I just watched an interview with Kimberly Munley and Mark Todd, the civilian police sergeants who took down the crazed gunman at Fort Hood. Both parties, when asked how they were able to so quickly assess the horrific situation and respond as they did, said the same thing: “Our training kicked in.” They explained that they had been put through training exercises to the point that whether the scenario was a planned drill or an actual event, their conditioned reflexes took over. Naturally, this made me think of dogs.
I’ve often heard dog owners say, “He’ll come when I call him at home, but at the park, he ignores me!” Upon questioning, these same owners invariably reveal that any training that has taken place has been in the home environment, not at the park, and sometimes, not even outdoors. You can’t expect to go from 0 to 10 without building smaller steps in between, whether it’s an off-leash recall away from play with other dogs, or responding properly to an attacker when learning martial arts. Achieving a solid conditioned reflex requires time, patience, and repetition.
I’ve told this story before about my German Shepherd, who has since passed: My husband and I were taking Soko, then about ten months old, to the beach. We’d pulled over on to the narrow shoulder of the Pacific Coast Highway, an extremely busy California freeway. My husband opened the passenger side door and bent to tie his shoelace. Quick as a flash, Soko jumped over the back seat and started to run out into traffic. I scrambled out of the car, heart in my throat. As calmly as possible, I called, “Soko, come!” and gave the hand signal as well, just as we’d practiced hundreds of times. Soko spun on a dime and came flying back to me, thankfully unharmed. I tell that story to clients who complain about using treats to train. I didn’t have any treats with me the day Soko ran into traffic, but you know what? All those repetitions we’d done using treat rewards saved her life, and trust me, I didn’t care how many treats it had taken to get her to that point. The recall had become a conditioned reflex to my cue.
You don’t need complicated protocols or special techniques to train your dog to reliability. What you do need is the patience and dedication to repeat training exercises over and over, while keeping them interesting and motivating for your dog. The exercises should be practiced in various locations, with the gradual addition of distractions. If you do those things, your dog, like the heroes at Fort Hood, will have such well conditioned reflexes that the training will kick in regardless of the circumstances. And like those heroes, you too might save a life—your dog’s.