Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Responsiblity Training

Linda wanted to know how I taught Connor to stay with me off-lead and to take responsiblity for keeping up with me.  These are my opinions on the subject, I hope they are useful.....

I'm not sure I would actually call this a 'training method'.  It's more a matter of letting a puppy do what comes naturally and then recognizing and rewarding him for doing it.  An 8 week old puppy is still very much an infant.  At that age, their eyes are still not fully developed, they are still wobbly and they fall down a lot.  They are just starting to explore the world, but they are careful to stay with their adult guardians.  Lucky for us, they recognize humans as guardians nearly as readily as they will recognize another dog.

I started taking Connor for walks with me as soon as I brought him home.  At first, he was not up for much and as soon as I saw him begin to tire, I would pick him up and carry him inside my coat.  Puppies develop very rapidly though so every day he walked a little farther.  He stayed with me because the world is big and puppies are small and it is the nature of young puppies to cling to the safety of their pack.  By the time he was 11-12 weeks old, he didn't want to be carried at all - only babies get carried after all.

A 12 week old puppy is already a much different creature than an 8 week old puppy.  Their eyes are nearly fully developed, they are stronger, have more stamina and they are just starting to think that they can make their own decisions.  During this time, we had mostly been using the same trail through the woods each day and Connor had come to know it well and he knew where home was.  He was also starting to venture farther away from me and on one cold day, on our way home, I could see he was thinking about heading for home and his warm chair without me.  I made no attempt to call him back because I wasn't sure he would come.  Calling out to him in that situation would have set us both up for failure.  Instead, I made a 90 degree turn off the trail and into the woods, pretending the whole time that Connor didn't exist.  From the corner of my eye, I could see him stop and watch me, he looked toward the house, back to me, toward the house....I kept walking and it was too much for him - he ran after me. 

Once Connor caught me, I praised him lavishly and played with him, all the while acting like I had expected no less.  From then on, I made a point of leaving the known trail and using other trails.  I never called attention to my moves or made any attempt to make him follow.  If he failed to see me turn and he lost track of me, he'd search around for my scent and come running after me.  If he couldn't find the track, I'd call out a quiet, "this way" to get his attention and keep going.  It only took a couple of times before he decided that he needed to keep an eye on me at all times.  He has never strayed more than 100 feet from me since.

This is something that comes very naturally to puppies at this age because it is the same way older dogs teach pups that it is up to each pack member to always be aware of the others and keep up with the pack. 

Unfortunately, a lot of dogs never get the chance to learn this responsibility because we don't let them or we accidentally train them out of it.  Usually, the very first thing someone does when they get a puppy is go out and buy a collar and leash for him and begin leash training.  I realize that in an urban area, there may be no other choice, but it does preclude the puppy from developing their innate sense of responsibility.  It may sound like a catch 22, but a dog can not easily learn to stay with you off-lead unless he is given the chance to stay with you off-lead.

The other way that puppies learn to NOT follow is because we inadvertently train them not to or train them to run away.  In that moment when I saw Connor think about heading home without me, I could have tried to go after him, but that would have reinforced Connor's decision to take charge and head out on his own.  I also could have tried to call him to me, which may or may not have worked.  I had been teaching him to come when called and he was doing fairly well at it, but that is human language not dog language and, at 12 weeks, it is still too foreign to him to be really trustworthy.  Had I called him, one of two things would have happened:
  1. He would come running to me, which I would have rewarded thus reinforcing his recall.  However, he would not have learned that it is his responsibility to keep up with me and always keep me in his awareness.  He would continue believing that it is my job, not his, to keep track of him.  He may come when called, but he won't feel the need to keep me in his sphere of awareness and that puts all of the burden on me.
  2. He would have ignored my call and headed off on his own.  I would either have had to make an attempt at catching him, which would undoubtedly have triggered a catch-me-if-you-can game, or he'd have learned that he can ignore my recall command and head off as he pleases.  Trying to coax or lure him in with treats would simply cement the idea that gets to choose when to listen to me and that he can ignore me if he wants.
If you have an adult dog who cannot be trusted off-lead, it usually stems from one of these scenarios.  The first is much easier to deal with than the second.  Generally, if you can find a safe place with few distractions to allow the dog off-lead, he will pick up on the concept of personal responsibility fairly easily.  The same techniques I used on Connor will work for that dog as well.  The most important thing is to never force the dog to make a decision unless you know he is going to make the right one. 

