kerries won’t back away from a confrontation. Our catercorner neighbor has a large-breed dog who not long ago came charging out of their house straight at Jamie, as he and I were headed out for an afternoon walk. Jamie didn’t flinch. He planted all four feet, crouched down tail up and stiff, and started barking at full volume. The neighbor dog stopped, looked back at his owner, who was running up to grab him, and let himself be led back into their house.
As for stoicism, we’ve heard this from veterinarians too. It does seem to me that most dogs are fairly docile when undergoing procedures, but our vet has often remarked that our terriers are especially good (despite some anxiety) at accepting discomfort and even pain.
Toughness means that Kerries definitely are not candidates for old-style training by a human who exerts” dominance” and expects servile compliance. I vividly remember my Simon’s first training session with a trainer who used physical correction, albeit mild ones. To teach the “down,” she drew the dog’s head down to the floor, on the theory that the dog’s body would follow. For most dogs this worked easily; not for Simon. After about five minutes of holding his head down, she finally gave up. Fortunately, the tide of public opinion has turned against such training, and we all try to use “positive” training methods now.
Sometimes, however, correction is necessary (I’ll explain that below), but it is particularly important with terriers to use it very carefully. Some writers on canine temperament suggest that terriers have a particularly “strong sense of justice.” That is, they seem to have a notion of how much reward or punishment is appropriate. As one obedience instructor writes, “If you need to physically chastise a terrier and you go beyond what THEY believe is a fair correction, terriers (as a group) are more likely than other breeds to growl or sap. …I’m always extra careful when putting my hands on any terrier for a correction.” Michele Welton,”Kerry Blue Terrier Temperament: What’s Good about ‘Em, What’s Bad about ‘Em.
The psychology of reward and punishment. It is worth knowing, however, that psychologists define “positive
reinforcement,” “negative reinforcement” and “punishment” a bit differently than lay people do. Positive reinforcement is the familiar practice of
giving praise or other pleasant consequences to incentivize a desired behavior.
“Negative reinforcement” is also incentivizing good behavior, but by removing something unpleasant.
A familiar example from dog training is teaching a dog not to pull on its leash. The moment the dog begins to pull, the trainer stops in his/her tracks.
As soon as the dog lightens forward pressure, the trainer begins to walk again.
Punishment, finally, is the imposition of an unpleasant consequence upon undesired behavior. The most common punishment used in dog training is saying “No!” or “Stop that!”. The important and fundamental principle here, though, is that punishment starts a search for new behavior. It does not tell the dog what to do instead. So punishment (or “correction”) is sometimes necessary to stop a behavior that is harmful to the dog itself or to other creatures. But it must be followed immediately by teaching and reinforcing (either positively or negatively) the desired behavior.
The fundamental point here is certainly not that Kerries are untrainable. But their natural temperament does present particular challenges that we must understand, accept and learn to handle. As most of us learn as soon as we take our first dog to its “puppy kindergarten,” it is really not about training the dog, it’s about training us. We need to learn to be very Patient, unrelentingly Persistent and completely Consistent. But the reward is to enjoy our wonderful dogs – independent, boisterous and tough as they are – and have them be canine good citizens too.