Thursday, June 5, 2014

How I Botched The Recall

And along the way almost blew my new dog’s natural inclination to be near me when off the leash.

If you've been reading my recent posts and/or are a Facebook buddy, you know by now that we recently adopted a Border collie from a local rescue. He is three and awesome and his name is Bowie.
If you know me a little better, you know that I am a huge off leash aficionado. Obviously, safety and respect for others come first, but aside from that I prefer to walk my dogs nearly nekkit – they are wearing their collars and tags - on trails, beaches, even in our neighborhood. Two prerequisites are owner attention and a reliable recall, and when we got Bowie, he had both.

Bowie is naturally attentive, biddable, motivated to play and be with us, and he is brilliant: learns in a flash. Solidifying the come command, I thought, would be a walk in the park: He runs, I call and reinforce with what floats his boat when he returns to me. Repeat often and in different environments. Done. In theory, that works.
In real life, I failed to consider three Border collie traits: The drive to run (far) out, a heightened sensitivity to motion combined with a spark impulse reaction, and very acute hearing, and this is what happened:

Immediately after we adopted Bowie we realized that he loves to chase things - a ball, disc or stick, me, Mike, but also wildlife and particularly squirrels, and there is no shortage of these where we live. I am sure he hears them from deep in the woods, alerts, but still prefers a toy, and I made sure that I always had a ball with me on our regular hikes.
Bowie would run out, then stop, turn and reorient to us. The distance he was away, maybe 100 feet but I am not good at guessing distances, is usually too far for my liking, but my nature is to accommodate nature when I can, and hence I allowed him to do it, especially since he seemed so attentive to us.
Whenever Bowie reconnected, and sometimes when he was still running, I recalled him, which he heeded every time, which I reinforced by throwing his ball, then a few more times, but after that I told him all-done and tucked it away out of concern that he’d turn into a compulsively pestering-us-to-play-nonstop-on-a-hike canine. That approach was successful with Aussie Davie: After the cue that ended the interaction she stayed close and sniffed, or played with a dog.
With Bowie, it didn’t pan out as planned, which proves again that following a template doesn’t always work.
It didn’t work, because Bowie quickly connected the dots that running out far got him access to the ball. Then I made the mistake of putting it away too soon and not replacing it with another job, which means he was bored. In addition to that, he increasingly became more confident with the area and knew where he was, and we were - Davie, in comparison, was directionally challenged like her momma, which made her feel a lot more dependent when outside.
As a result, within a couple of weeks Bowie ran out… of sight. Likely a squirrel’s chitter lured him, and because he was already a good distance away it trumped our presence. He didn’t come when I called him, but was gone for a couple of minutes.
Houston, we’ve had a problem. I wasn’t so much worried about him getting lost, but running into wildlife that doesn’t appreciate being chased and could spray or quill him. Naturally, I also don’t want him to scare or hurt animals – you’re talking to someone who provides spiders a warm place to stay during the winter. Mostly though, I did not want to set the stage for a relationship where my dog finds an activity that excludes me more attractive and reinforcing than being with me, but that was exactly the path we were headed.

I had two options to solve the problem.
The obvious one was to keep Bowie on the leash, but that would be a slippery slope with a busy and not bred to walk nicely on a six-foot Border collie. I feared that if I forced it, especially at the dawn of our relationship, me, and the leash, would be perceived as a drag, and being away from me would become even more the better deal.
The second option was to give Bowie the ball more often and for longer: Team building. I was sure that if I’d throw it non-stop, he’d ignore wildlife, but that would bring back the compulsive concern I had. Plus, I also desire to engage Will, or let my own thoughts trail, or chat with Mike or a friend. How could I tie this all together?

This is how: I bought an erratic-bouncy soft rubber ball, which I let fly in the beginning of the walk right after the free dog verbal release, and with Bowie no farther than about 20 feet away. After a few times, I exchanged it for his Kong tennis ball that squeaks and he could keep as long as he wanted, but I pretty much ignored, with the idea that he’d more or less self-entertain - bouncing it around and creating his own squeaks that would override the squirrels’. 
So far, so good. Since implementation, Bowie runs far out when he has possession of the tennis ball, turns, lies, drops it in front him, waits till we catch up, picks it up again and runs, but not away. Periodically, he returns and tosses the ball in my direction, and I give it a little attention, tell him to get it, and sometimes I throw that one too - random high reinforcement to keep him trying and as a side effect close by and attentive. But the real quality focused interaction happens with the rubber ball, incorporated intermittently throughout the walk but only as a result of Bowie being about 20 feet away, coming when called, or ignoring a squirrel or bunny and reorienting to me instead. There are also brief periods when Bowie doesn’t have either ball, which I aim to prolong gradually.
Since the weather has become nicer, we had a few beach outings and noticed that Bowie's behavior is the same with a stick. I typically advice against throwing a stick because I met too many dogs who forever bang it against people’s legs soliciting play, but with Bowie it works: He finds one right after being released off his leash, runs far out, turns and waits for us to catch up, we tell him to get it, he picks it up with gusto and runs, then waits… as if this were his job description. We throw the stick periodically in the water for him to fetch,  which he loves, but he doesn’t bother us with it otherwise with it.

When it is time to go home, do I leash Bowie always at the same spot to condition that he habitually halts on his own to be leashed, or do I vary the routine so that he doesn’t anticipate that the fun is about to end and avoids me when we get close to that spot? 
With Will, the former worked the charms, but she is a “stuck in a routine” kinda personality anyway and feels safest when things happen in a rut - I was feeding her nature.
Bowie listens well and I doubt he’d defy me. Nevertheless, I opted for keeping him guessing what sort of surprise I may have up my sleeve when he comes on recall: Sometimes the bouncy rubber ball, sometimes treat tossing, sometimes a stick thrown in the ocean or a lake, sometimes free dog and we continue the hike, and sometimes the leash comes on, but even then, for now, I try to create some fun on the leash. Realistically Bowie, as a Border collie, will likely always prefer being off to on, but I will do my best that he at least does not perceive it as so punitive that he doesn’t want to come when called, and not wanting to be near me when we’re outdoors.