Can You Hear Me Now?

April 23, 2014

cocked head cropA woman stands in the middle of a park calling her dog. The dog, oblivious, continues to play with his friends. The woman calls out again, this time more loudly. No response. Finally, in a fit of frustration, she screams at the dog, grabs his collar, and drags him away. What’s happened here? Did the dog really not hear his owner calling?

Although it might seem like it, little doggy earflaps did not snap into place, sealing the dog’s inner ear canals. In this case, the most likely explanation is that the dog had learned through experience that when Mom calls at the park, it means it’s time to leave. Why would he possibly respond? (If Mom were smart, she’d start by practicing calling the dog to her at the park when nothing interesting was going on, rewarding him with a quick game of tug or something else he likes, then releasing him. She’d gradually build up to more interesting situations.) In this type of scenario, the dog is actually being conditioned that the word “Come!” means, “If you return to me, you can kiss fun goodbye, because your furry butt is leaving.” We see the same type of scenario when a dog gets out of an open yard gate and is happily racing around the neighborhood, having the time of his doggy life. Why come when called? It only means going home, and possibly even being yelled at. (Never yell at your dog once he’s come to you; he did what you asked.)

Another type of seemingly “selective hearing” can happen when a dog is emotionally over threshold. For example, two dogs get into a skirmish. Adrenalin and other stress hormones flood their systems. The dogs are in “fight or flight” mode, heavily invested in the former. In that extreme state of arousal, although a dog can still physically hear, it’s not likely he’s going to pay attention. His attention, of course, is laser focused on the matter at paw. When dogs fight, owners often scream their names, but I’ve never seen one stop and turn around as if to say, “Sorry? I was a bit busy tearing into Buddy here, did you need me for something?”

While there’s not much we can do once a dog is over threshold other than getting him out of the situation as calmly as possible, conditioning can help. Instilling a rock solid recall—building from a simple come when called in the house to one outdoors with heavy distractions—takes time, but is worth every minute of effort. Monitoring your dog’s body language and behavior go a long way toward allowing you to step in and successfully call your dog to you before he gets into trouble or goes over the edge of arousal. With steady practice and good observation skills, you won’t have to wonder, Can you hear me now? You’ll know, because your dog will respond.

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Behind the Facade

April 3, 2014

here comes my girlHave you ever picked up a magazine containing ads or fashion spreads where you appreciated the beauty of the female models? While many are pretty to begin with, for every “ooh” and “aah” there are ten behind-the-scenes manipulations that produced that image, from hair and makeup to lighting, and especially post-processing. By the same token, when you admire a very well-trained dog, many days, weeks, months, and perhaps even years have gone into the finished product.

I thought about this phenomenon recently when I was at the dog park with Sierra. As many of you know, we only frequent the park when there are either no other dogs present, or perhaps one that we know well. We were standing on the “small dogs” side since the “large dogs” side was occupied by two owners and their dogs. I knew one of the women well. She’s got two German Shepherd mixes who are very sweet, but the male can be reactive and sometimes even aggressive with other dogs. The park sections are separated by a chain link fence, and he often barks and lunges at Sierra. Sierra, for her part, stands there with a “Talk to the paw!” look and seems to enjoy watching him bark himself into a lather. Because I enjoy speaking to the woman, and don’t want to have to shout over all that barking, I call Sierra to me and keep her there, away from the fence. I have heard a few people comment about how well trained she is, and watching her instantly respond to a recall away from a dog who is barking in her face—who she might not be impressed by but is certainly focused on—certainly does look impressive.

The truth is that Sierra had no recall whatsoever when I got her. Training a solid recall takes time with any dog, but with Sierra it was even more challenging. She’s got an incredibly high prey drive and a laser focus. She’ll zone in on a dog approaching from such a distance that I haven’t even spotted them yet. I can always tell when this has happened by her suddenly tense body and hard, focused eye. Now imagine trying to get a dog in that frame of mind to respond to a request to come when called. We began with no distractions, of course, and built up gradually over time. And I won’t lie; it was a lot of work.

The thing is, having a well trained dog doesn’t happen overnight. But you don’t have to drill your dog in obedience for hours a day; in fact, dogs learn better in shorter practice sessions. I’m as guilty as the next person of bemoaning the fact that I don’t have time to train my dogs, or I’m too tired after a long day, or any number of excuses. But really, if you just put in a couple of minutes here and there, and build obedience exercises into the things you do anyway—for example, practicing sits and stays during walks, or down-stays during television commercials—you might be surprised at the difference it can make.

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