There are six good behaviors in our All-Or-None reward training program that are critical for every pet dog to know for a long, happy life. The first one is that the dog sits. Second, that the dog lies down. Three, the dog stops barking. Four, the dog stops bouncing (or “four on the floor”). Five, the dog looks at or approaches you. Number six, the dog comes when called.
Today I want to talk about number six. While the importance of a strong recall in any dog is well-recognized, it is almost never achieved. Today while walking my pack at the noon hour, I had an experience that illustrates exactly why it is so critical to know that your dog knows how to come when called.
Walking with five dogs at a heel is no easy thing. It takes a light step, a firm, strong arm, and all of your attention. A number of variables are in play almost all the time, particularly when you're walking in a city center. I'm only going to list some of the most common. You can have an equipment malfunction (a harness comes unclipped, for example), two of your pack members may start playing or rough-housing at an inappropriate time, you may have a reactive dog go bananas over an approaching off-leash dog (we know it's not right, but we know it happens all the time!), the leashes can get tangled, there may be some inappropriate food on the ground that has all of their collective attention, and so on.
Today I had an equipment malfunction.
With five dogs in hand, my Cocker Spaniel Gus caught sight of a pigeon. It's no surprise that he immediately began to pull in the direction of the bird – Cockers are characteristically bred and raised as bird dogs, so this is something I expect from him and a reactivity that, while natural to him, we work on mitigating whenever we can. Like any adolescent, Gus needs constant reminders and re-training, and so we take any opportunity to train that comes up. Except that this time was different.
This time, when Gus pulled ahead to check out that pigeon, his leash snapped clean in two. There was no fraying on the leash to speak of, no weak spots in it's length that I could see. And yet, it broke anyway.
Off he went, careening down the street and around the side of a house. In a few seconds flat he was out of my sight, moving at top speed, and in a location (the side of the house) that I was unfamiliar with. With four dogs in hand, chasing after him was not an option (and almost never is, as it has the opposite effect of what we intend. Don't worry, we'll talk about using the chase as a reward in lure and all-or-nothing training in a different article). So, you might be wondering. What does a dog walker and trainer do when one of her own dogs is AWOL?
The temptation to panic was certainly present. That said, I had a few things going in my favor, and I was certain to zero in on those positives in the first millisecond. To start, he was MY dog. Not a client's dog, not a dog unknown to me. I've had Gus since he was six months old, and we've been best friends since the minute I first laid eyes on him. What's more, if the worst happens, not only do I have an excellent background in pet first aid, but I'm also insured. Okay, I thought. We can handle this.
You see, Gus and I have worked on recall before. Gus knows exactly what I mean when I say, “Gus, come here.” And while he may not follow my command every single time, when it's important – when the stakes are high – he knows that I mean business.
Now, I also come to my walks prepared. My dog bag has a first aid kit, some high value, low-fat, no sugar, all natural treats, an extra leash (or two), more poop bags than I could possibly use in one walk (I hope, I wouldn't want to be tested on that one!), and water with a collapsible water dish. Being a trainer and a dog walker means that I know how to use lure rewards to get a dog to do what I want it to do.
My first reaction is a verbal cue, or request. This is your first line of defense in any dog situation. “Gus!" I say. "Come here!”
As a next step, I pull out one dried liver treat. Well, at the sound of my request to “Come Here” Gus is already racing back from around the side of the house and angling towards me with a big smile, pink tongue hanging out, just having a swell time. Along he comes, slowing as he nears the pack who have all eyes on me simply because I have this incredible, delicious, absolutely amazing liver treat in hand and what does Gus do? He sits, waiting for his reward.
Now, let's talk about why Gus reacted in this way. When I began training Gus, we started with lure based reward training, This means that every time Gus did what I asked him to do, he got a treat. He got so many treats, in fact, that he began to preempt my requests. Well, I thought. That's great, but how do I make sure that a) Gus knows the actual meaning of the request I'm making, and b) what happens if I don't have a treat?
It was at this point that I introduced all-or-nothing reward based training to Gus, and began to always train with a minimum of three different commands, or requests, at hand. Knowing his accuracy when I made a request using a lure alongside a verbal cue and hand signal was about 50% or so, Gus and I went through the obedience basics and I began to withhold treats in the place of praise. “What a good boy you are, Gus!”, and “Way to go Gus!” are some of the more common ones, complete with a good scratch behind those big, floppy years. I knew that it would be absolutely imperative that Gus capable of understanding and listening to my requests whether or not there was a food reward available. That's just how life is. We can't always expect conditions to be perfect. So we make sure the responses are on cue, highly accurate, and we do these lessons on repeat.
Back to my experience today, I give Gus the treat and at the same time, with measured, calm movements so as not to startle him away, reach out to secure what's left of the broken lead, replace it with a new leash, and we carry on with our walk. No harm done, only a slight delay that frankly, none of the dogs in our pack today minded too much anyway. All in a day's work with All Dogs.
What's more, I'm left feeling good knowing that the work I've done with Gus, who I raised from just a puppy, means that he has the skills to stay safe no matter what befalls us on our daily walks or any other time. Despite our equipment malfunction, I count the day as a tremendous success.
Ensuring the safety of your dog is your responsibility. From the very moment you get your first dog until the day s/he takes the great stairwell to doggy heaven, the key to a successful, safe, happy, and healthy life together is the right training. Good dog training is fun, expedient, efficacious, and geared to your dog. Good training means ensuring that your dog understands your verbal request whether you can see him/her or not, and whether or not food is immediately available. No matter what the issue, imparting to your dog the tools s/he needs to live well is up to you.
Dr. Ian Dunbar, with whom I'm currently doing long-distance studies in positive dog training methods of all kinds, has this excellent bit of advice. And I quote,
“...appropriate socialization and training is the single biggest factor determining how closely your dog will approach your view of perfection in adulthood. No matter your eventual choice—success or failure is entirely in your hands."
Loud and clear, Ian. Loud and clear.
Camille Salter is the founder of All Dogs Toronto and a certified, knowledge-assessed dog trainer (CPDT-KA). She is the author of two books on dog behavior: Pandemic Puppy, and Decoding the Dog Park.