Teaching the dog to go away

Publicado el 19 de March de 2015

Doubtless the most important behavior we can teach to our dogs in order to improve their quality of life is to come when called. A reliable recall, one that works even if the dog is distracted in other activities, allows handlers to grant dogs free range so that they can explore the environment.

In this article I will not tackle the issue of how to train a good recall. My topic for today regards some of the risks incurred when training a bomb proofed recall, as well as the way I work with puppies before starting recall training to avoid these side effects.

Many years ago Jaime Parejo and I were in close contact. Jaime is, by the way, a terrific trainer, a re-known specialist in search and rescue (S&R) and a person I deeply appreciate. At that moment he was writing the book about the “chest method” (“método arcón”) that would gain him recognition all over the world. We used to speak lots about his work of course. I remember Jaime would use the term “yo-yo effect” to refer to the tendency of some dogs to come back to their handlers once they had reached a certain distance threshold. He had realized that this problem derived from excessive recall work and that it was very harmful for S&R dogs as it severely limited their working autonomy.

Jaime hit the bull’s eye with this observation, a big share of the population of trainers’ dogs were not able to go away beyond a certain distance. I have been always more interested in the identification of the reasons why dogs behave in a certain way, and in taking advantage of these tendencies, than in designing specific techniques. Hence I analyzed the problem from this perspective. I realized that, until then, and mostly in an unconscious way, I considered such effect to be beneficial. After all it is the dog who takes the trouble to stay close to the handler. However, after reflecting on Jaime’s words, my opinion changed and so did my way of training recalls and, in general, my way of taking care of dogs.

On top of my affection for him, Jaime will always have my recognition for helping me gaining this insight. My dogs have lived happier lives since then.

Dogs who exhibit this “yo-yo” tendency do not enjoy their country explorations as much as they could. The physical exercise they practice is also limited and so is the outlet from stress that they enjoy. After all, they cannot give free reign to their innate motor patterns.

This is a common problem with dogs whose guardians are professional trainers and, as I have said, it used to be a problem with my dogs. These dogs are always paying attention to their handlers and they need that the latter provide them instructions to be able to amuse themselves. If they run after a rabbit by any chance they will come back overwhelmed because when the chase is over they will find themselves far from their handler and this causes them bad feelings. The problem with some other dogs is the opposite: they have the time of their lives when they are in countryside and come back when they feel like it more or less. However, I will tackle this second category of problems in a future article, not today.

To achieve welfare with active breeds it is crucial that they are able to run freely and explore vast areas. The notion of health as the absence of diseases has long being overcome: To achieve welfare the focus should not be on avoiding stress and anxiety. For dogs to blossom, it is far more important that they can live full and happy dog lives.

Nowadays the first thing I teach to my puppies is to go away rather than the recall, so that they can fully enjoy their walks. Puppies absorb every bit. Puppyhood is a stage when it is very hard for us trainers not to make our dogs too dependent on us. It is difficult for us just to walk them without any training. And if we give up to the temptation, then it will be very tough for the puppies to be at ease unless they are engaged in some kind of activity with us.

I have to recognize that for me it is very easy to train the behavior of going away: the back door of my garden opens directly to the countryside, plus my adult dogs already master this conduct and the puppy will willingly accompany them in their adventures. During this stage I am very careful not to make anything that promotes dependency: I don’t hide so that the dog does not have to worry about where I am, I don’t reward the puppies every time they approach me, I just walk and let the puppies realize how wonderful and interesting the world is, full of different smells, sounds etc. I want them to experience how good it feels when they run, jump and learn to use their bodies. I want them to behave as dogs with my adult dogs, that they learn that in the countryside the most amusing partners are other dogs, not me.

It almost looks like the reverse image of the guidelines to build the recall one would read in many books. And yet I am very proud of my recall work. As a matter of fact it is the behavior my colleagues ask me about more often when they see how consistently my dogs respond. My dogs do not expect any other reward than naked social reinforcement and as soon as I release them, they run away and start exploring once again without keeping an eye on me in case there is a new recall in the pipeline. However, if I called them once again, they would come without the slightest hesitation.

Of course I recognize that the privileged conditions where I train play a prominent role in making this outcome possible. I can train in a secure area. I know that my adult dogs will come when called and that the puppy will follow them.

As I said earlier, I have always been attached to the idea that if we know how a mechanism works (even a negative one) we will be able to exploit it to our advantage. Thus, notwithstanding I make every effort to prevent my dogs from acquiring the “yo-yo effect” on a permanent basis, I apply a technique that allows me to engage this mechanism at will so as to limit the range of movement dogs enjoy temporarily. It consists of recalling them many times in a row at the beginning of the particular walk, ten or twelve times will suffice. I recall them every time they reach the distance I need. This way the dogs know that they should not go beyond that limit in this particular walk and I can adjust the distance to unusual environmental conditions. However, I never start practicing this kind of work until the dog has learnt to come when called without being too dependent on me.

If you empower your puppies to go away and to behave expansively, you will improve the quality of your walks with them. Not only will your puppies have more fun behaving as real DOGS (with capital letters), but you will also grin and amuse yourself contemplating how they blossom. Take my word: dogs deprived of their autonomy could never be as happy.

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