Category Archives: TRAINING TIDBITS

Thinking about dogs…


My Border Collie Irie had the most subtle indication of lameness before she even finished growing. She would limp for the blink of an eye and then walk and move perfectly normal. There were times that I wondered if I imagined it.

This was my 2nd dog with a mysterious ailment. Another BC had some sort of shoulder thing that his adrenaline would mask so well that I was convinced he was sound after studying him like a hawk before deciding to let him exercise. Neither dog had been properly diagnosed (not for lack of trying) and I would give up and just try and rest Irie, put her agility training on hold, and whenever she looked sound for a while, I’d try again. This went on for 5 years of her life until she got up with a more pronounced lameness (walking on 3 legs upon waking (which she walked off!)). It was then that I renewed my efforts to figure out what was going on.

In an attempt to locate exactly where she was hurting, I thought, maybe if I practice lots of different conditioning exercises I can pinpoint where the weakness is. I scoured the internet, so hungry for information. I took different courses, including a detailed certification program, and still couldn’t find all the answers I wanted. There isn’t a lot of good research on dogs (with most of it geared towards sleddogs or racing hounds). But, I did learn a lot. While this didn’t solve my dog’s mystery injury, it did giving me a deep comprehension of physical fitness…a real asset to myself and my students!

Meanwhile, thanks to the gifted Dr Patti Schaeffer, I heard of a very experienced vet, who, and it kills me to say this, told me that it was so clearly a CCL insufficiency that even his intern could have diagnosed it. What the hell?! Anyway, without going into why did the other professionals fail to help, I was relieved to finally know what was wrong, though bummed to find out that my best friend needed SERIOUS knee surgery.

For those of you who are in such a position, let me say that I had gone back and forth on getting imaging done (with varying opinions and being discouraged by some) and was about to spend a fortune on the wrong kind of imaging when Scott Gustafson informed me that the most certain way to look at those ligaments is arthroscopically. So, Irie went in to get scoped and, if it proved to be a CCL problem, she’d get the surgery then and there.

I’ve done so much homework on this injury and know that a lot of dogs blow out their other side, and wondered if it made sense to scope the opposite side while she was under…unless it was too invasive. He said he’d only scope it if I would proceed with surgery for that knee, as well. My mind was blown. I stood in the locker room of the community pool with my toddler laying on the changing table, holding the phone and trying to ask all the right questions before deciding to go ahead with TPLO surgery on both knees at the same time!! I had tried to take my kid swimming to take my mind off of my best friend going under the knife. I was such a wreck, forgetting my zip code while trying to fill gas the morning and totally stressed out.

Long story short (I may post some writing about how the the surgery and post-op went down), the vet was very skilled at what he did. Irie has excellent ROM and tucks her rear very neatly under. We also injected PRP to assist with the repair. I think doing both knees at the same time was definitely the way to go for me and this dog. Although, it made me a total mess as I fretted over every little thing because, by gosh, she had her leg bones sawed and bolted back together!!!

I’m normally not a fan of surgery. But, the mechanics of a dog’s knee are such that this surgery makes sense. Also, ligaments cannot heal properly but bone can.

I was totally freaked out about doing this surgery, because it sounds like a cruel and crazy thing to do. But, Irie is definitely better than she was or would have ever been. Part of my resistance to the surgery was due to the fact that if you saw my dog move prior to the surgery, you would NOT be able to tell that she had any problem. She moved better than a lot of dogs do on their best day. But, a few months after the surgery and studying how she moves I can see a difference and going back in time I could have recognized that she wasn’t doing as well as it seemed. Because I have an eye for quadruped movement (over 10,000 hours) and knowing this dog so well, I can see a pronounced difference in how well she moves in her low back now. She’s very lithe and that area has so much more movement while before she held that area tight to compensate for the insufficient support through the knees.