Once a dog actively chooses to leave you behind, it is very hard to ever get to a point where that dog is really trustworthy off-lead.  Making that decision puts the dog into the second category, which is a dog who has learned that he can go wherever he wants regardless.  He does not feel any responsibility to keep up with you.  

With a dog like this, I would go back to really basic obedience lessons.  I would also try hard to figure out what really motivates this dog, whether it is food, Frisbee, a tennis ball... figure out whatever really gets this dog excited and use that as a reward to teach the dog other skills.  Get this dog into the habit of doing as he is told and make it fun and exciting to do so.  Only then start teaching a really strong recall that the dog will want to do.  Build on that to teach him to stay with you off lead.  Always remember though, that given the right provocation, this dog may choose to blow you off because he has learned that he can if he wants.  Try to avoid situations where this dog will be tempted to make the wrong choice.  You can always teach a dog new tricks, but good luck trying to un-teach them anything. 


  1. Sounds like Morris and Connor went to the same school! That is why I like a pup. I have trained older dogs but had to work many weeks at obedience. It can be done, but it is a bit more difficult.

  2. Amen! This should be printed on a flyer and handed to every buyer/adopter of a puppy: "Go home, memorize it, then come back and pick up your puppy."

  3. You sure are observant and wise in your dealings with your animals. I missed the boat with my dogs. Good on leash, footloose and fancy free, off leash.

  4. Kris, these are such wise words... I wish I could cross-post this!

  5. sigh. Well that explains it. I was so afraid my puppy would run away and get hurt (or just not come back) that I collared her and started leash training immediately. I am well aware that any flaws she has are entirely my fault. Now nearly 8 years later her off leash recall is still a complete gamble. This post has given me more to think about. Thank you !

  6. Good post! Saving it for when we get our next dogs.

  7. Really interesting! I would never have thought about that (being the helicopter "parent" that I am ;-), but it makes perfect sense.

  8. You are a genius at putting what you do into words!! I've never really thought about "training" any of our dogs, but this is EXACTLY what we've always done, and we've never had a dog that didn't want to stick with us no matter where we are. People will often ask how we "train" them, and all we ever say is that they learn by being a part of our family, knowing what's acceptable and what's not. Maybe we're better at this than we realize...we used to even play hide and seek in the woods with our dogs, hiding out and letting them find us. And of course, when they did (and they always did), we would praise them lavishly and be playful. I've always taken my pups with me on walks too, starting very early and yes, having to carry them a lot, but as you said, they grow and mature very quickly. So much fun having dogs!

  9. Great post! I'm glad someone asked how you went about this, as I wondered as well. I have three Collies--their mom and two 'puppies' who are four years old now. Their mom came to me as an adult and really just doesn't pay attention to me when we are out and about. She eventually meanders up (my acreages is all fenced in, so they can 'roam' when we walk but still be safe.), but in her own time. With the pups I've always did the hide and seek or switch direction or sometimes if they aren't at the gate to go home they get left behind (for a few minutes), and I've noticed as they have gotten older it is very hard to get out of their sight even when they are exploring and having fun. They are just very aware. I also taught them the command 'go around' so that they don't get hung up at one gate (which of course happens to be closed) but will seek out that other open gate to rejoin. I like to see them think and it's fun to see them work it out. Their mommy though has been much harder to convince of the 'fun' involved! I love my three 'farm' (using the term loosely! ha) dogs. They are great company.

    Thanks for sharing, love your blog, your donkeys and your lovely new puppy shark!


  10. Hmm very interesting. i know now why i have the worst dogs I've ever had for sticking with me on walks! We lost one ten years ago, hit by a car after she lost us on a walk in the bush. She was a rehome and as a pup had not learned this lesson, I can now see. Then the two I have raised since them, well the trauma of that day has affected how i walk them, and neither has been given the space to learn to stick with me. In fact, I've been very careful to always take the same walks and stick to the tracks so they know where I'll be in case they lose sight of me, and i call them back if they get more than a few metres away! I've done it exactly wrong! I'm not sure if i can ever be a relaxed dog walker like I was, and anyway around here it is getting too busy on the bush tracks to experiment (trail bikes and such) but now I know why my current dogs aren't such good walking companions as my dogs always have been. I'll try to do better when my next pup comes along and is still too young to get too far away. Great post! Thanks!