Sunday, 6 November 2011

Recall Tips for the Trail

I live on a busy street in a busy city.  As I have written in a previous blog post (see http://k9expeditions.blogspot.com/2011/10/crated-travels-safe-dogs.html), my dogs travel in crates, in part so that when we arrive at home (or anywhere) and I open the van doors, I have a very controlled situation when releasing them from their crates and the van. In addition to controlling the situation so carefully, I take comfort in my dogs' recall reliability.  If one or all of my dogs were to slip from the van onto the sidewalk, I am confident that any of my dogs would return to me immediately when called.

A former neighbour is an example of a person who did not put any work into teaching her puppy how to return to her when called. Living next door to me on the same busy street, she would take her very young lab puppy to work with her every day. When she returned home, she would open the car door and let her dog out of her car off-leash assuming he would stick close to her. Not too swift on her part, but that's another blog post! Of course the inevitable happened, her dog ran into the busy traffic one day and was hit by a car. The dog survived, but went through several surgeries and a lengthy recovery in order to walk again.  As a result, that puppy missed a very critical phase in his social development that will likely have life-long implications for him and his owner. This is just one example that illustrates the importance of a solid recall.

I spend a lot of time on the trail with my dogs and my clients' dogs so I have done a lot of recall work in the woods. I want to be able to call the dogs back to me regardless of what seems interesting ahead such as a squirrel, another dog on the trail, a human hiker, a mountain biker or in more remote areas, other wildlife such as a bear, coyote and more. I want the dogs to want to be with me more than they want to explore anything else.  Their reward for being near me is that I release them to explore.  Here are a few tips on how I have achieved success with recall on the trail:
  • I always start a hike with a "focus on the human hiker" exercise with the dogs. I play chase with the dogs (they chase me) or some other game that is fun and builds the dogs' focus on me and the rewards that come from me.
Stevie is so intense when she is called back to me! I love her enthusiasm!
  • Make learning and performing excellent recall fun! I have witnessed far too many frustrated people calling their dogs with an angry voice.  I would not want to go to that person and I suspect the dog, deciding between chase the squirrel or go to the angry voice, will choose the squirrel chase every time.
  • Even if the dog performs a lousy recall, do not scold him when he returns.  You don't have to celebrate, but don't scold.  That will just deter him from returning to you in the future.
  • When your dog performs a fantastic recall, make a huge deal out of it with lots of verbal praise and food rewards. I'm sure anyone who has witnessed my praise when the dogs do a good job on their recall thinks I am a little crazy.  Oh well, my dogs come when called and that is something I'm really proud of!
  • Get your dog's attention on you.  I have a rule that the dogs and I have to be in visual contact at all times.  To test whether the dogs are paying attention to me, even with just one eye as they romp through the woods, I will duck behind a tree and say nothing. The dogs will quickly realize I am not visible and come find me.  When they do, we have a puppy party with treats and lots of Woot Woots to celebrate!  Nine times out of ten though, I am unsuccessful at hiding from them because they see me move off the trail and come running. We also have a puppy party for that because they should be rewarded for paying attention.
  • Pay close attention to your dog's body language. Finn hikes with me regularly and when he first started with K9 Expeditions, he had a tendency to bolt. I paid close attention to Finn's triggers and what his body looked like just before he would bolt.  By interrupting his behaviour at exactly the moment before he takes off, I have been able to keep Finn within my requisite visual distance.  Another successful tactic with Finn has been giving him huge verbal and food rewards when he either comes back and checks in on his own (without being asked to), or stops on the trail ahead and looks back. Knowing your dog's triggers and body language are very important.
  • Take a class or two or three!  The more knowledge you have and experience working with your dog, the better off you both will be. I do a lot of work on recall with my clients' and their dogs and have achieved a level of success I am very proud of. I am a firm believer in building as many positive experiences working with your dog as possible and I encourage my clients to take classes in addition to the work we do together.  For those who live in the Toronto area/Southern Ontario, I have had positive experiences and learned a great deal at the following schools/classes:
The importance of your dog understanding her recall command and performing it reliably could be the difference between life and death. It amazes me when I visit the dog park how many owners have little or no control over their dogs. Couple that with dogs that have not been properly socialized from very a young age and things could get complicated and potentially dangerous. Recall is the most important command you can teach your dog but it can be the most difficult as well and it will require more than attending one six-week basic obedience class. Teaching a reliable recall is an ongoing process and it takes a lot of time but your efforts will be rewarded with happy, healthy dogs.

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