If You Train It, They Will Come
A few days ago my husband came in from the barn with a curious look on his face. “I think three of the neighbor’s cows are in our woods” he said. He has been working on a fencing project and had cut down some old barbed wire the previous day. We suddenly wondered if he had accidentally cut someone’s fence and let out their cows.
He said he would just “chase” the cows back into their pasture and fix the fence. (mind you, we know nothing about cow wrangling). The situation quickly became complicated when we realized several of our neighbors keep cattle and we couldn’t just go putting one person’s cows in another person’s pasture.
He grabbed a bucket of tools and went off into the woods while visions of lawsuits danced in my head. 45 min later he returned with an even more curious look on his face. “I have good and bad news” he said, “They’re bears.”
It’s spring and the wildlife is waking up! Keeping dogs safe from wildlife can be tricky. Often the instinct to chase and catch prey is strong. This instinct can take over and our dogs might not follow verbal instructions if behaviors are not proofed well enough.
The behavior I use the most to keep my dogs safe while exploring the woods is Come. I have used the word Come to call the dogs away from rabbit holes, fence fights, deer, roaming dogs and snakes. But we didn’t achieve this overnight!
My dogs enjoy roaming free on several fenced acres. I try to stick close to the dogs when we are in the woods, but with two of them and lots to explore, they inevitably get out of my sight quickly.
When we are wandering the woods together and the dogs have gone out of sight, I will call them to Come every few minutes. While this might sound like miro-managing, it serves two purposes:
First, it helps me keep tabs on my dogs’ internal mental and emotional state. If they respond to their recall I know that are still “thinking”. They are not becoming so aroused by something in the environment that they are no longer listening. I give them a tasty treat to reinforce the behavior and then tell them “Go Play” and they will run off back into the woods.
If they do not respond to a recall cue, I know trouble is brewing and I quickly go and find them. I then snap on a leash and lead them away from the area that seemed to grab their attention better than their well-proofed recall. We will then do a couple short, easy recalls. I will let them off leash for a few more minutes to romp.
Once out of sight again, if they respond to the next cue to Come, we will stay out and play. If they do not, I will find them, leash up and lead them back inside.
The thing that usually causes my dogs to get over aroused while in the woods is the pursuit of wildlife. So, if I ask them to Come and they don’t, I know they are probably on the hunt and I need to intervene. As long as they respond to their recall cue, they are free to go about roaming around. These days, it is rare for them not to respond.
The second purpose of this “Come – Go Play” routine is that it helps build a strong recall overall. My dogs learn that if they show up when I call, they get a great treat plus get to go back to what I was doing. That’s a win-win for the dogs! It keeps the recall behavior tuned up for emergencies. That is how we build a strong recall over the years.
In between my calls to them, they will often just check in with me. They come and find me on their own! This is a behavior I also reinforce with treats and play.
It takes hundreds of repetitions of being called to Come for a dog to respond to the word almost automatically. But it can be done! With enough practice you too can call your dog to Come even if he’s got his head down the rabbit hole.
Need help training a solid recall? Here are some articles that can help: