Guest opinion: Keep your dog — and wildlife — safe
We live in a visual candyland here in Colorado, and dog owners love nothing more than getting out into the natural beauty with their dogs. What’s wrong with that? On the surface, it’s a great thing to get exercise for both dog and owner. Unfortunately, there is often one thing missing on the trails, the lack of which endangers dogs, people and wildlife: a truly reliable recall to which a dog will respond.
Can you honestly call your dog off from its thrilling chase of wildlife? Dogs chasing wildlife is not only illegal, it’s dangerous for everyone. Wild animals cannot afford the calories, stress and dangers from a high-speed chase. Dogs that don’t have a reliable recall get lost in the mountains nearly every week. If I had a dollar for every client who called me after their dog was attacked by another off-leash dog, I would be a very rich dog trainer.
Dog owners need to come to terms with the fact that we are bringing our dogs into the homes of wildlife and that native animals deserve our respect and protection. Our dogs, and others’ dogs, deserve protection too, even though sometimes that means we protect them from their own strong impulse to chase. What can you, the responsible dog owner, do to ensure your dog stays nearby on hikes? Here are some real life training tips:
Understand that off-leash work is equivalent to a graduate degree. You cannot expect your high-school level dog to suddenly become a Ph.D. when you unhook its leash on a tempting mountain trail. Getting that Ph.D. requires education and tons of recall practice in your home, yard and elsewhere.
Accept that dogs are like us in this important way: They seek to avoid pain and gain pleasure. If you punish your dog for returning to you, why should he do it again? If you motivate your dog (think delicious meat or cheese training treats — dry dog biscuits are boring and insufficient) to stay close to you, you are well ahead of the game.
One way to motivate your dog to stay close by is to “leak chicken.” This means you go outside with your dog (on a loose leash at first) and you don’t talk to her but you quickly bend down and — oops — drop pieces of chicken every few steps. Try this for five days in your backyard and watch how “sticky” your dog becomes.
We say in dog training: “You get what you reinforce.” I encourage (beg, actually) owners to reinforce every time your dog visually “checks in” with you on a walk. They look back at you and when they do, jackpot. Reward with smiling, petting and some of that chicken you haven’t yet leaked. This is the beginning of a reliable recall.
Put bear bells on your dog, even if you aren’t concerned about a bear being in the area. It alerts wildlife to your dog’s presence and it gives you an indication of where your dog is. Don’t allow those bells to get out of hearing. If they do, go back to high school and get back on that recall.
Annie Phenix is a professional, force-free dog trainer. Her training website is http://www.phenixdogs.com. She lives in Durango.
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