Monday, March 7, 2016


Last week at the park, I was reminded of a time, years ago, when Koira wouldn't come when called. It wasn't that she never came when called, but that she often would simply choose not to, or choose to come most of the way but not close enough to catch.

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I had taken Koira for a walk down to the local park in the morning before heading to work. We were about 1/3 of the way through our walk when I spotted a large black lab standing in the middle of the field we were walking past, with no human in sight. So I went over to see what was going on. Most of the time, in cases like this, the human will pop out of the tree cover or something and I just keep walking. This time, a car pulled into the parking lot and the woman driving rolled down her window and let me know that this was her dog and she just couldn't catch him. She'd tried getting in the car and driving away (just out of sight) to see if she could catch her dog that way. No dice.

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I actually spent the next 45 minutes or an hour or so helping her try to catch her dog. He was smart to all of the classic tricks. No food was going to lure him in. No game of fetch would bring him close enough for a grab. No other dog on a leash would entice him within reach of a human. He was wise to being cornered. Sitting/laying down brought no response. I eventually left and continued on with our walk. I'm not sure how that story ends. I assume that she caught her dog at some point and made it home, but since she had been at the park for two hours already by the time I met her, I am not sure if she made it home before dark 6 hours later or not.

As I talked to her (we tried everything to catch this dog, even walking down to a part of the river that dead ends in an attempt to corner him), she said she really didn't want to use a shock collar on her dog, but didn't know what else to do when he acts like this. I gave her a few suggestions, and a story of personal experience. Because years ago, Koira wasn't much different from this dog.

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We would go down to the park for a walk, have a great time, and when we got back to the parking lot area, I couldn't for the life of me catch Koira. She would stay just out of arm's reach and no treat or toy was enough to lure her in. I often had to have someone else catch her, and I was lucky that she would let other people close to her. But I could see that if it continued, she would start dodging all humans. We easily could have been this owner and her black dog.

I fixed Koira's recall problem in the same way that I recommended to this exasperated dog owner. First, the dog doesn't get to be off leash for a while. A long line is invaluable, and can be made super cheap with lightweight cord and a leash clip. Knots tied every few feet down the cord give you something to grip by stepping on the long line if needed. The long line temporarily prevents the dog from performing the undesired behavior while giving you a chance to do something about it. Long lines aren't training, though, and can be annoying to use long term.

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While using a long line on a walk or while playing fetch, I often stopped and grabbed Koira's collar, gave her a treat, and then continued our walk or our game. The idea was to stop her from thinking that every time I touched her the fun would end. Since Koira's issue was specifically at the parking lot area of the park, I made a point of changing out walk route so that we walked past that area multiple times, so she would learn that not every time we were in that place did the fun end. Throughout the walks, treats were given for voluntarily checking in, and for coming when asked to.

When she was reliably doing this on a long line, I took the long line off and did the same thing. Instead of just doing a collar grab while giving a treat, I started clipping her leash on for a second, giving a treat, and then taking the leash off again and letting the fun continue. Sometimes I would keep her on leash for a little while, sometimes I would take it off immediately after snapping it on. Putting on a leash does not equal the end of the fun. This whole time, I made sure we walked back and forth past our problem area (the parking lot) over and over. Sometimes we would walk straight past with no leash clip. Sometimes she would get called over and get a treat and then we would keep walking. Or clip the leash on, keep walking, treat, and then back off leash to play. And when it was time to leave, I didn't always wait until we were near the parking lot to leash back up. I would make the last 5-10 minutes of our walk be on leash sometimes, so that she knew that being on leash didn't mean the fun was over.

I was lucky in a few ways. Koira is naturally interested in working with me, and she is easy to convince that a game is fun. That worked in my favor. I got good advice on how to fix the problem from the start, so even though I let the problem behavior happen for too long before starting training for it, I knew what to do to fix it. And I had a lot of free time. I worked a ton of part time jobs, but they were mostly flexible, evening, or part days, so I could afford to go to the park for a few hours almost every day. Being able to spend plenty of time there made the training go much faster than if we only went to the park once a week. And I suppose our park is a big benefit too- it isn't fenced, but it does allow dogs to be off leash on the trails year-round, and in the sport fields in the winter. So while that initially caused the problem, it also allowed me to work through it.

