Dogs, smart dogs, and dogs like Nikki

Living dogs can be fun, and it can be incredibly frustrating – particularly if you have a dog who is almost as smart as you are! A client of mine had to face this fact the other day: she had trained her lab mix to come when called, making sure to always have treats that were higher value than the environment she practiced in. She had purchased a long line to practice recalls in the real world – and Nikki was a star! She called, and he turned on a dime and came flying back to her, ready to receive his reward: a game of tug, string cheese, and lots of praise. Maria was good at rewarding her dog, too: she knew what he liked in what situations, and she paid him well. She had built a great relationship, which meant that both of them enjoyed training and living together.

Finally, the big day had come: lots of times, Maria had hiked with Nikki on a long line, and she had practiced recalling him off the occasional cat, squirrel, or doggie playmate. He hadn’t hesitated to come in months; he deserved to be trusted off leash!

Maria unhooked the leash, and the hike continued as usual. Nikki kept his usual radius, sniffed rocks and trees, looked back at his owner every once in a while and gently wagged his tail. Maria called, and Nikki came running back to her.

Everything went well – until they saw a dog in the distance. Lisa decided to put Nikki on leash. She called … But Nikki didn’t flinch an ear. He took off at full speed, and by the time the surprised Linda had called a second time, her dog was already dancing and play-bowing around the strange dog. He had left his usual radius and ignored his recall cue in a situation he had reliably responded to in the past. Why?

There are dogs, there are smart dogs, and there are dogs like Nikki: not only smart, but also very good with contextual cues. Dogs like Nikki know exactly whether they are on leash or not. They also know that as long as they are attached to their owner, there is no point in ignoring her. But off-leash, you get to do whatever you want! If playing with another dog is more tempting than the reward you might get when coming when called, dogs like Nikki choose to go play. And why shouldn’t they? Carpe diem!

There are several possible solutions to this. Today, I’ll show you what Nikki and Maria will be working on in the next weeks: a force-free way of getting the same reliability off-lesh as on leash. Please note that the following steps are for dogs like Nikki: dogs who know what is expected of them, and who reliably respond well – as long as they are on a long line. It’s not for dogs who haven’t yet learned to come when called.

In the following 7 steps, you are going to create the illusion that you are still in control: you are going to fade the long line in a way that your dog doesn’t notice the difference!

1) Retrain your recall with your dog in a harness (important!) and on a long line. If you use a harness in everyday life, get a new one specifically for this exercise. Choose one that touches different parts of your dog’s body than her usual harness (back attachment instead of front attachment, Y-shaped brest strips rather than Norwegian-style harness …).

2) Practice until your dog reliably comes when in his new recall harness with you holding his long line.

3) Let your dog drag the line rather than holding on to its end. Practice your recall. If your dog tries to ignore it, step on the line and prevent him from reinforcing himself. Stay at this stage until your dog has a reliable recall with the line dragging behind him – that is, until the point where you don’t ever have to step on the line anymore, because your dog always cooperates (knowing that there is no point in not cooperating, since obviously, you’re still in control)!

4) Cut 1.5 feet off your long line, and do your usual training session. Ideally, your dog should not notice the difference.

5) Cut 1.5 feet off the remaining long line, and do your usual training session. Ideally, your dog should not notice a difference.

See where I’m going with this?

We’re going to shorten the line in 1.5-foot increments – so small, in fact, that your dog doesn’t notice the waight of the line he is dragging changes.

6) Repeat step 5 until you are almost out of line.

7) At some point, there will only be an inch of line or so left attached to your dog’s harness. Take off the line, but leave the harness on, and train this way. Your dog should feel like she is still under your control because she feels the harness on her body, even though she’s actually off leash!

The secret: only EVER raise criteria after you have what feels like a 100% success rate at the previous level – otherwise, your dog might learn again that you can’t stop him anymore! If he ever does take off and ignores you, you may have to go back to your long line and work your way through the steps again. But trust me – it’s worth it! Off-leash hiking is fun!

4 thoughts on “Dogs, smart dogs, and dogs like Nikki

  1. Jaki wallbank says:

    Good theory – any evidence? How many dogs has this actually worked on, and how many years did it take? Do you go back to the long line randomly, or do you believe it unnecessary after the training is complete?

    • clickforjoy says:

      It has worked on the handfull of clients who had this specific recall problem, and who followed through on the training, in about 3 months. They could be off leash around other dogs and people (who they would have visited in the past), and other minor distractions that would have tempted them to ignore their owners in the past. I recommend going back to the long line if the dog does ignore a recall off leash, and to make sure to always, always keep the dogs on a long line or leash when around distractions they haven’t proofed for (like wildlife, in some cases).

      Most of the time, the recall problems I encounter are rooted in the lack of a strong foundation, not in such a strong awareness of being on or off leash. So this is really a specific scenario. I wouldn’t venture that it works for all dogs and in all situations and under all circumstances, but it is definitely a strategy worth trying if you have a dog like Nikki!

  2. Pat says:

    Having gone thru a similar thing for some years with my probably-scenthound-sighthound mix who is a runner when distracted or stressed, I would add that two other things that help a lot are a) make sure longline is attached *atop* dog (like where leash would attach to top of harness) rather than to collar or the front of harness, and b) before shortening the line too much, graduate to a very *lightweight floaty* line (I used the synthetic baler twine used for 600-lb big square bales… it is not too dangerously thin, but has almost no weight for the dog to drag).
    In the end I did get good results though 🙂

    • clickforjoy says:

      Good points, Pat! I agree – I always recommend back attachment harnesses when working with long lines. They are the safest option for the dog, and they feel differently on their body to what most dogs wear in everyday life. Glad you and your dog worked it out in the end! (Scenthound-Sighthound … I bet this can be a challenging combination as far as off-leash hiking is concerned!)

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