“I’ll be back.” – Schwarzenegger
The other day, a client and I both decided to do some work with our dog-reactive dogs. We were in the Metroparks walking a lovely path, both our dogs on leashes. Across the field I suddenly saw a black lab running towards us. I shouted out to the owner (who was standing idly by with noting less than a bovine look on his face) that our dogs weren’t friendly. He commenced trying to call his dog back, to no avail. She charged us (obviously only wanting to play). She headed straight towards Sparta, who was in no mood for her form of play.
Fortunately, I was able to control Sparta, and Pilot her through her questions. Not how I wanted to start my morning, though. Eventually I had enough control of the situation that I could Pilot the errant dog enough to pick of their leash, and calmly walk both Sparta and the Lab over to the Lab’s owner. I brusquely handed him his dog’s leash, stating firmly that that was the part one holds.
As the owner of a dog-reactive dog, I have no patience for for the ill-trained beasts running mindlessly around the Metroparks… and their dogs are not much better. Ultimately, it’s my responsibility to control my dog. However, if Sparta is on a leash, walking nicely with me, and we are suddenly charged by a dog, even a friendly dog, who is off-leash…there isn’t much to be done. I Pilot as best I can in that situation, as described here. Damage control is more like it.
Now, back to the Lab who charged us. Her name was Abbie. I know this because her owner was incessantly calling it to no avail. Obviously there was quite a bit of recall issues going on. The dog had no idea what the “come” command meant. Abbie knew that she was the Pilot, not the human, and therefore “come” was merely a suggestion. Which was promptly ignored. It was pretty much a “Stop or I’ll Say ‘Stop’ Again” situation from the human.
So what should have been done in this situation? Prep work. One doesn’t just let a dog off leash without working towards total recall first. How to do it?
Start in a very boring, low-key situation. The dog park is not the place to start working on the come command. Your house works best, beginning with the dog a few feet from you. Squat down, and while patting your hand against your leg the entire time, simply repeat the word “come” over and over, in your normal voice. Yes, this is a command, but barking “come” at your dog will have the opposite effect desired. Utilize Touch, Talk, Treat (calm petting, gentle praise and a treat) when your dog arrives to you. The object is to look non-threatening when you call your dog, so save the strong, dominant body language for other uses.
If your dog doesn’t come to you, stop calling them, silently stand up and walk towards them, take them gently by the collar and tug, tug, tug them back to where you had initially called them, repeating the word come, come, come the entire time you are tugging them. (NOTE: tugging is essential. Do not drag your dog.) Practice over and over, gradually adding distance between you and the dog.
To work on recall outside, start with an enclosed area: your backyard, if possible. Repeat the steps above, but remember, we’ve not added more stimuli. There are birds, squirrels, noises… you may lose your dog’s focus and they may not come at all. Instead of getting angry, shouting or yelling, instead calmly stalk your dog. Silently walk directly towards them. They will dart in another direction. Simply change your course and continue to stalk them from location to location. This takes time and patience, but what you are doing is setting up the stage for future confrontations such as these. Your dog’s question is: Can I ignore your request? The answer is “no”. You must follow through with this answer.
Eventually you will be able to catch your dog. Resist the urge to punish: it is the worst thing you can do at this point. Simply tug your dog back to where you first called them, and offer Touch Talk Treat.
An easy way to help with this is to attach a long, cotton rope (like a clothesline) to their collar. At the other end, tie a huge knot. Let your dog wander around, dragging the rope with the knot behind them. When you call them, and they don’t come, you have an easy way to catch them: simply step on the rope (the knot will catch at your foot) and reel them in like a fish, repeating the word “come”. Touch Talk Treat when they arrive. Once they get good at recall, gradually start cutting the rope into smaller and smaller pieces, until it’s no longer there. That way your dog will never realize that suddenly they are no longer attached to it.
This is an important command; maybe even a life or death command. Practice, practice, practice.
I still work on this command with Sparta and Orion. I will work on it until the day they are no longer mobile. Both have wonderful recall, but…
I will never let Sparta off leash. She is a lovely, well-behaved, obedient girl, but she is still a dog; one who has dog reactivity. She is not a machine. She was bred to protect, and protect she does. She isn’t perfect, and the one time she decides to ignore my command could end with tragedy. So why do I do all this practice and prep work? Because I’m not a machine either. I’m not perfect. I may slip up, drop the leash, or fall down. She may find a hole in our fence that never existed before. I work on it because I love her and want her safe. That’s what it means to be Pilot.