Dog Training Through Trust & Focus

by 
Erick Redwood, for the Shuttle
Dogs gotta run; but they have to come back when you call, too.

(First of three parts.)

How often do you find yourself repeating commands to your dog, only to be ignored? And what do you do after that? This can be frustrating and potentially critical, especially when it comes to recall — coming to you on command. Of course, that’s why people rely on leashes – for their dog’s and others’ safety. 

I have worked with many people and their canine companions. The premises I use are simple: trust and focus. They work together and reciprocally. Many (most?) dog behavioral issues are really a communication problem involving the dog’s unmet needs, expectations and fears and their human’s inability to understand and/or work with them. 

Dogs mirror our feelings. If you are stressed while out walking, your dog will be stressed too, and act accordingly. If you “trick” your dog into doing what you want, like offering a treat you don’t actually have, your dog will not trust you, and will likely do the opposite of what you want it to do. 

But then, the needs of canines, especially larger dogs, aren’t always consistent with ours. The first tenet of basic canine needs, affirmed also by well-known dog behaviorist Cesar Milan, is free-run exercise. This is not accomplished by walking your dog around the block. Dogs need off-leash time to smell the air and the pee-mails left by other creatures and to run free. While a fenced yard is a good starting point, sometimes dogs will take their yards for granted, akin to our needing the stimulus of a gym to actually get a workout. 

Free-run exercise for a dog is equivalent to taking a child to the playground; walking on-leash is like making your child sit and watch everyone else play. 

But being off-leash presents two major problems: Recall and legality.

Regarding legality: Pennsylvania law actually states that “…The protection of the public’s health and safety are attained when dogs are safely secured or accompanied when not so confined…” and, of course “… that person remains liable for any damage done by the dog should it stray out of control.” 

Obviously, it is paramount if our dog is to run untethered that we can rely upon his coming back when called. Teaching recall is best done in places where you can walk off-leash safely.

To start, look for large parks or fields with fencing. Many parks, such as nature preserves and wooded trails such as the Green Ribbon Trail along the Wissahickon are lenient with dogs off-leash. Dedicated dog parks, however, are really for socializing, and are too full of distractions to be suitable for recall training. 

The training lead, which is nothing more than a 30-50-foot leash (not retractable, and the longer the better), will maintain control while giving your dog a sense of freedom. Using large coils wrapped from your hand to elbow, let your dog run free on the full length of leash. The dog will begin to think he’s off leash. That is when you practice recall: Offer small treats to reward even partial movements back to you. If the dog doesn’t come, don’t pull the leash. Just remind him that he’s tethered by pulling it taut. 

Once you make the final plunge to let the leash drag free, you still have 50 feet of line to step on. Let go when you’re sure he’s keeping a reasonable distance but starting to respond.

Once you have successfully worked the long lead and recall, you have the beginnings of a happy dog who will trust you. He will want to try to please you, and within the capabilities of his native faculties and your capacity to communicate, he will try hard to anticipate your expectations of him and do what you want. 

This exercise establishes an appreciative trust between you. It differs from clicker training or other types of conditioned responses in that these approaches require a desensitization from the reward. As well, the motivation to cooperate may wane when not properly reinforced. 

This is the first of three articles on the “Trust and Focus” primer for teaching your canine buddy. The next article will focus on “Boundaries and Permissions”; this will include the differentiation of voices to establish respectful control of your dog. 

The last article will be the fun one: Using “Nurturing and Play” to create the “whole dog” and find what makes your dog happy.

Erick Redwood, M.Ed. does relationship counseling via cognitive behavioral therapy. He has adapted his own methodology to facilitate understanding between canines and their humans. Email him at erick.redwood@gmail.com.