This morning Bodhi and I took a hike in the hillsides surrounding our local park. It was one of those lovely walks where he barely pulled on leash, even when spotting a bunch of bunnies scrambling into the brush. He paid attention when asked, and periodically basked in the happy glow that leaving his mark on any vertical surface seems to confer. As we approached the parking lot to leave, I noticed a woman we run into frequently. She was just arriving with her three dogs: an old Australian Shepherd and two young, energetic German Shepherd mixes. The Shepherds look alike, but they sure don’t act alike. One is mostly friendly around other dogs, while the other can be dog-aggressive. I’ve heard reports of attacks on dogs by this dog from multiple people who frequent the dog park. To make things worse, when both dogs are together and one becomes aggressive, pack behavior kicks in and woohoo, there’s double trouble!
The woman normally helps her Aussie out of the truck first, then goes back to the lift gate to grab the other dogs’ leashes to let them out. But this morning as she was placing the Aussie on the ground the other dogs, having spied Bodhi and I, leapt out of the vehicle and made a beeline for us. I had seconds to think as the dogs came streaking across the parking lot. I won’t print the first thing that came to mind, but it had two words and the first was “Oh…” My next thought was that I had to protect Bodhi, both physically and behaviorally. This was the dog I’d worked with for two years on what had been some pretty serious on-leash lunging and barking at other dogs when I’d first adopted him. He’d come a long way, and had finally learned that when he’s feeling worried about another dog, he can place himself by my side and we’ll walk safely past the scary thing together. Bodhi had finally made the leap to trust someone, and I had to protect him. I stepped squarely in front of him and faced the oncoming dogs.
Perhaps it was the “To get to him you’re going to have to get through me” look on my face, or the “Don’t even think about it” energy I was radiating, but as the dogs reached us, they looked as though they were suddenly having second thoughts. The insecure one hung back just a bit as the other one began to warily circle around me to reach Bodhi. As I turned with him, a quick glance back at Bodhi confirmed that although he was alert, he was also reasonably calm. He wasn’t barking; he wasn’t even lunging. Just then, the owner called the dogs. To her credit, she used a high, happy voice. And guess what? The two immediately stopped what they were doing, turned toward her, and ran back across the parking lot. I finally remembered to breathe.
“I’m so sorry!” she called out as they reached her.
“That’s okay, just grab their leashes,” I told her, in what I hoped was a calm voice. Despite my decisive action, I could feel the adrenalin flooding my nervous system. I was all too aware of just how bad things could have been, and knew that in all likelihood I would have been trying to separate three dogs by myself, at least for the first ten to twenty seconds.
Once the woman had grabbed the leashes, I said, “Good recall!”
She responded with a laugh. “Yeah, I didn’t think that would really work, but it did!”
It’s scenarios like that one, that I wish every dog owner could see. Those precious moments that make the difference between an interesting story and a tragedy are the answer to the questions, “Why do I have to practice calling my dog to me so many times?” and, “What happens if I don’t have food with me?” The bottom line is, the recall must be practiced in a variety of situations, with distractions eventually added, to the point that the dog responds instantaneously—in other words, it becomes a conditioned reflex. And let’s not be stingy with rewarding the dog when he does come! It’s ironic that so many owners want to know when they can stop using treats, but I’ve yet to hear one say, “When can I stop jerking my dog?” Even worse than not rewarding is what many owners do when their dog breaks free; they call the dog to them, and when the dog complies, he gets scolded. The person doesn’t realize that because dogs learn by association, the dog is being verbally punished for coming when called.
This morning, I was glad to see that the dogs received praise for returning. Bodhi, for his part, received a shower of hot dogs for staying calm and being such a good boy. Again, practicing the recall isn’t just important; it’s crucial, regardless of whether a dog is reactive or not.