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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Please visit http://www.nicolewilde.com for my books, DVDs, and 2014 seminar schedule. You can also find me on Facebook and Twitter.

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Holy Coyote!

December 13, 2012

“You don’t have to tell them everything.” That was the advice I got today when I told a well-meaning person about writing the blog I’m about to share…and I can see why she said it. But as much as I’m not proud of what happened a few days ago, it’s only fair to share it here, after the last post about how well Bodhi was doing off-leash at the park.

Two mornings ago, Bodhi and I were taking our usual COD (Crack Of Dawn) walk around the hills and pathways of our local park. I’d been allowing him off-leash for brief incriments in areas where I could see that no other people or dogs were around. He was doing great! He’d trot off maybe 20-30 feet away, leave pee-mail on a poor, unsuspecting bush, then come back to my side. We practiced recalls and “walk with me” as we went. He was doing so well two mornings ago, in fact, that I was able to recall him from a full charge after a bunny that crossed our path!

Although I was feeling pretty pleased with the both of us, I still kept Bodhi leashed in certain areas. It wasn’t just the people and other dogs I was concerned about—it was the coyotes that roam the hillsides. My husband, who takes one dog running in the mornings while I take the other to the park, had warned, “He’ll chase a coyote, be careful.” I didn’t doubt it. And so I waited until we’d left the hillsides where the coyotes hang out and we were headed onto the flat dirt track, a main area of the park that’s out in the open. I unclipped Bodhi’s leash and kept walking. A split-second later, he’d turned to look at something behind us in the distance, and disappeared! I don’t know how it’s possible to live with a dog for two years and never have seen him running at full speed, but that’s exactly what happened. Bodhi was suddenly a blur of black tearing across the field after a coyote, who was racing toward the hillside. My first thought was about how coyotes have been known to lure dogs into the hillsides, where their coyote gang is waiting. I ran after Bodhi, calling to him as I went.

Have I mentioned that by “the field” what I really mean is a huge dirt lot filled with nothing but sticker bushes? Nevertheless, I raced after Bodhi as fast as I could, calling to him over and over in what I hoped was still a happy, encouraging voice. All too quickly, he and the coyote disappeared around a bend in the hillside. There was nothing to do but keep running toward them and calling Bodhi’s name. Other than my voice, the morning was silent—too silent. They seemed to stretch on forever, those moments of chasing Bodhi while trying to catch my breath long enough to call him again.

In reality, it was probably less than a minute between the time he dashed off and the time he finally reappeared, trotting back toward me. My relief at seeing him was quickly replaced by worry at noticing that he was limping. Had he been attacked? Did we need to rush to the vet? Visions of having to carry Bodhi across a field of sticker bushes danced through my mind as he reached me. Since I’d been calling him, and he did show up, I managed to give Bodhi a jackpot of hot dogs and happy praise.

Then I inspected his leg. It quickly became apparent that the limping was caused by a number of stickers that had embedded themselves in his paw pads. Relieved that it wasn’t worse, I took my gloves off and carefully removed the stickers one by one—how do they always seem to manage to pierce human skin so easily? Soon Bodhi was happily walking along by my side as I led him between the bushes back on to the main trail. And yes, I leashed him.

And so, this isn’t the blog I wanted to write today. “Bodhi recalls off chasing a bunny!” would have sounded so much nicer. But it’s what happened. I’m not happy about it, and clearly I will need to be more careful in that entire section of the park. A long line is going to be Bodhi’s friend once again. That’s okay. Better safe than sorry, and believe me, had it turned out badly, that would have been the kind of sorry that would have haunted me the rest of my life. So, it isn’t pretty, but it’s the truth. Things happen, and sometimes all we can do is to learn from them and be more vigilant the next time.


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