Dear Bark: I’m excited about taking my new dog, a Pointer mix, for long trail hikes. She has pretty good recall at the fenced-in dog park, but what are the best tips for getting her to be reliable in the great outdoors, including recall and not chasing or interfering with wildlife? Thanks for any help you can give us.
It sounds like her recall is already well on its way to being solid in at least one tough context (the dog park), and that’s great. The better you can get her recall, the more freedom she can enjoy on those hikes, so I’m glad you are focused on this training goal.
Great recalls are the result of dogs learning that heading toward you after hearing “Come!” is worth doing because something good always happens. Any time you have something to offer that will make her happy (dinner, a walk, a new toy, treats, something to chew on), call her to come. If you call her to come and the reinforcement you offer is so good that she is glad that she came to you, she will be more likely to come in the future. The goal is to make her think that “Come!” is the word that means she has an opportunity to run to you for something worth her while.
To develop a really solid recall, dogs need to be taught to come when called in lots of different contexts, so continue to work on it in as many situations as possible. That means asking her to come in the house, in the yard, at other people’s houses, while on leash walks, when she sees a squirrel through the front window, when you have visitors over etc.
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You are wise to be concerned about encounters with wildlife as they can lead to trouble—either directly if your dog engages with a wild animal, or indirectly if her chasing takes her onto a road. Most dogs who run after animals are having an absolutely glorious time doing it. Chasing is normal behavior for dogs, so the best way to deal with it is to give dogs an opportunity to chase something appropriate whenever wildlife is around. “Appropriate” means toys, not animals. Teach your dog that if she sees an animal (deer, crow, squirrel etc.), she should expect that you will throw a toy for her to chase. It’s easier to teach a dog, “chase this, not that” than it is to teach a dog not to chase at all. Many dogs are more likely to chase a toy instead of an animal if you use a squeaky toy and give it a quick squeeze or two to make it squeak before you toss it.
Plan ahead to make your dog less likely to chase wildlife on hikes. Hiking with other people and other dogs makes wildlife encounters less likely as many animals will steer clear of large groups. Avoid heading out at dawn or dusk when many wild animals are especially active. At the beginning of your hike, call her to come a few times and offer her something really special such as a new toy to chase or delicious treats like pieces of chicken or real steak. Practicing recalls early on during each trail hike and reinforcing your dog’s response with high-quality items will improve her recall and make her more likely to come later on in the hike. Be on the lookout for wildlife and call her before she notices them whenever possible. Once a dog has already started running after something, it is so much harder to call them to come than it is before they have started to give chase.
Congratulations on your new dog, and good for you for getting her out for lots of fun, exercise and adventures. She is a very lucky dog and I wish you both many happy trails!