Monday, August 1, 2011

Dog Training 101: Emergency Recall

Soon after the keepers at PDZA's Wild Wonders Outdoor Theater in Tacoma, Washington adopted Herald from the Humane Society, it became clear how he had ended up as a pound puppy.

Herald liked to run away.

This can be a problem with dogs under normal circumstances, even when they don't live at a zoo. Dogs who slip out the door unattended or sneak out under fences tend to be struck by vehicles, picked up by strangers or get into tussles with other animals.

Now imagine that the dog who has just ripped the leash from your hand is bolting toward a leopard enclosure, or making a bee-line for the North American porcupine during his training session. Whether he's loose in the neighborhood or loose in the zoo, your dog must be rerouted before he gets into a dangerous situation.

Fortunately, Herald the dog is very fond of chicken. To train his emergency recall, we started excitedly shouting, "CHICKEN!" whenever we had a bit of the cooked poultry available; then we fed it to the overjoyed canine. Soon, Herald would scamper from wherever he was in the building when he heard, "chicken." Eventually, he was dashing across the zoo's lawn or down the service roads as we practiced the recall, varying the time and amount of poultry given as a reward. If Herald got the notion to take off in the direction of the aardvark out on her walk, we just yelled the magic word, "Chiiicckkkeeeennn!" and Herald reliably charged back to safety. And to a handful of poultry.

This little trick isn't only useful for dog owners; parents can use it, too. When my siblings and I were young, we had a babysitter, whom we called Aunt Jean. In retrospect, I realize that Aunt Jean had mastered the emergency recall. She was capable of emitting a blasting whistle, which, (no matter where we were on the expansive property) when it reached our little ears, prompted my siblings and I to drop everything and high-tail it back to Aunt Jean. This whistle was extremely effective because instead of poultry, we were rewarded upon our return with popcicles, fruit snacks, an old container to use as a new sandbox toy, a ride to the bank in the station wagon or any number of other reinforcing occurrences.

Aunt Jean also used the same recall for her golden retrievers. This meant that when the whistle rang out and all children and canines in the vicinity arrived panting on the doorstep, sometimes our reward was just dog biscuits.

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