I have to end with a little public service announcement about NOT letting your dog blow out her knees. No more chuck it! Stop letting your dog slip (on stairs, where you could have runners, etc). You can’t prevent all slips, but you definitely can stop a lot of them). Teach your dog to run around something so you can send your dog to run out and circle back and run TO you to get the reward. Not only can you present the toy at a safe location (up rather than on the ground, etc), you are building value for running back to you. It takes some training but you’ll be able to get your dog excited about running out to go around a tree (or whatever) with a whole cascade of endorphins without risking the crazy pursuit of the ball (which is so tantalizing when it bounces off erratically that it absolutely causes a lot of dogs to strain, tear and/ rupture the fibers of their body). If you have a high energy dog that wants to chase, you are almost guaranteed that dog will injure himself chasing things. Learn how to play smart and take care with your best friend. I used to think, “They’re dogs…they’ll be fine.” But, they are only human (or whatever the dog equivalent to that saying is;). They are not invincible and despite the fact that these athletes rip around like nuts and seem OK, the truth is that dogs have lots of undiagnosed and underdiagnosed injuries. Scar tissue builds up with repeated injuries and the area gets more and more compromised. The more you know, the more you need to make the appropriate adjustments…and get your dog in top condition!


Offering Behavior

Offering is when the dog comes up with options rather than you directing the dog what to do. I use this method for training most things because when the dog comes up with ideas, the dog is more aware of what she’s doing. When a dog follows a treat or a prompt, they are not as focused on the behavior you’re creating, but rather they’re focused on the treat or your gestures. It is helpful to have the dog actively playing a role because then it’s not all up to you, the dog is a participant and, as he learns a behavior, the dog is responsible for his part of the work.


If your dog is demonstrating any concern, the last thing you want to do is try to lure or pressure them into/onto something. We want your dog to trust you and gain confidence. Pressuring your dog to do something can be damaging to your relationship. Instead, be patient and get your dog interested in trying stuff to win the treat from you.


You and your dog will need to practice learning this way. It is a skill in and of itself. It’s such a useful skill, that, I find, once a dog knows how to offer behavior (also called shaping or operant conditioning), it gets easier and easier to teach your dog tricks. It’s almost like your dog gets easier to train with every trick. Once you’re fluent in this skill, you’ll teach your dog something new in unbelievably short amounts of time.


So, please get some experience with this learning/teaching style. Some things to remember when shaping:

  • It’s a set up. You want the dog to figuratively “walk right into it”. So, if you’re trying to train to interact with a box, you’ll get the dog ready for training (grab your treats, alert your dog that the game is on), and then set the box down in the middle of the room. Since the box is novel, you’re guaranteed some interaction as soon as the box hits the floor.
  • Be ready the second the dog jumps in. If you are still messing around with your treat pouch or whatever, dogs often offer behavior as soon as they enter the area (or the item is set down). If you miss that chance because you were looking at, say, your treat bag, your dog will leave the novel item and come look at you and your treat pouch and the training will stall out.
  • Avoid stalling out. If a dog gets stuck in a sit or a down (obviously, when training something other than sit/down), develop a soft dialogue to communicate, “That’s not it…try something else.” The other thing you can do is take a step to your left or right (most green dogs will get up and follow).
  • You don’t want too much time to go by without the dog succeeding. Shaping can be VERY frustrating and you want to make things easier or break off the training.
  • Some thinking (on the dog’s part) is beneficial stress. Too much thinking is usually not productive. Find that point where the dog is making an effort, but stay away from a demotivating level of concentration.
  • Don’t talk too much. Depending on the dog, talking can encourage, but, at the wrong time, can totally distract the dog from the task. For the most part, try to be quiet except for when the dog is getting close to the right answer or has earned a click/mark. It’s like that game “hot/cold” we played as kids. Make it so that when the dog is correct, you come alive, and when the dog is getting “cold/colder”, you are neutral.
  • CONNECTION, connection, connection. If you don’t have “engagement” and your dog isn’t with you, forget about the task at hand and prioritize building up that connection.
  • Keep it short!! I bet everything I own that your training sessions last too long. Especially when dogs are new to this, you should keep it like 2 minutes long (2 minutes flies by, by the way). It’s better to train for a couple minutes, break it off (either with a toy/play reward and enjoying the play for a time or take a break where you dismiss the dog for a couple minutes), and then start back up for another 2 minutes, for 3 reps a session. If you have more than one dog, you can alternate, giving the dogs a break while the other is working. You’ll make more progress in little bite-sized chunks and the dog will have a better attitude.
  • Leftovers in your pocket and a dog that needs to be taken by the collar away from the task is ideal. You want your dog straining to get back to work.
  • “Relief” is a reward in and of itself. If your dog is concentrating hard, ending the task is a reward.
  • You will want to keep going because it’s rewarding to you to see the dog improving. You will be able to extend the session and keep advancing the behavior you’re training. Beware, though, it starts to get sloppy and the dog starts to think too hard. And, in my experience, a dog thinking too hard is not a good thing (for you or the dog).
  • Don’t be greedy (see above).
  • Slice the behavior down finer if the dog isn’t successful (for example, a glance to start rather than actually touching a paw to a prop).
  • Incrementally make it harder when the dog is ready. Don’t stay at a super easy level (like a glance) once the dog clearly knows that the prop is “hot” (that you want the dog to do something with the prop).
  • Consider placement of reward. Can you reward the dog somewhere that will set the dog up for the next attempt? For example, if you are training to hop onto a board, reward the dog away instead of on the board.
  • Don’t be so focused on your goals that you neglect to realize the dog has come up with a better way/idea/trick. Be flexible. That said, stop and consider deviations from your plan. You do have to be consistent or the dog will get confused, stressed, and nobody will be happy.
  • Enjoy your dog’s creativity. Laugh! Have fun with this! The coolest thing about this style of training is it brings out the dog’s personality.


