“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” – J.R.R Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
This winter I moved from my adorable, extremely comfortable cottage in downtown Larkspur to live on a 100-acre ranch in Petaluma. A friend inviting me to join her on a Big Adventure initiated this move. As it turns out, it was an act of training derring-do with regard to canine off-leash recalls. Ranch dogs do not use leashes.
As with all good dog training adventure stories the protagonist must encounter significant seemingly insurmountable challenges which test both mettle and ingenuity before experiencing [often comic] personal growth. Ranch trials include cattle, massive AWOL flock guarding dogs, deer, mountain lions, bobcats, thermal lift riders, jackrabbits and feral bunnies. What?
Of course, I have always enjoyed walking my dogs off leash in Marin County, where appropriate. Certain areas have known challenges that one anticipates and prepares a strategy. However, these challenges don’t tend to start the second you open the front door as they do on the ranch.
My dogs have a good recall. If you define a recall as dogs who always return after you call them. They will always come back, if they can. The two fine points here are “how long after you call them” and “if they can.” Having grown up on a farm, I have a healthy respect for barbed wire. A dog chasing, say a jackrabbit or deer, in an unknown area can easily become injured or even tangled up in barbed wire. Once an off leash dog leaves his handler’s sight, he becomes vastly more vulnerable unless he wears a satellite-tracking device.
Therefore, the dogs and I have been spending a lot of time walking fence lines, learning not to cross just anywhere and that barbed wire hurts.
Let’s just say that you have a border collie/whippet cross whose morphology and behaviors suggest that the sighthound genetics prevailed. Petaluma is windy. Thus, raptors and vultures riding the thermal lift are beautiful and constant denizens of the sky. Habituation and a long line were the behavior modification techniques that tempered my keen-eyed bird chaser’s desire to cross county lines. He now seems to be satisfied with puffing himself up at the raptors perched on fence posts. Compromises. Speaking of compromises, Velo’s prey drive isn’t limited to the skies. He is equally lethal (in his own mind) underground. Gophers abound, both in the yard and throughout the premises. This, I don’t discourage because I really can’t be consistent about it and it is a static behavior. Yes, he can get a puncture wound from a mole or gopher, but that is a lesser risk. In addition, if the gophers moved out of the yard, well, I really wouldn’t mind.
Another important lesson is we do not chase cows. Therefore, we have spent some quality time counterconditioning (giving treats for calm, friendly behavior) and playing other games near the cows. Happily, my neighbor Sarah has friendly cows who aren’t afraid of dogs. In fact, it appears as if at least one of them has some dog handling skills of her own. If my dogs do go out of sight, under no circumstances do I want cattle to be the object of canine fun and games. Not an option.
So, what is the training cantrip here? The magic bullet is differential reinforcement. A guardian trains an acceptable alternative behavior to reinforce while preventing reinforcement from an unwanted behavior, like critter chasing. Happily, my dogs already have a strong alternative behavior (playing with me using toys) inculcated since puppyhood which I readily pulled out of the training toolbox. On our wild walks, there are certain areas where we always stop to play ball.
One game that we play is “Face”. “Face” is actually both an established cue and a marker word. As a cue, it means, “Catch a ball thrown directly at your face and return the ball to my hand.” Since they all love the game – the possible danger thrills their athletic, adrenalin junkie souls – it is a marker word when I ask for a particular behavior. “Face” indicates a good choice made and a face throw is imminent (reinforcement).
I also play some ball fetch. This isn’t my favorite game to play as used excessively can be unkind to their bodies, but it does redirect their chasing thoughts from critters to balls. The secondary benefit is that all of the wildlife hears the ruckus and makes haste to relocate. My main goal with the game playing is to keep the dogs within visual range while they run around being dogs. If I can see a critter before the chase begins, the recall works. Once my dogs start to reach the outer boundaries of my comfort zone, I recall them, they turn to run back and I cue “Face” or “Fetch” or “Yes” (treats rather than a game). A month of consistently playing this game and now the two chasers automatically turn and run back for a reward. The good dog prudently stays nearby. With three dogs, it costs about ten dollars a walk, but I consider it time and money well spent.
Have mistakes been made? Certainly. The feral bunnies are the nemesis of the best-laid training plans. One terrible day, early on, three separate bunny chases occurred. The feral bunnies do not behave exactly like other critters. They come in bright colors like white, white with brown or the wrong kind of brown. Highly visible. Secondly, they live quite near the house and other outbuildings. Moreover, no matter how long I keep the dogs distracted, they don’t prudently scurry away. Rather, hop, hop right into the open, turn around and watch the dog show. The slow “hop, hop” garnered attention and off they went. No attempt made to recall Velo or Baloo, why ruin a perfectly good recall in an obvious noncompliance situation? Velo thinks he is a stone cold killer and Baloo just likes to chase things.
Then there is Dice, also a Border Collie/Whippet mx – but heavy on the Border collie – in a desultory lope after the chasers hoping that someone will just holler “Face” already!
That last piece of the recall puzzle is genetics. Some dogs have a strong chase drive and some dogs would rather do honest work for a living! Love little Dice.