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?

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Christmas in the fields (training off-leash recall)

Over this Christmas holiday, our time with Pyrrha was also spent encouraging and training her off-leash recall.

On Christmas Day, we took her out to the field near my grandparents’ house on her 30-foot line. Guion was outfitted with some leftover pulled pork as encouragement.

Grace Farson Photography
Me, with P on the long line. (c) Grace Farson.
Grace Farson Photography
(c) Grace Farson.

This field was the perfect practice ground. No one lives out there; we weren’t going to encounter any other dogs or people; and the field is bordered by a thick forest and part of the lake. The big field also made me feel more comfortable, because she could never truly get out of sight.

In the field with dogs. #christmas #latergram Missing @kelseyfgray and @alexlemondegray
Doing her thing.

We dropped the line, and to my pleasant surprise, she really wanted to stick with us. She wandered ahead of us, sniffing, as every dog is wont to do, but if we got too far back, she’d stop and reorient. I was very proud of her.

Christmas in Norwood
Walking with Guion and my dad.

Christmas in Norwood

Below is one of my favorite pictures ever (taken by my sister), of Pyrrha running to me. She’d gotten too far out, and she came sprinting back to me when I called. Guion, in the left foreground, is preparing some pork rewards for her.

Grace Farson Photography
(c) Grace Farson.

Christmas afternoon, we went back to the field to practice with Marley, my cousin’s labrador. Marley is also good off-leash, so he was great accompaniment for Pyrrha. He was mostly preoccupied with fetching on our field walk, but he remained a great center for Pyrrha, who is still easily distracted by her nose and all that she picks up.

Christmas in Norwood

Christmas in Norwood

Christmas in Norwood

Christmas in Norwood

Christmas in Norwood

And then, when we got back to my parents’ house, we did even more off-leash training.

My dad always wants to practice Pyrrha’s off-leash recall when she comes to visit, and we’re lucky to have Dublin as an aide. Dublin, as I’ve mentioned before, has the best recall I’ve ever seen in a dog. I’ve seen her stop in MID-CHASE of a squirrel to a command to come. It’s miraculous.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get any photos of our outing, but it might have been the best day of Pyrrha’s life. We went with Dublin and her human family to a large preserve out in the rolling countryside where dogs are allowed to roam. We walked the trails and Pyrrha kept her long line on, but we didn’t hold her leash once. She ran with Dublin through the forest, totally free and happy. We encountered a veritable pack of other dogs (six, I think) that day, but all the humans were smart enough to just drop the leashes and all the introductions went beautifully.

The most shocking moment was when Dublin scampered down a bank and jumped into the creek to splash around and swim. Pyrrha has always been antsy about walking through rivers, and so I assumed that she wouldn’t want to get in. But she started whining, watching Dublin play in the creek, and so I said, “OK!” She ran down the steep bank and leapt into that water like a deer, huge grin on her goofy face. I was totally shocked. She was delighted.

There were two moments in which she got too far ahead of us, and I couldn’t see her anymore, and I started to panic, but Dublin would go find her and Pyrrha would quickly reorient to my voice. I gave her a small treat reward each time she came back to me, whether voluntarily or by responding to my call. All this to say, it was a great week of practice for her. She’s still not reliable off-leash, but she’s a lot more reliable than I thought she would be, and I was proud of the progress she’d made. Definitely something to keep working on! I’m motivated by the fact that she seems so happy to be unencumbered.

How is your dog with off-leash recall? How often do you get to practice this?

Gradually practicing off-leash behavior

Practicing off-leash recall in the front yard

One of our September training goals is to improve Pyrrha’s off-leash recall ability.

This has been a tricky thing to teach safely. When we first had Pyrrha, we made the mistake once of thinking she was pretty good off leash… and almost lost her in the woods for a heart-stopping 10 minutes. She is very motivated to come to me, but she’s also highly distractible, anxious, and unmotivated to come to anyone who isn’t me. She’ll come to me in the backyard whenever I call her, but there are very few distractions back there.

So. Our solution to training this behavior has been our giant front yard.

Practicing off-leash recall in the front yard
Meandering back to the house; dragging the leash.

Our tiny house is set back quite far from the street, so this has been our practice routine:

Every night, when I go out to get the mail, Pyrrha comes with me and wears the slip lead. I hold it lightly in my hand as we walk to the mailbox, but then, when we turn back to the house, I drop the lead and she gets to wander, untethered, back to the house.