Here we are beginning in a new category called InSync. It’s like Dressage and the dog and handler are supposed to be overlapped throughout the routine with no distance moves and only a single pass through the legs to transition from one side to the other. InSync differs from WCFO’s Heelwork to Music in that the dog can never pass through the legs.

Worldwide Rally-FrEe 2016

Here’s our entry for the worldwide competition in 2016. We just started competing at the top level of Grand Champion. Even though we totally flubbed one of the signs by doing the wrong variation of leg weaves, we still pulled in a reputable 2nd place! Irie’s enthusiasm in her dragging the cart and her spin while holding the purse in her mouth, complete with a retrieve to hand on her hind legs was wonderful. Not too bad after taking some time off to have a baby!


This cooperative behavior is forever useful, so, it is worthwhile to invest training time building this skill. For a dog that likes toys, always encourage the retrieve after sending the dog to the toy. Tugging is the perfect reward for retrieve…for dogs that enjoy tugging. 

But what about the dog that doesn’t like to tug, or doesn’t care for toys at all?

I fully realize that not all dogs are excited about toys. Obviously, such a dog will not be rewarded by a game of tug. Dogs can be taught to retrieve for a food reward, but, the caveat is that the dog needs to spit out the item to eat. That’s a conflict that will cause the dog to prematurely drop the item to collect the reward. To get around this conflict, dispense the treats in a way where it seems like the treats are coming from the retrieve item itself, not your hands. Ideally, you can find a container that the dog can pick up and carry but that he cannot extract the treats from without your help. This may need to be a velcro or zippered pouch, or you might find things in your recycling bin that will work (like a hard plastic vitamin jar) (more ideas below). Choose items that are easy for your dog to carry (so a small pill bottle for a tiny dog, for example). Use appropriately sized items for larger dogs so that it is comfortable in a relaxed mouth. Of course, practice at your own risk. You must be fully in control of the situation so your dog doesn’t swallow and choke on the item. If your dog will abscond with the item and you do not understand how to get the item from the dog, find a trainer to work with (and be sure they know how to help, many won’t) and do not try this alone.

If your dog is really tough to convince, you might need to use things that your dog can start to tear open: like several sheets of newspaper with a delicious morsel wrapped inside, twisted up like a Christmas cracker. You can try this with a dog that is difficult to convince to retrieve:

  1. Work in a very small space: a closet or a bathroom devoid of other distractions.
  2. Find a tantalizing morsel, attractive enough that you have your dog’s attention and let your dog know that you have it by waving it just out of reach under his nose.
  3. Take your wrapper (5 sheets of newspaper), and, while your dog is watching, wrap that food up, twisting both ends so the dog can’t easily get the food out.
  4. Get down on the ground and toss the item just a few feet away towards the wall.
  5. Encourage your dog emotionally with your dialogue. Remember, dog’s prefer playful, not pushy. Try taking a deep breath of awe rather than shouting. Tap a corner of the item or start to tear at the paper to get the dog interested if you need to.
  6. Once your dog is investigating, move back a little. Do not move towards your dog. Sit still and encourage your dog to come back to you (patting your legs, drumming on the floor in front of you, clapping your hands, etc).
  7. If your dog doesn’t even pick it up, but puts his paws on it to try and begin tearing it open, help him by tearing into it, too, getting to the reward in the middle. Make it appear as if the paper is delivering the treat.
  8. Repeat. As your dog’s interest in the game grows, see if he’ll pick up the bundle. Encourage the dog to come back to you as soon as he gets his mouth on it. Resist the temptation to meet the dog and instead ask the dog to come to you. If you are already very close to the dog and in a confined area, the dog is more likely to make it back to you.

