Yesterday we took Sparky to Burnham Beeches, an ancient woodland not far from here. It was a nice change from Black Park, where we usually go for dog walks on the weekend, and not as busy, due to a footrace that had just ended. Most people were leaving as we arrived.
As we do, we brought along some high value treats and our whistle, intending to do some recall training while Sparky ran off lead in the woods. While there are livestock pastured in the park, they're located behind a fence in a different area from where we were walking.
The walk was lovely—the beeches are still mostly green, just starting to turn yellow, so it was easy to convince myself it was still summer. (That is, if I ignored the inches of mud that sucked at my hiking shoes, stirred up by the runners that morning.)
After a few solid recalls, we were starting to feel confident that Sparky was attentive and listening for that whistle. Then he blew it, so to speak. My husband blew the whistle just as Sparky spied a squirrel. I saw his head turn left, and he took off, away from us, leaving us stamping our feet in frustration. (Okay, we weren't literally stamping our feet. We were actually cursing but this is a family blog.)
We continued to explore the footpaths, rewarding Sparky when he returned to us after his little sprints through the trees (we call this "checking in"). Then we whistled again, in a situation where we were sure he'd return, and he did. Back to, well, square two. Or three.
Training tip: It's important not to teach your dog that it's okay to ignore the whistle, so it's best not to blow it when you think he won't comply. You must incrementally increase the distraction level at which the dog will return..."incrementally" being the key, and most difficult to judge.
Sparky's not 100% reliable with recall yet, but he's reliable in many situations. Which proved helpful later, as we were walking down one of the wide paved paths. We saw a family of adults coming toward us, and as they approached I heard the young man cry out as if distressed. A woman comforted him, and it was obvious that the young man was mentally handicapped. My husband and I both realized that he was likely expressing fear of the dog running around, so we quickly called Sparky, put him on the lead, and walked off the path, heading parallel through the woods so the distressed man couldn't see the dog.
We had judged the situation correctly: The woman called out "Thank you!" as we passed. Even though I knew Sparky would not have bothered the people—he gives strangers a wide birth—it was important to get him under control, and thankfully, our training paid off. He came right to us when we called him, even though I'd just seen a squirrel running up a tree. As soon as we passed we let him off lead again and practiced more recalls.
We've been in situations where we wished other people had better control of their dogs—a strange dog is chasing Sparky, jumping at him, trying to engage him in play, while the owners call in vain. I want to yell at them to learn how to recall their dogs, but I've been there too. Until we had Sparky, I didn't know how important a good recall was. Our previous dogs were generally well behaved, and a so-so recall worked most of the time, and when it didn't, there was no harm done.
Now we're acutely aware of how some dogs and some people—not to mention cows, sheep, and horses—would prefer not to have an uncontrolled dog nearby. While your dog may be perfectly safe, someone else is not feeling safe.
So we're going to keep at it, using stinky sardines or whatever gets the job done.
Fortunately we have these beautiful, ancient woodlands to practice in.