Practicing “off-leash” recall on a hike with the dogs

On Sunday, we took the pups on a much-needed hike at a nearby park. We found trails in the mountains that took us about an hour and a half to complete, which was perfect, as we needed to get back to town in relatively short order.

Mint Springs Valley Park hike

The best part, though, was that the trail was completely empty, so we got to practice some much-needed off-leash recall.

Mint Springs Valley Park hike

We had both girls on long drag leads, and we were outfitted with bits of cooked, real turkey, which proved to be a very strong reinforcer.

Mint Springs Valley Park hike

I have to say, I was so impressed with our girls! Living in the city, they are very rarely off-leash, so this is not a behavior that we often get to practice. But they did so well. They stuck to the trail and came back to us every time we called.

Mint Springs Valley Park hike

Pyrrha’s recall (to me) is pretty foolproof. During the latter part of the hike, she just walked right alongside me. We still need to work on her coming to Guion (as you can see from the first picture of the dogs in this post, she is still nervous about interacting with Guion), so we practiced with him being the only one to reward her when she came back to us.

Mint Springs Valley Park hike

Eden still needs to work on the actual coming to us, but she always stopped to wait for us to catch up during the whole hike — and she always stopped to reorient and turn to us when we called her. It was very cute, and it put us both at ease, as she never allowed herself to get out of sight. We worked on only rewarding her when she came right up to us (instead of rewarding her as we walked closer to her), and she seemed to catch on to this gambit rather quickly.

I love using long drag leads to practice this behavior, because you still have the reassurance of control if you need it, and 30-foot leads mean that they can never really get too far away from your reach. The only trick is not stepping on the lines while you hike!

Mint Springs Valley Park hike

We came home with two tired and very happy pups!

How do you practice off-leash recall?

Eden’s off-leash “birthday party”

On Saturday, Eden’s first birthday, my family took the dogs (and Dublin) to Fisher Farm, this wonderful nature preserve near my parents’ house. We wanted to wear the dogs out and let them practice their off-leash recall, so we brought long drag lines for our girls and a little bag of tiny pepperoni and treats for reinforcement.

Dogs at Fisher Farm

I didn’t have my camera with me, so unfortunately, I don’t have any great photos of this wonderful afternoon. But these were the highlights:

Playing in the River

Dublin, being mostly lab, is a natural water dog. Our dogs aren’t, as far as we can tell. On Friday, at my grandparents’ house, Eden jumped in the lake when we called to her and quickly panicked. I’m glad we were there to help her get out, because she did not like being fully submerged in the water and unable to stand.

Dogs at Fisher Farm

But there’s a little river that runs through Fisher Farm, and we thought the girls would like that. We were right! They both had a blast splashing in the water and running through it. My dad was able to snap a few blurry phone pics:

Dogs at Fisher Farm

Dogs at Fisher Farm

Dogs at Fisher Farm

Dogs at Fisher Farm

(You get the idea, right? They had SO much fun.)

And, if you’re interested, there’s even a tiny video of the girls running in the river.

Off-Leash Recall Practice

Watching them romp in the river was wonderful, but I think our adventures in off-leash recall were the most heartening to me.

Dublin, as I’ve mentioned, has the most perfect recall I’ve ever seen in a dog; my dad can call her back from chasing a squirrel or approaching another dog. She’ll stop on a dime for him. Our girls? Not so much.

So, to practice, I had a bag of treats, and we had both girls on drag lines during our hike through the woods and in the fields. We’d practice letting them get ahead of us and then calling them back, at varying distances, and rewarding them warmly with praise and treats. They all quickly caught on to this gambit, and soon, all three dogs would come running to us whenever we called. I was so pleased.

Pyrrha is still an absent-minded wanderer at heart. I don’t think she’ll ever be fully reliable off-leash. I’m also the only person that she really wants to come to, which can naturally be a hazard if I’m not around and she escapes. But I was especially pleased with Eden’s performance. Of all three dogs, even Dublin, Eden was the one who wanted to check in the most. If she got out of sight from the humans, she was always the first to turn around and come back to us, even without being called. Her natural disposition toward people is evident here.

I hope we’ll continue to make the time to practice this in a safe place. It made my heart happy to see how joyful and relaxed both girls were off leash. Pyrrha especially is such a different dog. Having to wear a leash makes her so tense.

Curious to hear from you: What’s your dog’s recall style? Is he or she a wanderer? Or does he or she stick close by you all the time?

Pyrrha Chases a Deer

Toward the end of our hike, a female deer suddenly shot of out of the brush near the field, and Pyrrha was off like a shot. I mean, she was GONE after that deer. My natural hunter (Dublin and Eden were not at all interested). I panicked a little, and Dad and I started to run after her. The grass was very tall, and the woods she ran into were deep, and she was completely out of sight.