Start with very little distance and throw the item next to a wall so your dog can’t move farther away. You may have to start by clicking your dog just for picking it up with his mouth, at which point you’ll move in and deliver the reward from the item, NEVER FROM YOUR HANDS DIRECTLY. The idea is to convince the dog that there’s a prize inside and if he hurries up and brings it to you, you will use your hands to help him get it out faster.

As this dog progresses, stick the paper bundle inside of a sock so the dog can’t tear it open as easily. Transition to using just the sock with a meatball inside. When your dog brings the sock to you, flip open the cuff while still holding part of the meatball. As the dog is grabbing for the meatball, present it directly from the sock while backing slowly away from the dog. As it starts slipping out of reach the dog might start biting for it. You want to hold the meatball inside the sock so part of it is accessible and the other part is covered. This can make the dog try to bite down to grab a hold of the retreating item. You may even be able to turn on your dog’s interest to tug if you practice this enough. 

Other containers you might try are: a cardboard tube (like toothpaste comes in), a travel container for a toothbrush, and there are lots of toys that you can stuff with food (the lotus ball, pouches, discs, covered or lined with fur and squeakers, with bungee cord handles). Sometimes you can find household items that are perfect. In the picture you see a lunch bag that folds up and has a strong Velcro closure. Whatever you use, find something that the dog can’t open without thumbs.

A lot of dogs are much further along in the process. Adjust accordingly but be aware of the distance and distractions.  You will definitely have an easier time with this exercise if you use items that are long enough for you and your dog to both have your “hands” on. Pouches should have straps. Most toys become more attractive with a strap because you can activate the prey drive by dragging it (like you would for a cat to pounce on). If it’s too small (like a ball), it is hard to snake and tease along the ground. It’s also easier for your dog to run off with the toy if it doesn’t have a handle. Always encourage your dog to return to you. If you cannot get the retrieve, put a long line on the toy! That way if your dog picks up the item and runs it becomes a tug game rather than something destructive, like keep away.  

If your dog likes to tug, play a little and then let go and dance away playfully from your dog.  Ideally, when you let go the dog will run after you and pounce on you, begging for you to tug (or to open up the pouch) to immediately restart the game. If it’s OK with you, let your dog jump on you (dogs are context oriented and you can easily teach them it’s allowed in play and not during daily life). My dogs try to shove the toy into my hands, usually with their paws on my belly.

Finally, before the dog spits out the item, say your “Give/Drop it” cue. Getting a dog to hold onto a retrieve item until you say let go is another entire undertaking. Often, dogs will eject the toy at your feet or prematurely when you reach for it. It’s a worthwhile training task to teach your dog to deliver it to your hand. If you are interested in competitive sports, service dog tricks, or you just want your dog to do the bending down and picking up for you, you should already be aware of the challenges the complete delivery to hand presents and be mindful of that component throughout your training. I’ll write another post on that topic soon.

WCFO International Competition 2015

At the end of August, the World Canine Freestyle Organization held their International Competition in Federal Way, WA, which was close enough to commute to from home. What an opportunity! I’ve really fallen in love with the sport and was looking forward to meeting more like-minded individuals, and seeing their creativity at work.

So, in Spring of 2015, my new routine was under construction. Some people continue to amend the same routine as they progress up the levels. But, with so many great ideas waiting to take shape, my plan is to develop a new routine after giving each routine to a chance to get fleshed out and to successfully perform it a couple times. That probably gives each routine a run of at least a few showings. With only a little bit of freestyle experience, this would be my first attempt at putting together everything from start to finish completely on my own, with no outside input. Thankfully, between Rally-FrEe, agility, and trick training, my knowledge added up considerably, and it was a lot of fun to put everything I know to work. It’s quite a process and deserves its own blog post (coming soon).

The event was a combination of 2 different shows back to back, plus a conference and workshops. Our local freestyle club:

A hilarious costume of Carolyn, Secretary Treasurer of Emerald City Club and "her shadow".
A hilarious costume of Carolyn, Secretary Treasurer of Emerald City Club and “her shadow”.

