Updated: Apr 28
As a dog trainer, I've had my fair share of “I cannot possibly do this” moments. At times, I have regarded myself as a wannabe in dog trainer's clothing, suffering from the aptly named “imposter syndrome.” One such moment recently inspired me to teach my dog a recall.
To some degree, the fact that my own dog didn't have a recall was my “deep dark dog training secret.” It wasn't something I felt like sharing with other trainers or shouting from the rooftops. As we all know, recalls are a crucial skill. They're handy in emergencies and are almost always included in the curriculum of any puppy class worth its salt.
Yet here I was, certified dog trainer, with a dog of my own that had never been formally taught this particular life skill. I had a laundry list of reasons for not doing it. My dog is a husky, aren't they bred to just run and run and run, possibly into the wild blue yonder? She's not good with strangers or other dogs, what if we happened upon either and she was not physically under my control? The whole notion of this off leash business frightened me.
I lost my dog once. That is to say, my roommate lost her. My dog leaped off of our rather high front porch one day while I was out grocery shopping. I returned home later to be told she was missing. Why no one had bothered calling me is a story for another time. Panic ensued. I remember running through the surrounding woods and cow fields, calling her name while crying on the phone to my mom. It was July in east Tennessee. It was hot and humid and my dog was out there in a fur coat with no one to give her water.
As I set off to make another loop of the surrounding area in my Jeep, I saw her trotting up the road, tongue hanging out. I swung open the door and she jumped in. I brought her inside, put a box fan in front of her, gave her water and began putting cool wash cloths on her paws and stomach. At one point she walked down the hallway and stumbled. I was worried she had heat stroke.
I took her to the vet to be checked over. We were given the all clear but at home the stumbling continued. After some investigating, I found the pad of one of her front paws was cut. Back to the vet we went, to have the excess trimmed away and the wound cleaned. I can't recall if antibiotics were prescribed. I do recall how truly awful that day was.
Any desire I had to let her off leash was obliterated. I was never never ever ever EVER going to lose my dog again.
But over the years, I've watched my compatriots post videos of their dogs happily hiking off leash, running through knee deep snow, leaping and bounding over fallen trees and rocks. I couldn't help but be a bit jealous. I mean, those dogs look so damn happy! I would scroll through photos, zooming in on the dogs faces or admiring the landscape, which always included a romping dog.
I heard about decompression walks. I learned they are good for a dog's physical and mental wellbeing. Dogs need freedom to run, sniff and do as they please. I couldn't help but imagine that letting my dog hike off leash would be a boon to my own wellbeing.
Though my dog and I have been hiking together since the beginning, off leash hiking looked like something else entirely. Something beautiful and joyful and beyond my grasp.
Several weeks ago, after a difficult day, I came home and ordered a whistle and lanyard. To be exact, I ordered an Acme whistle, as found on the Wild Rose Kennels website. I like to mention Wild Rose Kennels because they are a major proponent of training gun dogs with positive reinforcement, but I digress.
Once the whistle arrived, I began using it a couple of times a day. I would blow, encourage my dog to come to me, and throw a party when she did. At first we had Havarti parties, though we have since expanded to using mozzarella and cheddar cheese, as well as the occasional pepperoni.
Once the whistle was all that was needed to have my dog bound through the apartment, we took the training outside. First in the dog run behind our apartment, then in the woods using a long line. After plenty of practice, it was time to try it for real.
I still wasn't completely comfortable with the whole idea, so we did one last practice run on the long line. Then I unclipped her harness.
She was free and it was as wonderful as I had hoped.
I'm happy to report that despite being off leash, she performed beautifully anytime I called using the whistle. I rewarded generously with cheddar cheese cubes and encouragement to go back out to run, sniff and play.
Finally, I am living in one of those photos I have so lovingly admired. My heart is filled with joy, seeing my dog be so happy, enjoying her athleticism and smelling every scent she comes across.
However, I cannot say that off leash walks are not without peril. At one point, I laughingly remarked that her leave-it sucks, as she scarfed down whatever animal droppings she had managed to find. Ah well, another thing to work on. I know we can do it.