Sunday, May 9, 2010

Danger Will Robinson, Danger!

A reader of my blog had asked a question about how to teach a dog a good emergency recall. I started to type a response that ended up being long enough that I figured it deserved a blog post of its own. As you'll see, I have a lot to say about this.

Sometimes life offers up some dangerous challenges. Dogs chase after cars, other dogs, and squirrels. In my case, sometimes I need to run away from the dreaded flexi-lead. These are all times when humans would like their dog to come when called. These are also the times when we dogs are least likely to listen. Think of the B9 robot in Lost In Space. Your command just simply does not compute. Like I'm going to be even able to hear you when a squirrel catches my attention? I've got so much adrenaline in my body that the only think I can see or hear is my prey.

Still, it's probably a good idea for me to come when I'm called. As I demonstrated with the flexi-lead incident, there are times when dogs can easily be injured or die if they do not respond to a command. How to get through to us during these situations--when we might be charged up with adrenaline from great excitement or fear?

Practice my friends. Practice.

I started working on this when I was twelve weeks old. I was on a long leash (12 feet) and got to play this fantastic game. One human would run ahead of me, call my name and say come in a super excited voice, and I'd charge after them. Sometimes I would run so fast I'd end up with my tail in front of my head. This was the best game ever! While playing I learned some important things: my name, the word come, good things happen when I listen, and that it was fun to go walking.

As the first few weeks passed the game got more challenging. With my long leash still on, one human would run off and hide behind a tree. They'd call my name and say come in a super excited voice, and I'd come running. Sometimes I'd just here a whistle, and would come running to that. What fun?! This game was always played in a safe area: there were minimal distractions, the road was a long way away, and no other humans or dogs were around.

Still more weeks passed. The humans continued to play this game, only they stopped calling my name. They just said come. We practiced it outside. We practiced it inside. We practiced it everywhere we could possibly practice it.

A few key points you want to remember. First, eventually, stop using your dog's name. Just say come. Otherwise every time your dog hears their name they will come running. This generally is an okay thing but can be a problem sometimes. For example, if you say Maggie sit, and instead I come running to you, you'll be annoyed with me. Yet, I'd just be doing what I was taught.

Second, always make it a good thing when your dog comes to you. No matter how annoyed you are or how scared you are, never ever yell at your dog when they come to you. It is important that your dog always associates the word come, and the behavior attached to it, with good things. If you teach your dog to come, and then yell at them when they do it, they will not come when you call: they will run in the other direction. Similarly, if your dog doesn't come when called, don't yell at them: if you do so, they will be even less likely to come when they are called.

These days, being almost a year old, I'm still practicing. Now there is a new step to the game. I do a sit/stay or a down/stay. The human then walks all around. Sometimes just in a small circle around me (especially at first). Now that I'm getting the hang of this he is walking in bigger circles. He sometimes even leaves my line of sight. He's careful to make sure that he doesn't push it so far that I stand up and move. He always comes back to me four or five times, says good girl, and occasional gives me a reward (bit of food, pet, etc.). Sometimes the human will even bump into me, and I am rewarded for staying in the same spot. After we finish practicing this the human will walk off somewhere: sometimes just a few steps in front of me, sometimes he'll be behind me, sometimes he'll go into another room or behind a tree. Where the human goes depends on the environment. Again, he wants me to be successful with sit/stay or down/stay. If there are a lot of people around he won't go very far as I'm likely to stand up an move. If the environment is safe and generally free of distractions he'll go out much further. Anyway, he'll eventually say "come" and I always run to him with glee. After all, I've learned since I was 12 weeks old that good things always happen when I come running when called.

Well, almost always. Sometimes the human says "come" and I get put in my crate. The human learned never to do this as my ability to listen was reduced for weeks after that one. I'm still very suspicious about coming when called upstairs. It's going to take a long time to repair that mistake.

The next steps in learning an emergency recall are going to be a challenge. Jason is expecting me to sit/stay or down stay in more challenging situations. For example, I'm asked to do this when patients come into the office. I am increasingly expected to wait until I'm requested to come say hello. That's hard! I'm also expected to sit/stay or down/stay when I am at dog school. This is especially a challenge when I first walk in: I really want to say hello to everyone and play. These tasks are useful because they are teaching me to inhibit my impulses. I am learning to wait.

Jason is paring these situations with the command "come." I listen at school (doesn't everyone listen better in school?) but totally ignore him at work. I want to say hello to the patients and that's that. It'll be a challenge but eventually I will come to Jason before I go say hello to a patient.

Once I get a hang of that with reasonable consistency I'm going to do something even harder. I'm going to do a sit/stay, Jason is going to call me, and then he is going to tell me down. I'm supposed to stop immediately and (depending on the command) sit or go down. Ha! I'll see about that. This is super hard. I need to fully understand the commands down and stay. I need to have developed an incredible amount of impulse control. I've been practicing this since I was 12 weeks also--I'll have to write about that in another post. Most importantly, I need to completely trust my human. I need to know that when he asks me to do this, he is asking because he is putting himself between me and danger. He's doing the same thing I would do if someone tried to hurt him.

This isn't a sure thing. I won't always be able to listen. Sometimes the bird will look too delectable. I am a dog, after all, and respond very deeply to prey. To make this even more complicated, my genetic make up includes strong impulses to chase animals, herd them up, and keep everything in order. The good news here is that I'm more likely to run in a circle (around birds, children, people, dogs) then dart after things and keep running.

Back to my point.

This might be the most important thing I ever learn as it has the potential to save my life in a dangerous situation. For example, if I'm running into the street and hear down, and go down, I won't be run over.

The training will go something like this: sit/stay or down/stay, come, and then sit/stay or down/stay. Over and over again we'll practice. The human will add lots of distraction. We'll do it at home. We'll do it around the cats. We'll do it in the park. We'll do it at dog school. We'll do it around food. Practice, practice, practice.

Sit/stay, come, sit/stay, then come all the way to the human for the biggest reward he knows how to give. Unlimited praise, love, pets, and tasty food (and the ever-present clicker!). It will be a party every time I do this.

That's how I'm learning an emergency recall.

Of course, this is going to take a lifetime of practice and emergencies aren't planned. There will; be emergencies well before I master all of this. As demonstrated by the flexi-lead episode, even when I'm on leash I can still be in trouble. In a true emergency, humans have to be bigger than life and bigger than the stimulus that the danger presents. Call the dog in an excited voice and run away from your dog. More often than not, the dog will follow. Lead us away from danger and resist your impulse to chase us. If you do, you'll chase your dog into danger.


  1. Thanks for the advice Maggie! I can't wait to go try this with Mandy!

  2. Whew! That was a whole lot of information, Maggie! Thanks to you & your human for taking the time to go into such detail on such an important topic. ...LOVED the Lost in Space "Danger" clip!

  3. Hi Becca--let us all know how it goes with Mandy! Maybe you have already posted about it on your blog. I'll have to go check that out today!

    Anonymous--glad you liked the Lost in Space clip. The human must be thinking of summer school vacations of yore. Lost in Space on TV was always a sure sign that school vacation was coming.