Emerald City Canine Freestyle Dancers, did an outstanding job dressing the place up with the Wizard of Paws theme, including a yellow brick road of photos of everybody with their dog and lots of sparkly decorations (freestylers are a little addicted to the glitter;). Events like these demand that generous folks contribute inordinate amounts of time organizing, preparing, hosting, and handling everything from start to finish, and so many people contributed. This is not uncommon to most dog sports, but, as always, these people deserve lots of praise and enormous gratitude! Without them, quite literally, the show would not have gone on.

The event proved to be very challenging for most teams. I was sitting next to an old tracking instructor who kept reveling in how stressed many of the dogs were. I was partly embarrassed that she said it out loud, but, agreed. For me, it’s not a surprise. Seeing dogs unable to thrive under the pressures of competition is something that turns me off from attending more competitions (it can even sully enjoyment of group classes). There are a large percentage of people showing dogs that aren’t far enough along in their training to be easily performing what’s being asked. That said, anyone can have a really “off” day, and even the best of us have felt the burn of bombing. It’s an important lesson and we all have to learn how to recover from, while doing what you can to keep your disappointment from bumming out your dog. Some dogs are much more resilient, and some dogs are really difficult to work in strange environments, regardless of how well you train and prepare.

Since it is such a trial, I really think that video competition should be a mandatory first step for something as difficult as freestyle (it could be very helpful in many dog sports). I continue to learn so much from various attempts at capturing good video. It allows us to solidify a new routine from the comfort of our own home, with the luxury of being able to break things down and reward when necessary BEFORE adding all the extra pressure performing in public and in a strange environment. It lets a dog “tell you” what parts of the routine are too hard, and you can alter your routine to work with your dog, finding behaviors that are more rewarding, or better understood, or that flow together better in a sequence. It can be very enlightening, extremely humbling, but it definitely is not just an ordinary training session.

Because it’s so challenging, when a freestyle team succeeds, the crowd goes wild. Even just succeeding partially will earn compliments from the highly supportive crowd. If you get out there and do awful, people sympathize, and offer kind words. That’s one thing you can be absolutely certain of: people will support you! WCFO also goes a long way to support their junior handlers, of which, there were some exceptional competitors. And the whole community kicked in and donated all sorts of awards and prizes. Although, similar to other dog sports, it seemed that the meaning behind the prizes and this whole event were so heartfelt. It really was a wonderfully inclusive community.

My puppy and I actually did great. My youngest dog (3 years now) has years of experience working in strange environments, and we practice sections of our routine regularly, and all over the place. I’ve sought out various training opportunities, performed demos, train beyond just freestyle, and, of course, benefited greatly from our experiences capturing video. We took 2nd place in this International event each day, and, most importantly, succeeded in my biggest goal: performing with a dog that loved doing the work itself (and it showed)! It was great to meet and see people, too. Legendary performer, Michelle Pouliot was there. One of her routines moved me so much I cried, both times! That’s the thing about freestyle. There are lots of routines I can watch that are mildly entertaining, that I wouldn’t spend too much time watching online, however, there are some routines that are so special they literally move me to tears. Unfortunately, video at WCFO events if forbidden, which is a huge tragedy not only because I can’t share clips with you, but also because I find videoing the pre-run through to the post-exit interactions to be invaluable training feedback.

As for the workshops, I was interested in becoming a judge for WCFO, and took the judging workshop. Anna Schloff, President and head of the judges, tried her best to not only provide important information in the workshop, but also invited us to ask her for help. This workshop was only about an hour, and I’d been expecting at least a few hours, judging by the schedule on the entry form. This hardly scratched the surface.

The organization leading up to the timing of this day was a disaster. There were changes less than a week before, which were then not honored, unnecessarily costing me money for daycare, wasting half a day. Also communicating “move ups” is surprisingly a major difficulty for this organization, which normally is as simple as communicating to the trial secretary the night before or morning of the next run, resulting in an update in the computer and writing in your new placement in the day’s running order. This is rumored to be pretty typical for WCFO, and a number of people have extra legs in levels they should have graduated from. Understandably, some of the challenge comes from video entries. They format all runs (coming in worldwide on different formats) onto a single video disc to distribute to the judges. Then, it has to be looked through (for free) by 3 separate judges, with scores then sent back (all snail mail, if you can believe it), so it will be months upon months before you hear back from such an entry. If a live show falls in between, you will not be able to move up.  Supposedly, you can let them know if there’s overlap, and they can make an adjustment. But, my personal experience trying to do so resulted in, and I’m not exaggerating, literally HOURS of talking with people to try to get it to happen. I felt like such a pest, and I am not in it for the titles. However, in this day and age, I just don’t have the time, money, effort to spare putting so much time into an entry to have it turn out to be a practice run.

