Last November — yes, I’m more than a little behind on posting — Mindy took a trip with me down to my aunt’s ranch in Texas. I knew this would be an exciting trip for her for a variety of reasons, not least of which that the ranch is a seriously cool place for puppies to explore, with lizards, snakes, rabbits, deer, boar, turkeys, and many other things. (Some of these are fun to watch or even chase; some should be explored by sniffing their tracks only.)
The ranch is big, but not so big that a dog couldn’t find her way off it and get into local trouble. I would never have allowed Laev off-leash even for a moment there, if I’d ever taken her; Laev would have tangled with a rattlesnake and then chased a rabbit or deer straight off into a neighboring sheep ranch. There’s a ranch gate on the road which for years has been decorated with the hanging bodies of the latest coyotes or dogs which had been shot while hunting or harassing their stock.
Mindy is not nearly so predatory as Laev was (nothing is!) so I was less worried about her chasing stock or getting into trouble with dangerous creatures, and more worried about her simply getting lost or heading into dangerous creature territory. We needed a solid recall.
We had of course been practicing recalls for months; it’s a concept we introduce early! but I needed to test and reinforce it in this new and highly distracting environment. Deer and rabbit are regularly just outside the house; she was going to need to review.
I set up for success. I often tell my clients that I’m like a casino — it’s a gamble, each time we give a dog a choice in a new collection of distractions, but it’s a gamble where I can set the odds in my favor. Let the dog feel she’s making a choice, but make it very easy for her to make the right one.
With the exception of toilet breaks and a bit of playtime at the hotel, Mindy had just spent two days crated riding in the car. We’d arrived at night and gone straight in with only a toilet break, so this was her first view in daylight. She was going to want to run and sniff and explore. Instead of setting her up for frustration and conflict between the recalls I wanted and the activity she wanted, I put her in a roomy kennel just outside the house. This let her relieve herself and do some early sniffing without any leash or human nagging.
And, after about twenty minutes, the first flush of “new place!” was wearing off and she was starting to want people again. This made it easier for her to focus on me, instead of me having to nag her for attention. There’s certainly a place for teaching a dog to focus through new distractions, but one thing at a time, and that wasn’t my goal for today. Recalls in these distractions would be sufficient practice!
I used a long line, just in case, and I upgraded from Mindy’s usual treats — her everyday kibble, due to her specified diet — to canned snack cheese, which I knew would be highly appreciated. So:
- initial burst of wiggles and sniffing relieved in safe contained area
- a few minutes away from people so that recalls were part of a happy reunion (note: this is a long, long way from social deprivation! I just let her explore the kennel area on her own)
- super reinforcement value for the recalls
I started with a well-known cue, the verbal “come,” and then included the newer cue, the whistle, which I’d introduced only that week when I thought about potentially needing to recall over a greater distance. I clicked even though this was a known behavior, just to reinforce as strongly as possible. A little extra dopamine is not a bad thing!
Here’s video of the first recall session, the first time Mindy was in the new environment.
Mindy’s own tendencies helped enormously — as I said in the video, my Dobermans never would have hung so closely in such a prey-rich environment. I always joked that they never went more than fifteen or thirty seconds’ run from me, but for them that was quite a distance!
But by reinforcing Mindy’s recall and then immediately sending her to sniff again or eat more deer poop, she had the best of both worlds, and it was easy to come when called because she lost nothing. So if I needed her to leave something, we had a history and she could trust the recall was worth it.
That was our first session. An hour later, Mindy had earned off-leash privileges and spent the week trailing us on foot or in the golf cart. I still carried cheese for the first few days, reinforcing regularly just in case, but that was mostly be-prepared caution on my part. Mindy’s recalls were spot on, because the foundation was solid.
How can you make it easy for your dog to be right in a new distraction? It’s worth the effort to build the momentum of success!