Ask 100 dog owners what they feel is the one most important thing to teach their dogs, and you’ll get a variety of answers. The owner of the six-month-old, over the top energetic Lab might say (in a trailing voice as she’s being dragged down the street) teaching leash manners. The 80-pound lovable Rottweiler mix’s owner might choose not jumping on and knocking down visitors. And the owner of the four-month-old Dane who’s still not completely potty trained…well, you can guess. But, beyond the obvious not biting people or being aggressive with other dogs, there’s one thing most trainers would agree on. Rather than simply telling you, let me illustrate what this most important thing is with an experience I had this morning.
My husband and I took our two dogs Bodhi and Sierra hiking in the canyons behind our house. I was carrying a heavy rented camera lens, so my husband was holding both dogs on leash. Suddenly, something darted up the mountain and disappeared just out of sight. Before you could say, “Meep, meep!” Bodhi had lunged after the coyote, pulling the leash right out of my husband’s hand. As my husband maintained his grasp on Sierra’s leash, he called to Bodhi. Bodhi kept right on tearing after the coyote. I stopped and called in my best training voice, “Bodhi, come!” I won’t lie; it took two repetitions—but that boy stopped mid-bolt, turned, and ran back to me. I was able to get the leash back into my husband’s hands.
By now you’ve guessed what is, in my opinion, the most important obedience skill you could ever teach your dog. Say it with me: Rock. Solid. Recall. Feel free to pump your fist in the air and chant it like you’re at a rock concert. In fact, try that the next time you’re at a concert. (Okay, maybe not.) But seriously—it’s that important. One of the biggest misconceptions I’ve found among dog owners is that teaching their dog to come when called in one scenario, for example, being called into the house from the yard, or even just across the room, will guarantee success in a high distraction, high value environment. It just ain’t gonna happen. A rock solid recall takes a lot of practice and patience. You’ve got to start small with no distractions so as to set your dog up to succeed, and of course, reward for that success. Oh, and make sure those rewards are really rewarding to your dog. Nine out of ten dogs surveyed prefer a super yummy treat to your oh so lovely smile and praise.
Slowly add in difficulty, such as calling your dog when she’s slightly distracted sniffing something mildy interesting. You might soon add someone walking by, or someone walking a dog past at a distance. Eventually you’ll want to practice in busier environments and make the challenges more difficult, but you get the idea. Build slowly, because in this case slow and steady really does win the race. And if you ever end up in a situation where your dog is loose and about to run into traffic, or take off after another dog, or even chase a coyote, you’ll know that every bit of time and training you put in was well worth it.