Although I’d like to support this community further, there are other venues out there that provide clearer judging criteria, quicker feedback, and don’t prevent competitors from videoing at events or posting videos of your runs, so, I’ll be taking my future investments of time and energy elsewhere. If you are just looking for a great community and want to support a venue that needs more fans, get out there and help the sport grow with the association that got it all started and compete with people all over the world!

Off leash or not?

Ah, a worthwhile meditation topic. There are additional factors to consider beyond the poignant points that Patricia McConnell just posted (or reposted) on her wonderful blog, “The Other End of the Leash“. Certainly, the average person has little to no actual impulse control training on their dogs. I’ve taught recall classes where people who regularly let their dogs off leash couldn’t even recall their dog successfully in a small, indoor, gated area. Add to that the need to train these skills (impulse control, distance position(s), and recall, to name a few) under arousal, and you’ve lost the majority, by far. They want that degree of, I hesitate to call it “control”, but they won’t bother to put the time in to train even half of it. The real tragedy, IMO, is that these can be some of the most fun exercises to train (when executed well;)! There are obvious requirements, that few could meet (and if you can’t meet those requirements, ask yourself if you have any business letting your dog off leash!). But, beyond that, there are a couple of other factors to consider, right?

I’m a “free bird” sort, and I relish in letting dogs exercise themselves, leaping and bounding through the woods. I grew up escaping with our family dogs, taking them to run off leash in natural areas, and I attempted, in vain, to recall half the time. The science of behavior wasn’t what it is today and so much time working with those dogs bore little fruits. But I did observe and learn about the nature of dogs. Our Jack Russel would run off only to be found miles away attacking someone’s sprinkler heads, waterfalls, all sorts of dangerous, unhealthy, you name it situations, and had been arrested more than once. Maybe Jacks, like cats, have 9 lives. That was over 20 years ago, so, please don’t hold it against me. My dogs were off-leash much like I was a child left to my own devices. (The beauty of this, though, is when I was a teen, I sought sanctuary by running around with the dog gang rather than getting caught up in naughty teen traps).

These days, I still seek refuge in nature and hunt for the right places, and the right times, to let my dogs run. How else are you truly going to condition agility athletes? You can’t just work fast-twitch muscles chasing a ball/disc.  You need to let them build their relaxed trotting muscles, bending and stretching without extreme speed. Dogs need to bounce and play and wrestle and move all the ways that nature intended. It’s imperative you invest inordinate amounts of time developing “control” so you can give your dog more freedom, and, if you don’t, you have a conundrum. Dog parks, where you can find some of the most out of control dogs, and, sometimes aggressive, or sometimes socially retarded dogs who usually value playing with other dogs over their owners is out of the question for my dogs. I don’t believe it to be safe. Once in a while my dogs will go to a select dog park, usually to practice training around the distractions of obnoxious dogs, and even then, only at certain times of day (low-volume).

But here’s my biggest problem. One of my dogs is a hyper prey focused rescue. It took him 2 years before he’d eat food or play with toys when out in nature, because he was so distracted by every movement (literally, a leaf falling would distract him from the simplest request). He is tough because his heart’s desire is tracking (in hopes of a chase). My other dog is glued to my side (or, more specifically, facing me ahead on trail while staring at her toy), and her biggest failure is being highly social with people. The social piece, that’s just who she is, which I support. She’s harmless, albeit usually a bit dirty (or wet), so I manage her and haven’t meticulously worked on her greeting behavior (I’ve got other priorities and interests). The toy and handler focus, I capitalized on that. I brainwashed her, directing all her prey and herding interest into toys, which I control (so much more cooperative than those squirrels!). It is easier with dogs with certain aptitudes. But, you still have to sculpt and direct those behaviors to manifest in a constructive way.

Add to the challenge, I used to take a couple of client dogs with me to the woods in addition to my 2. My favorite protocol is to collect my whole group when anyone approaches, with or without dogs, and sit everybody in a cluster off the side of the trail with me in between my dogs and the passing party. The huge challenge is other people respecting the effort the stay requires (hardest for the client dogs with less training). This is where fights can happen between me and other dog owners. If they allow their dog(s) to “say hello”, and crash into the pile, I will head them off while trying to verbally get the owner to assist, and when that doesn’t happen in time, I will remove the offending party in whatever way possible (not always pretty). All the while, my biggest focus is on my reactive rescue, who, won’t seek out a confrontation, but will hold his ground (he had to fend for himself in the rescue yard with a load of BCs so he’s serious about boundaries, and very fair about them (but people tend not to understand this well)).

