A Ball for the Win


While out for a walk with the dogs today, a truck suddenly appeared from around a bend and headed our way. This is the hazard of often using service roads and Department of Natural Resource land. It doesn’t happen very often, but I’ve learned to be prepared.

All four dogs were up ahead of me and on various sides of the road exploring. As soon as I saw the truck, I yelled out “Come Dogs, Come.”

There wasn’t the slightest hesitation among the foursome. I got four whiplash turns, although Brady did quickly whip his head back to see what I was calling him from. Yup, there’s always one in the crowd.

Instantly I had four dogs at my feet and all at a sit. I reached for collars on the squirmy ones – Youke, Camm and Brady, while Jasmine held a lovely “sit, stay.” No time really to latch the leashes on and I’m an expert now at holding more than two at a time, despite only possessing two hands. Yup, I’ve got mad skillz.

The truck rolled on by. I would’ve waved back at the driver, but my hands were full.

Once the truck was at a bit of a distance I released all four dogs. But then I had a light bulb moment. I realized how incredibly awesome it was that ALL FOUR instantly came back to me like that with barely any question.

So I rewarded them with a game of Ball right there on the road.

As awesome as that moment was, it’s far from the first time it’s ever happened and that’s because I’ve trained it.

Initially I train recalls with food and at easy places, such as at home.  I try very hard not to compete with something else in the environment at the beginning and reward with food 100% each time. In other words, I make sure I don’t work in an environment that is too distracting at first and reward heavily for the right outcome. It’s basic Dog Training 101. But because I have three dogs that actually place a very high, if not higher, value on toys as rewards, I quickly incorporated the use of balls or tug toys as rewards for coming when called too. In fact, I make the whole experience very much a game.

As time goes on and my recalls get 100%, I move to more difficult areas and reward, reward, reward. Over time, I phase out the frequency of the reward, but it never goes away altogether. I’m lucky enough to have a longstanding and solid relationship with dogs that also seem to place some value on being right and liking when their human notices and confirms their rightness. That’s called praise. However, praise is valuable because it’s been linked over time with a reward of some nature.

Because I hike a fair amount, often in areas where there are bears about and other critters. I just don’t carry food on me for a causal outing. Call me crazy, but bringing a baggie full of hot dogs to reward coming when called when out in the woods seems unwise.

Therefore, I carry a Ball.

Ball is useful in many, many ways, most especially to play fun games like “find it” where I throw it into the underbrush and the dogs see who can uncover and bring it back to me the fastest. Of course, that game sometimes has drawbacks, such as when the human has to step in and help to “find it.”

The cool thing I’ve found about carrying a ball around is that I pretty much have an instant high value reward at all times without fear that a bear might also find it fascinating.

Which is why sometimes I just randomly call the dogs to me to play a game of Ball.

So in those few seconds after I had released them and after they all came back so quickly, I chose to reward with a game of Ball.

One can argue that they might not have made the connection between the desired behavior of coming when called and the reward due to the many seconds in between being held and then being released, but I’d argue otherwise. First of all, the game’s been played many times before, and secondly, I have brilliant dogs.

 Youke and Brady are just blurs in this picture because 1) they are running fast, and 2) I don’t have a stop motion feature on my cheap little camera.

* This picture is also not from today as clearly a truck could not drive down this trail and I did not have my cheap, but beloved little camera on me.

** It is also my experience that issuing a recall command in a somewhat shrill, but not yet panicky voice works most effectively, but should only be used in the face of a fast oncoming vehicle, a deer racing across a road, a skunk in the yard, a not-so-friendly kitty of the feral kind, a raccoon cleaning its dinner creekside, a trail runner or when another dog who seems intriguing really is not.


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