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Today, Koira has a great recall, and a natural inclination to check in. Since working through this problem thoroughly all those years ago, she has never tried to dodge when I want to catch her. I haven't had to ask anyone else to catch my dog. And I haven't had to be that person at the park with the totally untrained dog. But I was there. I can't judge anyone else in that position, because I was there. I was that person. I just have to hope that because I was there, and managed to get through it, and now have a dog who is often complimented at the park for her great recall and attention to me, that I can help the other owners who are suffering through it now.

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I don't know if the black lab's owner will take my advice. Along with giving her basically the same advice I wrote here, I gave her the name of a great local dog training place that actually has a class that is specifically for training a reliable recall. I have no idea if she will take any of my advice, or if she will decide to take the easiest-for-right-now method of using the shock collar she is reluctant to use. I hope she decides to go with positive methods. Her dog will be happier, she will be happier, and she will be able to develop a great relationship with her dog through the training that will last for years to come. I hope that next time I see them at the park, her dog will be happy to be caught, or will be on a long line working through it.


And I hope that, because I was friendly and helpful, that she will think of positive training methods in a positive light. I know too many people who, at the first mention of a shock collar, would have started talking down to this dog owner, or verbally attacking her, or telling her all the ways she is wrong. And I know that, had I started out that way, no other advice or help I tried to give would be likely to be well received. No, I don't approve of using shock collars. I think there are much better methods for training something like a recall, and that these better methods create a dog who is happy to be with you. So while I hope that this specific owner does decide to take the time to train a happy, eager recall, I also hope that if you are in the same situation, where you see an owner struggling and they mention using an aversive (shock collar, prong collar, or whatever), you don't attack them. Most of the time, they are at the end of their patience and they don't know what other options are available to them. Don't turn them off from positive methods by giving them a negative experience.


  1. Great post, and GORGEOUS shots! Kiora is beautiful. It's so true about speaking to others about the way they're training (or thinking about training). If you're trying to educate about positive methods but come off judgmental or aggressive no one will listen.

  2. Love this story - I've been using a long line on our dog, Walter, as he's unreliable and we need to focus on recap training this year so I can gain confidence that he would't end up being in the same situation as the Black Lab. Thanks for this great post.

  3. Oh, I hope she tries your method instead of a shock collar. The post brings back some vivid memories of chasing my dog through a ferry terminal parking lot. She thought it was a terrific game.

  4. I hope she took your advice and I think you did a good job giving her advice. Thanks for joining the hop!

  5. I'm glad you gave her that advice - it's definitely worked for my dogs as well.

    I laughed to myself a little at the fact that it was a Black Lab. Our Lab growing up did the same thing for at least 6 months. It was beyond annoying, and looking back I can see how horrible 13 year old me was handling it. Every single time I'd get within arms reach he'd be off again - never going too far but making sure he was far enough away not to get caught. Of course now I can laugh looking back at it since he did have a lot of fun playing this "game" with us.

  6. Great advice! So true on not attack someone for using adversities. It's the fastest way to turn them away from positive reinforcement if they're attacked for not knowing how to use it right.

  7. I feel badly for people who feel that they have to resort to a shock collar, because I've been there with Rodrigo. The only thing that stopped me from doing so were the many dog owners of reactive dogs and one dog trainer who told me that it could have the opposite effect, makign his reactivity worse.

    I'm no longer able to allow our dogs to be off leash, because they're too unpredictable away from our property, but they do well on leash and take the time to allow me to leash them up.

    I have seen people trying to leave the dog park with a reluctant dog who wasn't ready to leave yet.

  8. We use ecollar (it is not a "shock collar") and I would have given the woman the exact same advice you did. We start all of our dogs on a long line and use it to train recall. Ecollar should not be used to train anything. So many people think it is used to teach something and it is not. It is however used to reinforce an already trained behavior. Our dogs have excellent recall, but you will never ever see them out off lead without an ecollar. They are fully trained so we rarely use it for recall because they come when called even if they are in pursuit of a bird they flushed.