For instances when a dog might not heed the recall, consideration of temperament comes into play. The goofy flat-coat that doesn’t listen well when she sees other dogs is bombproof, sweet, passive. So, not too big of a worry. But, my reactive rescue is always being trained and can down at a distance while chasing squirrels, and is at the top of my priorities. I can manage it, but, honestly, few have the dexterity to juggle and manage such a feat. I’ve encountered dog walkers who had too many dogs to handle, each of which would probably be difficult to control verbally alone, and they have a gang of them off leash. This becomes an altercation where I start demanding that they “call their dogs” as I attempt to back away while organizing my group. They usually can’t catch their bunch, but I can usually manage their dog and send them back to them. Because my group is already anchored in a tight cluster in a sit-stay, I have the freedom to body block and handle the incoming dog that isn’t responding to her walker.

But, it could all go wrong. Nothing is certain with animals. For that reason, I wouldn’t bring multiple difficult dogs on the same outing. I rely on the rest of the group being under good to excellent verbal control so I can focus on my one loose cannon (who will spend much more time on leash, possibly entirely). I don’t recommend other people attempt this sort of thing. I have over 20 years of professional animal handling experience. And still, there’s risk. But, the benefits are too great to play it perfectly safe. I’m sure to discuss with clients (and have them sign off on paper) about what can go wrong. A dog could get lost chasing a deer or a bear. Or attacked, by a wild animal or by a rude dog that shouldn’t be off leash! There are poisons and dirty water, holes to break legs in, etc. It is a gamble.

So, what are your options?  What everybody really needs is good instruction. Not the kind you get from a pet dog class. The kind where you take private lessons with someone well-versed in working with dogs WHEN THEY ARE EXCITED. Most “professional dog trainers” try to manage a dog’s arousal level so that they don’t get into the zone where they are aroused and find it difficult to listen. That is a big mistake, in my opinion. It’s a much better idea to train for the most challenging situations, the real life situations, and progressively build to the point where your dog can function (i.e. listen and respond) to you while exciting stuff is happening. This is a skill set that pays of handsomely in quality of life and has benefits beyond just the recall. I believe it’s THE most important thing and if you only work on 1 thing with your dog, this should be it.

I’ve taught group recall classes, and may not offer this material beyond a one-on-one setting again because the class attracted people with lively and excitable (some may call them naughty) dogs. Of course, these are the dogs and people that need the most help. But, to really trigger the arousal that makes it so hard for a distracted dog to come when called is extremely difficult in a room full of high-wired dogs. It certainly is a goal to get each dog to the place where they can see this kind of excitement and not lose their head, but that takes months and months (maybe years) of training, and is not the ideal starting point to build these skills. And, working privately, you can always find real life situations or strategically arrange some to trigger and challenge your team when you’re ready for that.

And your battle may be easier or very, very difficult. It depends on your dog. It depends on what your dog has learned, how he was raised to understand the world, what genetic predisposition is ruling his brain, how you respond, what you address, etc. But, it is your responsibility to prepare your dog with good training if you plan on ever letting your dog off leash. Some dogs may not be candidates to enjoy such freedom. And, for those that are, there’s a time and place to take the associated risks. Realize that you are an ambassador for us all, and if somebody deathly afraid of dogs gets greeted with a happy nuzzle from your off-leash dog, you are not serving our community. Don’t assume anybody wants to greet your dog. Try to collect your dog whenever you encounter others. Once you have your dog under control, you can ask if they’d like to say “Hi”. As a dog-lover-for-life, I am not interested in your unruly dog jumping all over me when we meet on trail. I once had a new pair of shoes ruined when I “wasn’t asking for it”. Someone’s bouncy, happy, clueless and untrained puppy slid down my pant legs and stepped all over me on the way out. I wouldn’t have minded a wet “nose stamp” while the owner was trying to recall, but they just watched and laughed, thinking their puppy was cute. All of these little trespasses are what takes our right to let our dogs off leash away. But, nobody minds my off leash dogs when I call them and they circle tight around my body and all lay down and stay while I greet a passer-by. So, please think about everything involved with letting your dog off leash before deciding to do so.