December 25, 2011. Dusk. I am watching Daisy stand on the edge of an overpass on I-94. I have no idea what to do. I am afraid that if I try to get near her that she will startle, lose her footing and plunge into highway traffic. I call her and she turns around…YES! she is going to come back to me…NO! she takes off into the darkness, down an icy embankment and alongside a barrier next to the highway. I tail her as closely as I can, running through the snow-covered brush in my stocking feet. After 10 minutes of playing her favorite game (I run and you chase me), she decided to slow down and sniff around a bit. She found me sitting in the snow, having an emotional breakdown.
Until Daisy, I never really understood how important training a recall really is. Knuckles, beloved dog of a dear friend would go her own way during hikes in the woods and magically reappear when he whistled. My oldest dog, Duchess, is much the same. She would take off from my deck at lightning speed after a deer only to practically pivot in the air to return when I called her name. Daisy, on the other hand, is a free spirit and still loves nothing better than to catch a scent and take off for the sheer enjoyment of running toward it.
When rescue dog, Gem, came to live with us in June, it took all of one day before I realized that this girl loved the game of “See Ya” as much, if not more than Daisy did in her younger days. Thank goodness I know a lot more about training than I did in 2011! Had we not started training in her foster mom’s yard prior to moving in, I might have lost her the first week. We trained inside the house. We trained outside on a short leash and then successively longer leads. She received treats or petting or praise EVERY time she came to me, whether it was during a training session or at the end of an impromptu game of “See Ya” when I accidentally let go of the lead. EVERY TIME. “Come” is a request that I reward consistently with every dog I train. I might not have a treat every time but there is always celebration–YOU CAME BACK! GOOD GIRL! Returning to me has to be reinforcing if I am ever to compete with the scent of a deer or the mad dash of a squirrel.
And so it was, that yesterday, Gem and I took a little jog to the ball fields that are within a mile of my house. She was very patient with my slow plodding, but I could tell that every ounce of her was dying to run and run hard. We made it to the ball fields and for the first time I took off the leash inside the enclosure and gave her the release word. She looked at me joyfully and barreled off before I could change my mind. As she got close to an opening in the fence I called her name…WAHOO! and back she came. She got praise and another release and, despite my best efforts to steer her in another direction, raced off through the opening this time and into a very large field that is bordered on one side by woods and swamp land. Even if chasing her was a good idea (which it isn’t), there was no way I was going to catch her. I wasn’t even sure that she would hearing me calling with the joy of freedom ringing in her ears. I was mentally organizing a search party when she stopped at the edge of the clearing and looked at me. Was there a chance that I was more reinforcing than bunnies, frogs and murky swamp water? I took a knee and called her name. She ran towards me at top speed just as she had run away from me moments earlier. She stopped just short of bowling me over and basked in praise and belly rubs. She panted all the way home.