Want to Save Your Dog’s Life? Train Him or Her to Come When Called

A routine walk and training exercise with my dogs could have turned deadly.

Lilah, Jasper and Tucker ready for their walking practice.

Lilah, Jasper and Tucker ready for their walking practice.

Training with a new harness

A few days ago, I was practicing leash walking with my three dogs. Yes, we still practice. I was working with a new harness and lead combination, and wanted Lilah, Jasper, and Tucker to get a feel for my expectations while wearing their new harnesses. I also thought it would be a good time to practice walking manners.

Plus, I decided to try something new: reinforcing specific positions for each of them, in an attempt to reduce the tangleation and knot-tying that occurs when three dogs are on leashes together.

Jasper and Tucker sitting in their Places — a command I'm teaching them so everyone has an assigned spot when we go for a walk.

Jasper and Tucker sitting in their Places — a command I’m teaching them so everyone has an assigned spot when we go for a walk.

We always work on focus as well. There’s a deer crossing the road? Look at me. Dogs are barking in the yards we’re walking by? Look at me. There’s a garbage truck? Look at me.

There’s a squirrel? A rabbit? Someone walking a dog? No pulling. No whining. No barking. Look at me.

All of our training is done with positive reinforcement; I catch my dogs doing something right, and they get a reward: praise and maybe a treat.

Lilah sitting in her Place, and looking at me, like a very good doggy.

Lilah sitting in her Place, and looking at me: a very good doggy.

An unexpected visitor

This particular time, our neighbor’s dog decided to pay us a visit while we were practicing our skills in our driveway and in the road in front of our house. (We have no sidewalks in our ruralish neighborhood.) The visitor was a young Cavalier King Charles Spaniel that Lilah, Jasper, and Tucker have never actually met up close, but see quite often through the fence and across several backyards.

When I saw the chestnut-and-white interloper heading our way, my first thought was what a great opportunity to practice some focus. The dogs saw her coming, but I had them sit and look at me — not the canine distraction — and all were rewarded. This would give my neighbors time to call their dog back.

She has no recall

I heard the husband calling the dog: “Here Buffy. Come Buffy. Come on Buffy. Buffy! Come on back! Want a treat?” (I’m using a different name for the dog here, to protect the ignorant innocent.)

That’s when I knew this dog did not have a good recall. If your dog doesn’t come when called, if you have to call eighteen different ways, if you have to mention “treat,” if your voice starts to take on that begging and pleading tone while your dog trots merrily away from you as if you’re mere background noise, you — and your dog — have a problem.

Even if my dogs had met Little Miss Cavalier in circumstances other than just barking distance, I don’t really like having an unleashed dog approach my dogs when they’re leashed. For one, dogs act differently on leashes than they do unleashed. They can be more reactive, a little more unpredictable — particularly when encountering another dog who isn’t tethered.

In addition, three dogs together can excite one another, which may escalate into unwanted behaviors. I try not to put my dogs into unpredictable circumstances, where I don’t have control.

Plus, I was holding on to more than 160 pounds of dog; if they all wanted to go somewhere, I’m going with them, unless I let go of the leash. This would have been particularly problematic because the new system I was testing out had all three dogs attached to one central leash; they were connected to each other.

Not a recipe for a friendly meet and greet with a dog on our territory.

I need to act fast

Okay, I thought, let’s just start walking away from the Buffy. We were at the end of my driveway, so we walked out onto the street along the front of my house. Once again, great practice for my dogs on staying focused, and it would give Mr. Neighbor a little more time and space to retrieve his wayward spaniel.

Jasper and Tucker walking next to me.

Jasper and Tucker walking next to me.

I was handing out treats fast and furious by this time, which meant that my dogs were happy to focus on me. Lilah, Jasper, and Tucker periodically looked back to see if Buffy was still heading our way, but there was no whining, very little pulling, and we were making progress down the street.

“Buffy! BUFFY! Come back! Here’s a treat! A TREAT! Want a TREAT?”

I looked over my shoulder in time to see the dog head through our yard and into the street — a street where drivers routinely ignore the speed limit. A street with lots of curves and blind spots and a pretty consistent flow of  cars.

I wasn’t worried about my dogs. We know how to walk, hugging the side of the road, facing the traffic, and we pull off into driveways or front yards if we see a vehicle that’s too big or too fast coming toward us.

Lilah walking next to me. We've worked hard to make sure she looks at me every now and again, checking in by making eye contact with me.

Lilah walking next to me. We’ve worked hard to make sure she looks at me every now and again, checking in by making eye contact with me.

But Buffy didn’t know this and she was now on the road. Her human was running toward her, still calling and yelling nonsense, while she gaily galloped toward me and my pups.

A worst case scenario blew through my head: a car swerving around me and my gang, and not seeing the other small dog coming down the road.

Now it’s getting serious

Quickly I ran through my options:

I could A) continue walking, and hope that the Buffy caller would catch her before anything bad happened. B) Stop where I was on the street, and hope that Buffy slowed down, and no cars would come by. Or C) I could walk back into my driveway, so that Buffy would leave the dangerous road and at least come back into our yard, and take a chance that I could control the potential encounter between Buffy and my dogs. There was no “None of the Above.”

I chose C, keeping Lilah, Jasper, and Tucker close to me, feeding them a constant stream of compliments and treats, while Buffy ran toward us.

At that point, my neighbor burst through my forsythia bushes and scooped up his escapee. He gave me a nod, and walked back to his home, gently scolding his dog.

This whole scene took about a minute to unfold. As I watched my neighbor head back toward his house, with Buffy’s fluffy tail wagging over his arms, I let out a big sigh of relief.

Followed by a heap of praise and treats and pets and loving for my dogs.

Which was then followed by a slew of unprintable curse words muttered under my breath.

A happy ending

This story had a happy ending. It could so easily have had an unbearably sad one. I chose to put my dogs in an uncomfortable and unpredictable situation, rather than see another dog get hit by a car.

And while I would do it again, I hated having to make that decision.

Train your dog to come when called

What’s the lesson here folks?

Jasper, Tucker, and Lilah come running when I call. As it should be.

Jasper, Tucker, and Lilah come running when I call. As it should be.

Train your dog to come when called. It is a matter of life and death. Every dog — I don’t care if you never take him or her out except on a leash — should have a good recall. A recall that’s strong enough to make your dog come to you no matter how interesting something else is. A recall that you can count on. A recall that can save your dog’s life.

And that takes practice. Practice, to be honest, that continues throughout the dog’s life. Test now again to make sure the recall is still there, and ensure that when your dog comes when called, she gets rewarded. Never punished. Ever.

There are plenty of books, magazines or online resources to help you train your dog. Like Victoria Stilwell or sites like Dogster. Or find a trainer to help you.

And practice. Practice. Practice. Reward. Reward. Reward.

Because you love your dog.

Have you ever had an encounter with a dog that didn’t listen? How good is your dog’s Recall response?

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3 Comments on "Want to Save Your Dog’s Life? Train Him or Her to Come When Called"

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  1. Kitties Blue says:

    Though we no longer have dogs, I read this with interest and appreciate the thoughtful and informative post. So happy everyone was safe at the outcome.

  2. Awesome! My very own 2 year old mini Dachshund named Christmas has good recall! I walk him with the family dog, a German Shepherd mix, daily, and they know how to behave when walking together! Even though I’m only 13, they know I’m the leader!

    Robin Whiskers

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