3 dogs looking at the camera with open mouth grinsOne of the most touching moments in my life (yes it was dog related) occurred when I was out hiking with a group of neighborhood dogs. I loved watching the dogs interacting with each other, racing off after the chirp of a chipmunk and splashing in the streams we crossed. At one point I found myself alone, the dogs all out of sight, but as I rounded the corner of the trail there stood Rosie, a black & tan collie mix. She was a regular visitor to our house and a good pal of my dog at the time. Her choice to lag behind the other dogs and wait for me made me feel, and I do feel kind of silly even writing this, ‘included’. The other dogs appeared shortly after, but I’ll never forget how comforting it was to know that my presence (or lack of it) did not go unnoticed.

Teaching a dog to come on cue is perhaps one of the most important behaviors you can teach a dog, and not just for safety and practicality. When a dog has learned to come when called you have given the gift of freedom. In a sense you have opened up the world for them.

Other bloggers in this Never Shock A Puppy blog hop are going to share great ideas for developing recalls, and I’m sure I’d be redundant with my own suggestions so I thought I’d share info about another important behavior. In my world the ‘auto check-in’ is as valuable to me as a recall.

Our daily dog walk takes place on trails located amidst hundreds of acres of New England forests. We cross rocky streams, pass an abandoned apple orchard, where I’ve been finding almost perfect small Macintosh apples and bunches of tangy grapes hanging from vines tangled on the trees. We usually wind our way down through a grove of towering red pines, but some days we head uphill and visit the stone foundation of an old homestead and in the spring the dogs have a swim in the vernal pond. I’ve seen deer, coyote, porcupine, black bear, grouse, gray fox, chipmunks and even a fisher cat. The dogs have probably smelled and tracked many other species as well.

There may be 4-12 dogs on these walks, and I am less inclined to want to try to keep track of all of them when it’s easier for me, if they keep track of me! And the dogs seem quite happy to accommodate me in this system, indeed few need to be ‘taught’ to do so, they just need reinforcement for doing it.

There are dogs who for one reason or another, breed inclination or levels of distractions for example, who are not going to be safe or reliable off leash. If we’re in a place where I am concerned about a dog’s safety and need them to stick close by I keep them on a leash. I don’t want to risk having dogs tune me out because of a lot of repetitious shouting for them to come, even if I have rewards for them.

The first step that I take with any dog that will be joining me is to establish a positive relationship with the dog. A dog that is not interested in me or ignores me when I speak or move is not likely to come when I call them or care where I am. For most dogs, a few bits of chicken or some games along with happy talk and some scratches, are enough to show them that being with me is usually better than not being with me.

Dogs also learn another simple system- they do something I like, I say ‘yes!’ and they get a reward. Most dogs can practice this with cues they already know such as, ‘sit’ or ‘down’. I also create a few conditioned reinforcers while I’m at it. A few repetitions of; “Good dog!”, a hand clap, or a chest rub are followed by a treat. I am building up the ‘feel good’ value of praise and petting by associating them with something the dog values.

Dogs with no history of staying with their handlers join me on a long line. As we wander along I am on the look out for a variety of behaviors which I will mark and reward. Whenever a dog indicates that they are noticing where I am, they are rewarded. These behaviors include; the dog stopping on her on own, whether she looks at me or not, a look in my direction, and anytime a dog returns to me whether cued or not. For the food motivated dog, simply hearing the marker, ‘yes’ is enough to have them trotting back to me for their reward, which I happily provide. There are always sticks along the trail for fetching or chewing for dogs inclined to enjoy that kind of nonsense. For other dogs I acknowledge their behavior with a ‘yes!’ and then call out ‘let’s go!’ and they are off and back to their exploring.

By rewarding dogs anytime they ‘check in’ with me on their own, this behavior is repeated and strengthened. Too often owners don’t take advantage of building this behavior in their dogs. They ignore their dog when she glances in their direction or stops and waits. Puppies are easy to get this kind of behavior from because they are less inclined to be off on their own away from their owners so it’s never too early to start acknowledging and rewarding a dog for attending to the people in its life.

It’s nice to know that even though they have the world at their noses, my walking companions still keep me in their sights.