But… a few minutes later: Pyrrha comes running back up to us, exhilarated and breathless. Such excitement on her face! No deer meat for dinner, but I was very proud of her for returning to us, without much frantic encouragement or freaking out on my part. She was on deer alert for the rest of the hike.

All in all, it was a perfect afternoon, and an ideal dog birthday party.

Dogs in the “good old days”

When I hear my parents and grandparents talk about how they lived with their dogs, I am sometimes filled with a sense of envy and even nostalgia for a lifestyle I never experienced.

Dogs back then, in the “good old days,” seemed to live in such freedom and off-leash harmony with human society.

Source: Boston Public Library.
Source: Boston Public Library.

According to all the stories and books and records I’ve heard, the common traits of dogs, back then were that:

  • Dogs never wear leashes. Unless these dogs are living in Manhattan, leashes are rarely, if ever, used. You take walks with your leashless dog at your side. (Sigh. This one makes me especially envious. Pyrrha could be such a different dog, I think, in a leashless world.)
  • Dogs usually run free throughout the neighborhoods, sometimes in friendly packs. I recall Temple Grandin describing this in her book Animals Make Us Human. Grandin recalls seeing packs of neighborhood dogs roam around daily, and she still longs for dogs to be able to live in this way.
  • Dogs often take on larger-than-life qualities, in the form of family fables, and are often very human-like in their abilities and powers of reasoning. Maybe everyone was watching too much “Lassie” or “Rin-Tin-Tin,” but we all know stories of dogs who played tricks on their humans, saved babies from drowning, rang doorbells, and begged for food at the neighborhood butcher. My dad regaled us with dozens of stories about his childhood dogs and their antics. I can’t imagine my dogs doing any of these things, and so I wonder if it’s because we don’t give them the opportunity to act in these ways, or if these dogs have acquired these mythic qualities as the stories get told and re-told, in the form of hyperbolic legend.
  • Training seemed to be more organic, rather than formal or structured. Dogs learned how to behave in households in a natural, unstructured way and often learned a repertoire of party tricks. But I get the sense that if a dog went to obedience school, it was much more rigid and discipline oriented than we are accustomed to today.
1934 - 1956: Dog drinking from water fountain
Source: Leslie Jones.

I wonder if reactivity was far less common in those days. Perhaps without much containment, dogs had less opportunity to practice reactivity. Pyrrha interacts with dogs in a totally different way when she’s off leash. One of my happiest days with her was this past Christmas, when we took her to a big farm/park. She was on a 30-ft. drag lead, and there were tons of off-leash dogs there. She was just delighted to see everyone, and all of the dogs interacted with each other in this beautiful, peaceful, harmonious way. There wasn’t a bit of anxiety or reactivity in her that day.

The downsides of the way dogs lived in the “good old days” are, of course, also rather considerable. Dogs died fairly frequently in traffic accidents or other suburban misfortunes, merely because they were rarely contained. Dogs probably rarely went to the vet and were infrequently spayed or neutered. Thus, if you had a bitch, she likely got pregnant a few times, and then you had to figure out what to do with those puppies (pawn them off on the neighbor kids). I also don’t know of any data, but I imagine that dog bites (especially to children) were much more frequent, also because dogs were not contained or monitored. Knowledge of dog behavior and canine psychology was scant, and dog behavior was often misunderstood and grossly misinterpreted (hence the old “rub their noses in their poo” strategy of house-training, among others).

Source: Boston Public Library.
Source: Boston Public Library.

I don’t think it’s possible anymore, of course, to return to this way of dog-rearing in urban or suburban America. We have leash laws, vaccination requirements, and the encouragement to spay and neuter for good reasons.

This is why I disliked Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s book so much. I felt like she was forcing her dogs into a “wild” lifestyle, which was not coherent with the fact that she lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The scenes of her following her off-leash husky weaving through Cambridge traffic and watching her spaniel get “raped” (her term) by a wayward dog were just awful to me. As much as I may love and yearn for the off-leash lifestyle, that is not a life I want for my dogs. I know it’s not possible (or even legal) in my town, and so the girls wear leashes and we have a sturdy fence.

Some rural dogs may still experience this “good old dog days” lifestyle, and I love that for them. For example, our former foster Laszlo has an idyllic existence; he goes to work every day with his human at a winery in the foothills and lives his whole life off-leash, running around the giant, gorgeous property.

So, here’s my question. Do you think we can incorporate the good aspects of the old way of dog-rearing into modern society? For most of us, our dogs can’t go out without leashes or travel with you by running behind your truck. But is there a way that we can reduce reactivity and promote freer, more harmonious interactions with our dogs and our communities? Is that even possible with modern legislation?

Source: Leslie Jones.
Source: Leslie Jones.

I don’t know. But it’s something I like to think about. I think about that day for Pyrrha at Fisher Farms, which might have been her happiest day ever, and I long to capture some part of that in our everyday life.

Curious to hear your thoughts!