Practicing off-leash recall in the front yard
Sniff where the deer have been.

She’s been doing very well with this routine. As you can see, she is a big sniffer, and her nose tends to be her biggest distraction. I let her check things out for a few minutes, and then I call her to me. She comes to me 95% of the time on the first call.

Clearly, Pyrrha has learned the behavior for this particular routine. She runs straight to the front door, 9 times out of 10. She will occasionally stray to one side of the house, but always comes back to me at first call. I haven’t had to run after her — yet!

Practicing off-leash recall in the front yard
Check the pear tree for squirrels.

Other things I can do to improve:

  1. Have treats with me every time. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. She seems motivated enough to come to me, but I shouldn’t take that for granted, especially if we start to practice this in higher-stress environments.
  2. Practice this with Guion. Again, I’m the only person — probably in the world? — that Pyrrha will come to. I see this as a big behavioral hazard for her. The one time she got out at my parents’ house and was truly lost, this was my greatest concern; I knew she wouldn’t come to anyone else, not even my husband. So it was very lucky that I was the one who found her, but that is not something I can count on.
  3. Think of places where we can practice this behavior with her 30-ft line. There’s a usually vacant soccer field nearby that could work…
Practicing off-leash recall in the front yard
Patrol around the side of the shed.

How did you teach off-leash recall? Any tips for us?

September training and behavior goals

More for my own sake, I’m going to start a short, monthly series here to record my training and behavior goals for Pyrrha. At the end of the month, I’ll make a brief progress report. This is more for keeping myself in line than for anything else, because if you write it on the Internet, then you have a faceless mob to keep you accountable. Right?

Get it, P. #kisses #loveandfear
Kissing Dad!

I don’t consider myself nearly as hardcore as the majority of you, so we’re going to keep our goals simple for now.

September Training and Behavior Goals for Pyrrha

  1. Take a reactivity class at Canine Campus.
  2. Practice behavior modification techniques to reduce on-leash reactivity toward other dogs. Crossing the street, treating for just looking at dogs, and ME taking deep breaths and loosening my body language and grip.
  3. Practice off-leash recall in the front yard. (More on this soon.)
  4. Improve and sharpen the command “Stay.” Get more consistent on this. (Sometimes I use the word “wait,” which is clearly not helpful to anyone.)
  5. Keep practicing calm exits from the crate. Particularly as we are with Draco now, work to mitigate her behavior so that she doesn’t grumble at him when she moves from the crate to the door. She has a habit of basically messing with him when she exits the crate to go to the backyard: growling, jumping in his face. I don’t think it’s aggressive, because she did this with Rainer, too, and he never responded in kind; it’s more an expression of nervous energy or maybe even jealousy? I don’t know. Whatever it is, I need to start training some impulse control and get her to cut it out.
  6. Improve her relationship with Guion. Get advice from Deven (our trainer) about how to accomplish this? I am kind of at a loss. He feeds her, he slips her bacon, he tries not to engage with her at all unless she initiates it… but she is still very fearful of him. After a year. Sigh. It’s kind of disheartening sometimes.

What are some of your goals for your dog this month? And if you have any training tips for me, feel free to dish ’em out!

How do you stay motivated to train your dog?

Confession time: I am a really lazy dog trainer. All of the rest of you put me to shame (at least, from what I can tell by reading your dog blogs).

Ready to play at sunrise. #pyrrhagramI get even lazier about training Pyrrha when we have fosters. A lot of energy is expended just teaching the fosters basic things (simple house manners, crate acclimation, walking on leash, etc.) that Pyrrha’s own training usually gets lost in the shuffle. We get a few “puppy push-ups” or exercises of pre-learned behaviors, but that’s it. I mean, how often are you guys training a day? From the sound of your blogs, it sounds like all the time, like hours and hours every day. I feel embarrassed at the tiny amounts of time that I actively “train.”

Having the treat bag has helped a lot, actually. Keeping it stocked and in an accessible place reminds me to keep training and keep Pyrrha engaged.

