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An Off-Leash Walk Ended in Tragedy for My Dog, and I Was Powerless to Stop It

My experience as a trainer couldn't change the fact that dogs don't always come on command.

 |  Apr 29th 2013  |   124 Contributions


It was midday on Jan. 16 when my dog suddenly and tragically passed away. I had let him outside, getting ready to go on a walk in my backyard. I’m a dog trainer, and Lynal and I had gone through this routine a thousand times. But this day was different.

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I kiss Lynal the first time I brought him home, in December 2010.

At the front of my house was a fairly busy street; on the other side was a huge orchard. Someone was walking a dog on the other side of the street -- and although we had seen this before, Lynal was suddenly determined to meet this particular dog. He let out what would soon be his last Beagle howl and darted toward the road. 

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This is my boy when I first met him, in November 2010.

I called out every recall word I had for him and even threw in his favorite word, “cookie.” It didn’t work. I watched in horror as a gasoline truck ran him over. In an instant, he was dead. 

“Wasn’t he trained?”

The most common responses I get when I tell this story to my clients is, “Didn’t he know ‘come’? Wasn’t he trained? What went wrong?” 

The answer is yes, he did know “come.” Yes, he was trained. And what went wrong was a judgment on my part. 

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This is Lynal when we were on vacation in Maine in the summer of 2012.

Lynal was a psychiatric service dog, performed search and rescue, and was competent in competitive obedience. We had taken classes such as “Really Reliable Recall” and learned a recall word on a response collar. In other words, Lynal was very well trained. But I learned a lesson that tragic day in January about dogs, recalls, and training that I will never forget. The fact is, no dog can ever be 100-percent trained.

The most important command of all

Having a solid recall probably the most important thing you can teach your dog. Even if he doesn’t come 100 percent of the time, having a 99-percent trained dog in recall could absolutely save his life. 

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This is Ly as we took a long walk in Cobleskill, NY, in April 2011.

To train your pet to have a good “come” command, you should first talk to a few trainers about how they train recall. Some trainers are pretty loosey-goosey on recalls, and you may inadvertently teach your dog that “come” means he can come when he feels like it (if you have good treats).

Naturally, I have been terrified to start teaching my new dog, Addisen, to come on command. I’m so fearful that I will call her one day and she will ignore me, and that could be the death of her. 

But I didn’t like the idea of not having that 99-percent assurance that she would come back when I called her. I’d like to share a bit of the knowledge I have gained about recalls since Lynal passed away.

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I give love to Lynal in my room, May 2011.

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A better way to train recall

I have a new favorite way to teach recall. To do this, have someone distract your dog, maybe with a so-so treat or some petting. Stand behind your dog and say his name. When he turns his head, give him a higher-value treat than the one he is being distracted with. After doing this exercise about 10 times, take a step back and continue the exercise. In this way, your dog has to step toward you to get the reward. Continue the exercise until it’s obvious that your dog is competent, then take another step back. 

Your dog will be learning to come to you without your saying the word “come.” I like this method because you are starting your training with a distraction. Most of the time you need your dog to come to you when there is a distraction involved. 

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If you look carefully, you might see his first service dog vest. This is in Healdsburg, CA, in the spring of 2012.

In the “Really Reliable Recall” class I attended with Lynal, the trainer had someone hold a 30-foot leash attached to the dog while the handler (you) hid. Once you are hidden, you call the dog and the person holding the leash lets the dog find you. As the dog finds you and approaches you for a reward, you give the dog a full 30 seconds of treats, one right after another! The trainer suggested that you use a different word from your typical recall word and use this only in emergencies or once a month. 

There will always be that one-percent chance

Even after teaching an emergency recall word, you still will not have a 100-percent trained dog. It’s always possible that a stimulus will get the dog’s attention enough to make him ignore you completely.

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If you look carefully, you might see his first service dog vest. This is in Healdsburg, CA, in the spring of 2012.

We can be prepared and think our dogs will definitely come back, but there will always be that one-percent chance that your dog will see a rare breed that he doesn’t recognize, spot someone in a strange hat, or become mesmerized by a bag wafting in the wind, which he absolutely must chase. 

As responsible dog owners, we have to ask ourselves, “Is it worth letting the dog run free?” I’d love to hike with my dog off-leash and take her in the orchard, but I just don’t know if I can live with the regret of losing another dog because of a judgment call like this. 

If you do want to let your dog run free, decide what constitutes a “safe” place. Ask yourself, “Is there a road around? Is it hunting season? Is there a heavily wooded area nearby that a person cannot get through?” If you feel that your dog is safe and has a great recall, you may be inclined to take the chance and allow your dog to be free. But remember, no dog is 100-percent trained. 

Clarissa Fallis, a behaviorist and trainer from upstate New York, writes for Pets Adviser, where she has written about the heartache and dealing with the loss of her dog.

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