Four years ago, only a couple months into having my dog Maze, I almost lost her. I had taken her to my apartment’s dog park early in the morning. We were the only ones in there (intentionally), and there was barely any light to see by. At one point she started getting really excited about something on the other side of the fence, the side that faced the outside of the complex, where there was a dense forested area. She was sprinting up and down the length of the park, bounding in huge strides. I thought it was honestly pretty cute, until she disappeared through the fence.
I had no idea up until then that she was physically capable of squeezing through the bars in that fence, but somehow she made it happen. I scaled the fence to follow her, and by the time I landed on the other side, she was so far away I couldn’t hear her at all. I was panicked, of course. I could barely see, could barely move through the brush, and I didn’t have a clue where my dog was.
After a couple minutes of searching and calling her name, I heard the leaves and branches crackling under her feet, though I could tell she was still far off. Eventually I spotted her. She had made it to a road and was standing on the other side of it. Thrilled to have her back, I called for her one more time, and she darted away from me. My heart sank. At that point I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to catch her at all, or if a car would hit her before I could get to her.
She popped into view again, and I knew she would run if I tried to approach her. So I ran the other way. I shouted “come on! Let’s go! Pup pup pup!” In a high pitched voice as I ran. And she followed! She chased me down and got close enough for me to grab her. Once I had her leashed up I pet her all over, telling her what a good girl she was. I didn’t have any treats with me, but if I did, I would have given her all of them. It could have been tempting to get mad at her. After all, she ran away from me! But I knew that wouldn’t help anything. I was glad she did eventually let me catch her, and I would never want her to avoid coming back in the future, thinking I would get mad again.
So after all of this, I knew I needed to work on teaching her an actual recall. I decided to whistle for her recall so that it would be clear and distinct from anything else she knew, and so that it could cut through the air for longer distances if needed. Every time I whistled, I gave her something fantastic. Sometimes it was cheese, sometimes freeze dried raw, sometimes it was a chicken nugget or an entire hot dog!
Now, almost four years later, she still gets a reward every single time I recall her. And she turns on a dime every time.
Recall is such an important behavior. If we never teach it, or stop rewarding it when we think “they should know it,” then we won’t have it when it really matters. Remember, for most dogs, recall is a really difficult behavior. If they are off leash, they have to give up their freedom willingly to come back to us, knowing there’s a decent chance they’re going to get leashed up and taken home. If they’re chasing something, playing with another dog, or investigating a really good smell, that makes it even more of a sacrifice!
So pay your dog well when they come to you, they deserve it! And work on it before you really need it!