Last week, we reviewed the steps needed to classically condition an enthusiastic response to your whistle or other recall signal through a variety of games and exercises while in the home. If you’ve followed these steps, and your dog is enthusiastically running to find you as you hide throughout the house, you can begin taking the recall training outside.
Initially, you should begin practicing this outside in a relatively low distraction environment, like your fenced-in back yard. Even if this area does not provide visual distractions in the form of other dogs, people, or animals, nonetheless there will be lots of new smells and sounds to serve as your early distractions.
Often, the time of day during which you practice may effect the distraction level of your yard practice – you may find early morning and evening hours to be the most popular times for walkers, bikers, dog walkers, etc. In this case, getting in a few days (or more) of practicing during afternoon hours, when the distraction level is reduced, will be a good idea before practicing at peak activity times.
You will repeat the reinforcement protocol we discussed last week, initially blowing the whistle when you are right next to your dog, grabbing her collar, and feeding her delicious treats continuously while you mentally sing your alphabet. Practice this 2 – 4x day and only a single time per session. Gradually, you can begin adding in distance and some of the games we discussed last week including round robin recalls with other family members and friendly volunteers. Once your dog happily zooms to you as you blow your recall whistle at any time of day, from any distance in your yard, you can begin introducing distractions.
What does your dog find distracting? The list of distractions and the level of distraction each presents varies widely according to the individual dog. If you have multiple dogs, it is a good idea to make a separate distraction list for each dog. Distractions can be visual, scents, sounds, weather conditions, even the surfaces on which you practice. Sit down and make a list of all the things your dog finds distracting, regardless of the distraction level.
Once your list is completed (and you will find it’s never really complete, so you should add to it as you find new distractions in the environment), you should review your list and rank the distractions on a scale of 1 – 5.
I like to see at least ten distractions for each of these levels. A sample distraction list might look like this:
Level One Distractions
Other, well-behaved dog on leash at distance
Hard plastic ball (like jolly ball) – stationary
Family member watching training session
Empty food bowl on ground
Frisbee lying on ground
Presence of agility equipment in the training environment
Fresh bowl of water
Sounds of kids playing or dogs barking in the distance
Level Two Distractions
Guests arriving at the door – familiar
Hard plastic ball – rolled between two people
Tennis ball resting on ground
Other, well-behaved dog on leash within ten feet
Multiple family members in training environment
Person taking pictures of or videotaping session
Smell of yummy food on counter or cooking on stove
Low value food on the floor
Mild street traffic
Other family dog in the environment
Level Three Distractions
Guests arriving at the door – strangers
Weather conditions – mild rain or snow
Wet surfaces (rainy grass or pavement)
Tennis ball rolled between two people
Kitty litter box
Multiple well-behaved dogs on leash at distance
Single ill-mannered canine on leash at distance
Heavy street traffic
Level Four Distractions
Lots of children playing, screaming, etc.
Scents in the grass or environment
Loud noises (banging or crashing)
High value food on the ground or floor
Slick surfaces – ice, tile, etc.
Tennis ball toss and catch
Multiple well-behaved dogs close by
Single ill-mannered canine close by or multiple rude dogs leashed at distance
Level Five Distractions
Woodchuck hole to sniff in
Water source for swimming
Favorite doggy friend
Other dogs chasing lure on lure course
Poorly mannered dog off leash
Tennis ball thrown
Remote control car
Person bicycling, rollerblading, or skateboarding
Next time, we’ll talk about how we can systematically introduce these distractions and strategies for using them to your training advantage! Until then, happy training!