For the last three months my newly adopted adult dog Carter and I have spent a fair amount of time working through increasing levels of distractions in controlled environments, setting him up for success and preparing him for hikes in areas of great distraction.
It was important to establish a solid foundation of training before we walked the trails. Carter has a hunting background, is easily distracted, and lacks a desire to focus. This means I have to keep one eye and ear on him at all times. No thoughts about solving global warming on my walks!
At this point of our re-training journey, Carter is allowed a degree of freedom on a 40-foot training leash. I use this to continue his recall training and manage his behaviour just in case he catches scent of something.
When Carter is calm and connected to me I let that leash drag yet call him back before he gets to the end of it. He is now starting to look over his shoulder as he nears the end of the long line before I call him. I call that a success but I do not let my guard down as his behaviour can change in a second. The moment I see a change to more frenetic behaviour I pick up the leash, recall him and redirect his attention back to me.
I am able to prevent any problems of him running off and ignoring me by diligently observing his behaviour and redirecting his attention when necessary, but there are times when I can’t gain his focus, and that is when we approach … Bunnyville.
Bunnyville is a very fun place for dogs, its entrance is marked by small mounds of rabbit droppings that lead into thick brambles. Once a dog enters Bunnyville they rarely escape unscathed. They become unmanageable as they chase the elusive rabbits amongst the blackberry bushes and end up covered in painful thorns and scratches.
As we approach this area I call Carter closer to me before he gets too distracted and too involved in the bunny hunt.
As long as I am still able to recall him and connect with him he can walk at a distance on the long line but if he ignores my recall even once I shorten up the leash and rein his enthusiasm in. I then direct him into a heel, which means to walk on my left hand side, and we heel through this area. Once we reach the other end of Bunnyville, he is allowed more freedom on the long training line as a reward for his focus through this distraction.
Farther up the trail is an area I refer to as the Bermuda triangle. The trail skirts along a pond where ducks and geese are on one side and a squirrel agility course is on the other and at the end … a deer crossing. It is here that anything can happen, in a really bad way, very fast. Carter generally loses his mind in this area. A firecracker could go off beside him and not interrupt. It is a great quality for a hunting dog to be unfazed by gunfire over his head, but not so much for a zen-like hike through the trails.
Within the Bermuda triangle it is impossible to get him in a heel. No matter what treat I have, it is met with indifference or vague interest as he takes it from my hand out of duty rather than desire. At this point Carter is vibrating so we simply stop moving and wait. I then place the leash on the ground and step on it so he can sit, stand or lie down. I then wait for him to calm down and the moment I get the slightest glance in my direction I praise and stroke his head gently. Touch and verbal praise with Carter is more of a tangible reward during these moments than food. When the tension is released we walk in a heel until we are well past the area before I allow long leash freedom as a reward.
Our hikes will be like this for many more months to come as we work through his distractibility along various trails, and gain calm, focused behaviour. And each day he succeeds his quality of life improves and that’s what it’s all about.
Joan Klucha has been working with dogs for more than 15 years in obedience, tracking and behavioural rehabilitation.