So you want an adventure dog: Part 1

Buffy takes a look off a large rock during an off leash hike.

I live in Revelstoke, British Columbia. This is one of the top towns for outdoor adventure. In the winter it’s a ski/snowboard/sledding mecca, in the summer it’s a mountain biking/climbing/hiking/trail running paradise. People here get out and they play hard in the mountains. So it’s not unexpected that when they get a new dog, they want that dog to become an adventure dog who can come along for big days.

How do you turn your new furry friend into an adventure dog? Well first, you might not be able to, at least not in the way you think. When we bring a new dog into our life, we already have an idea of what we want our relationship to look like and what adventures we want them to join us on. But dogs are individual sentient beings with their own personalities. There is always a chance that what you want your dog to be, is not what they are. It doesn’t mean you can’t lay the foundation for adventure, it just means that we have to factor our dogs as individuals into the equation.

The most important skill that people want in their adventure dogs is a bomber recall. A bomber recall is a recall that is good enough even with high distractions such as squirrels and deer. Bomber recalls don’t just happen. Some breeds will be predisposed to wanting to stay close to their people and frankly to please their people, so building that bomber recall may come easier for dogs of those breeds, but most dogs also have a drive to explore, to scavenge, to chase critters, which can all influence how easy it is to get a bomber recall. What I’m trying to outline here is that bomber recalls don’t just happen, the work needs to be put in to make it happen. It is categorically unacceptable to expect our dogs to have a skill like a bomber recall without putting in the necessary work and it is equally unacceptable to take the route of using a shock collar to achieve it, without even trying to build it in a more humane and less harmful way. Shock collars are commonly used for this but come with a lot of negative outcomes. If you’d like to learn more, you can check out a blog post I wrote about the impact of shock collars here.

What is the secret to a bomber recall? Build a foundation. If you need recall to be one of your strongest skills then you have to build a strong foundation. Foundations are built on reward history. That means you need to ensure that you:

  1. Set up your dog for success when recalling. If your dog is set up for success, then your dog will get the reward and that reward will go to building the foundation.
  2. Ensure your recall outcome is ALWAYS positive. Even if your dog did a lousy recall and took their time, you have to reward them. If you skip the reward, then you are essentially adding poor building material into your foundation and making sure that it’s less strong. If your dog has a lousy recall, try to do an easier set up next time to ensure it’s successful.
  3. Use extremely high value food as a reward. You do not want to cheap out on your rewards for recall. The more motivated your learner is to earn that reward, the stronger of a foundation you are building. Never cheap out on recall rewards and always reward.
  4. Work with distractions. Work to systemically increase the difficult of your recall through either increasing distractions OR distance (never increase both at the same time).
  5. Never repeat your dog’s name and recall cue. Once you’ve called your dog, don’t repeat the cue and their name. Instead, be a cheerleader and make lots of excited noises to motivate them. If you start repeating their name and cue, you are in fact teaching your dog that the first one doesn’t matter.

If you’re someone who wants to adventure with your dog off leash and want that dog who chases you on your mountain bike through fun trails, or sticks close while you hike off leash, start building your foundations now. If you’re not sure how to progress with this or you’re struggling, reach out to a certified science-based trainer for help.

Next week, I’ll continue this series by talking about another crucial skill for adventure dogs: engaging with you while outside.

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