Waiting for someone to drop some food. #pyrrhagram

Lately, we’ve just been working on little things:

  • Leash reactivity with other dogs. This is a new-ish behavior (started exhibiting maybe in February of this year), and it’s not entirely consistent (some dogs don’t bother her; others do), and I am a little overwhelmed and unsure of how to fix it. I think I need to re-read Control Unleashed. I have also signed her up for a small, individualized reactivity class (“Feisty Fidos”) with our trainer at Canine Campus, which will start in the early fall. So I am looking forward to that as well. I am grateful to have been in touch with our trainer about this issue.
  • Baby steps toward off-leash recall. We have a long-ish driveway, and so every night now, Pyrrha comes with me to get the mail on a loose slip-lead. When we turn back toward the house, I drop the lead, and she gets to saunter or run back to the front door. She’s been doing very well at this, and if she strays too far, I call her back and she returns to my side. Baby steps toward off-leash recall! I am not eager to try anything more adventurous at this point. This is a safe space for her to learn this behavior (and the fact that she still has a lead draped around her neck means that she can’t get TOO far ahead of me).
  • Improving her relationship with Guion. For reasons that are still unclear to us, Pyrrha’s relationship with Guion has regressed since Rainer left. She seems more scared of him now than she did six months ago. I’m really not sure why this is. I think part of it, frankly, is that Guion just doesn’t engage with her even a fraction as much as I do. I feed her all of her meals, I’m the primary trainer, I groom her, I walk her… he just needs to get more involved, and I think he knows this. We were much more vigilant about it when we first got her, and we recognized that she was afraid of him (mainly because he was male), but we’ve been lazy about it, and she’s regressed, so it’s time to step up our game.

So, how do you stay motivated to keep training your dog(s)? Do you write down lists of what you want to teach them? Do you have a daily training schedule? How can I stop being so lazy about it??

As always, eager to hear and learn from each of you.

How does a dog learn to have great recall?

OK, I have a question for all of you dog training pros out there:

If your dog has great recall, how did you train him/her?

Dublin's intense face
Dublin.

I’ve always thought about this, and one of the most puzzling things to me is that the dog I know with the BEST recall wasn’t that seriously trained (or trained with methods that I disagree with, or have been taught are flat-out wrong).

Dublin is the dog with the most outstanding recall that I know. She lives, as you may remember, next door to my parents and my dad considers her his surrogate dog; he spends a ton of time with her. Dublin will stop on a DIME when you call her name. Dad told me that this past week, she got out of the gate to chase a cat in the neighborhood, but she stopped immediately when he called her — in the middle of a cat chase! And ran right back to him. This astonishes me, and yet I’ve seen her do it. She comes right to you, every single time. Dublin responds to anyone who calls her name, too — even to her family’s little girls.

But this is what bugs me. When I asked my dad why Dublin has such great recall, he always tells me this story: “When Dublin was a puppy, she was about to wander into the street, so I grabbed her and smacked her pretty hard and told her not to do that again. She really learned, though! She’s come perfectly ever since.”

Dublin

All of the reading and training I’ve done tells me that this can’t be true, that dogs don’t learn from physical punishment, that Dublin must be afraid of my father, etc. If you’ve seen them together, however, it is impossible to believe that she comes out of fear. This dog trusts my father utterly; she adores him. In fact, my dad might be the only person that Dublin truly loves; she’s more or less indifferent to everyone else. I’ve honestly never seen any anxiety or fear when she interacts with him. Furthermore, he doesn’t use physical punishments with her on a regular basis. He swears this was the only time he ever smacked her.

Dublin has not really received any formal training; I don’t think she even knows how to go “sit” or “down” on command, but she is an excellent Frisbee player, athlete, and all-around wonderful family dog.

So, what do you think? Why does Dublin have such great recall? Can it really be the smack from my dad when she was a puppy, as he claims?

How did you train YOUR dogs to have great recall?

Examine your conscience

Scruffy little dog on the street. by RazorBrown, via Flickr
By RazorBrown, via Flickr.

“If a dog will not come to you after having looked you in the face, you should go home and examine your conscience.”

— Woodrow Wilson

I love this quote; it strikes me as such an American thing to say, for some reason. But it also makes me feel like a terrible person when Pyrrha looks me in the eye and then decides to run off to chase something else!

That said, we are getting our first foster tonight! All I know is that his name is Brandon, and he is a six-year-old bicolor male who is being neutered in town. We may only have him briefly, as there is another Virginia foster home who wants older males. I’m excited and nervous! Pictures and more information to come!