One of the great precepts of clicker training is to set the training subject up for success. As a trainer, you never want to put your dog (or other trainee) in a situation she’s not ready for, or ask her to perform a task she might fail. Failure isn’t instructive for the learner, and it can be very frustrating, which can be a major setback to your training.
But just because we don’t make failure a part of the training process doesn’t mean it’s not on our minds. Anything can happen in real life — unforeseen distractions, accidents, equipment failure and numerous other complications can interfere with our plans. We have to have a contingency plan in case something goes wrong. This is why we train fail-safe behaviors!
The most critical behavior I train is the emergency recall (“Come”). I always reinforce this behavior when practiced, and always with high-value rewards, because I want my dog to return immediately when called in any situation. Just last week, I had a conversation with a client in which I stressed that a recall cue was very important for the safety of his dog: “Personally, I never take my dog off-leash in an uncontrolled area,” I said, “but that doesn’t mean we don’t practice recalls. Anything can happen.”
Today, it did.
I recently moved to a new house on a main street of a small town. Valenzia, who is a high-anxiety, moderately-reactive ball of stress on a good day, has been doing her best to adjust to the new location, but since the old house was out in the country with plenty of privacy, she’s having trouble relaxing with all the bikers, joggers and stray dogs wandering by. It’s complicated by the fact that the fence is not yet installed, so Valenzia has to be on a leash or a tie-out if she goes outside. I hardly ever use tie-outs, so the one I had was pretty old and damaged; the first time the dog trotted to the end of the line, the snap broke in half. (This should have been a warning to me.) I replaced the tie-out with a heavier-duty model, and double-checked the snaps to make sure there was no danger of their breaking under stress.
Today I had some work to do outdoors, so I took Valenzia out with me and put her on the new tie-out a few feet away. For a few minutes she calmly wandered around, but when the neighbor’s dog began barking from the next yard, she bolted.
Dobermans easily run upwards of 25 MPH when they have a reason, and Valenzia was motivated. I barely had time to register the dark blur shooting past my leg, and it took me a second more to work out how she had passed me when I was standing outside the range of the tie-out. She was most of the way to the next yard when I had the presence of mind to call, “Come!”
Our practice paid off. Even though she was within sight of the barking dog, Valenzia planted her claws in the grass, spun and rocketed back to me. We ran back to the house and I dumped a whole handful of treats on the kitchen floor, praising her and cheering all the while.
After I’d secured her in the house, I checked the tie-out, unable to believe that another snap had broken — but this time it turned out that the collar had failed. The large D-ring had ripped right through the fabric of the martingale loop. At the speed she was moving, I doubt Valenzia even felt it break.
So now I’m ordering a new collar for Valenzia, as well as laying in a supply of extra-tasty treats to practice some more recalls in our new yard. The fence won’t be finished for at least two weeks, and even after it’s completed, human error or a broken gate latch is all it takes for it to fail. I don’t want to entrust my dog’s safety to something so easily compromised.
Next time you’re outdoors with your pet, you might want to practice a few recalls as well, just in case. Because anything can happen.