The steps you can take to teach any dog to come when called and to help stop them getting lost. The Pawsitive Post in Conversation episode 10.
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It’s surprisingly common for newly-adopted dogs to get lost, and for any dog to go missing at some point in their lives, even if only for a moment. How can we stop dogs from getting lost? We chat with Maria Karunungan of Fetch the Leash in Burlington, Vermont, about the steps dog guardians can take to prevent their dog from getting lost.
From the best treats to use when teaching dogs to come when called, the prevention strategies all dog guardians should use, to special steps to take when your dog is new to you, this episode is packed with tips. Kristi shares the heart-stopping story of when one of her dogs went missing, long before she became a dog trainer. And we also ask Maria for tips for dog trainers on how to work with clients, based on her background in multicultural education.
At the end, we chat about the books we’re reading.
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You can also read highlights of the conversation below.
About Maria Karunungan:
Maria is the owner of Fetch the Leash in Burlington, Vermont. She is an honors graduate of the Academy for Dog Trainers, a PCBC-A from the Pet Professional Guild and she is a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer. Maria also has a Ph.D. in educational research from Emory University, and an undergraduate degree in music from Yale University. Maria’s experience also includes working with a wide range of shelter animals at various shelters in Northern California.
Fetch the Leash website Facebook Instagram
The books we chat about
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
Zoo by Ogden Nash
Book Lovers by Emily Henry
Highlights of the conversation
Kristi: One of the reasons why Zazie and I wanted to speak with you is we got talking about lost dogs, so dogs who you know, maybe they’re loose on a walk and they run away or they get out of somebody’s yard. And we were just thinking that there’s a little bit of a lack of clarity amongst dog guardians about how to prevent this, especially when dogs are being walked loose. And I think there’s an expectation from people that dogs will just stick around because that’s what dogs do. So people don’t necessarily train recalls which, aside from great fencing, is one of our bulwarks against lost dogs, is doing the work to train a good recall with our dogs. So that’s why we wanted to speak with you about lost dogs and we wanted to speak with you about training recalls. Our first question is, as someone who does a ton of dog training, as a practitioner in this field, why do you think it’s an important skill for dogs in general to have this training?
Maria: Well I think first of all it can save the dog’s life. You just never know. You might have a really great confinement system, you mentioned a really great fence, but you just never know when let’s say the fence breaks for whatever reason or someone unanticipated leaves something open. Or you might have just opened the door to grab a package or something and your dog sees a squirrel across the street and there’s a car coming. So it really could save your dog’s life. I mean I’m kind of talking about it like as a seat belt, but you know I actually think that recalls are fun. So it’s not just a tool to use with your dog. It’s really fun to play recall games with your dog and to just build that rapport and that engagement. But I also think that it can increase your dog’s quality of life, because then the world opens up for your dog. You can take them places, you could go hiking with them, you could let them go out and check out all the great smells and go rolling in the mud, and have this comfort that you’ve you put the time in to training them and that you feel that your chances are really strong that they will come back if you call them.
Kristi: For sure. Yeah. I completely agree about the the welfare increasing aspect of training recalls. You know I think some people with dogs feel like recall is something that dogs are kind of born with, so they either have it or they don’t. They don’t see it as this thing that we actually have to train. It’s not even that hard to train, but they’re sort of like ‘oh my dog doesn’t recall’ as though ‘my dog has floppy ears’, you know. You’re like, well you can actually change that.
Zazie: Totally. Yeah, and I love how you emphasize both the fun part and the necessary part, the essential part. And there’s a common figure that people are used to hearing about the importance of socialization for puppies, because we know that one of the leading causes of death of dogs under three is behavior issues many of which could be prevented by socialization. But one of the other leading causes of death of dogs under the age of three is actually getting hit by cars, and in so many cases of course a good recall, as you say, it literally could save the dog’s life, so that makes it so important. And of course all three of us are force free trainers so we only use rewards to train recall, but I want to take a moment to explain that it’s not a good idea to use a shock collar to train recall at all because it has risks for your dog, including the usual risks of any aversive method which are increased fear, anxiety, aggression, stress, a worse relationship with the guardian, the dog being pessimistic, and of course the dog potentially associates the shock with something else in the environment rather than their behavior at the time. And that could be you or it could be passers-by or other dogs nearby, therefore making the dog afraid of you or afraid of other dogs and reactive and so on. There’s also research which shows that training recall with rewards is better, more efficient, than using a shock collar, and that’s from some research done in the UK.
And of course we all love to use rewards in training. You alluded to the fun, and I think the rewards is one part of the fun of teaching dogs to come when called. So what kind of treats do you recommend to your clients when they’re teaching their dog to come when called?
Maria: Well for training initially, I actually always give out a tin of sardines in our basic level classes. It always surprises people. It gives them an example of something that’s super high value, that’s novel, and it kind of impresses upon them that when we mean special treat for recalls we definitely mean special. This is by the way something I got from the Academy so I just want to give credit, it’s not an original invention of mine. And out in the real world my go-to is baby food. I did try sardines a couple of times, and it was so messy that I never got the fish oil completely out of my winter coat. So I learned, stick with sardines for mostly supercharging the recall cue, and teaching the dog how mind-blowingly amazing it is to hear that word. And then when we get to actual usage I switch over to baby food.
And I’m really careful. I tell people to be really careful that that is reserved for recalls, and not to use it in other situations otherwise it gets old for the dog and then it’s no longer special. I really like baby food because it has a long shelf life and you can store it in the glove compartment and it’s ready to go. You know, if you just have an impulse to go hiking with your dog, it’s a beautiful day, and you’re like, yeah! And you don’t have to have any other special preparation.
Kristi: Hmm. So do you like take the little jars and crack them and let the dog lick or?
Maria: Mm-hmm. Yep you can do. There’s a couple of ways, it depends on the dog. Some dogs are very talented and they can pretty much slurp the whole jar’s worth with one or two licks. Some dogs are a little more tentative and they’ll take a few licks and be like ‘wow that’s really cool’ and then it’s easy to close the jar and have more ready. So for the dogs that are very good at getting it all out in one go, I might pour a little bit onto the lid and have them lick the lid.
Kristi: Fancy. Yeah.
Zazie: I love that. It’s funny about the fish oil because one of the things I like to use is tripe stick or tripe flavored treats. But then I have moments when I pick up my coat and I think why does my coat stink so bad?! And it’s because I’ve left tripe treats in the pockets.
Kristi: When I taught classes I used to use the sardine trick too and it really works. And again you know, kudos to the Academy for that idea. But I remember one of the class students came coming to class one day and being like, “Yeah wow Kristi!” You know someone just exactly like you said Maria, someone left the door open and the dog saw something, bolted through the door onto a trafficky street and that had happened in the past you know and it was a worrisome thing. And you know they just used their new recall cue and the dog like stopped on a dime and came back in. And they were like, “You’re magic!” You know like they just couldn’t [believe it], and I’m like I’m not magic, operant conditioning is magic.
Kristi: Earlier Zazie sort of alluded to the fact that you have a PhD and your PhD is in education. I think it’s such a cool thing that you are bringing that to dog training because dog training is, you know I mean our old story, it’s unregulated anyone can do it you know and charge money for it. So the fact that you have sort of educated yourself in how to teach people I think is so cool and fascinating and useful for our profession. So based on sort of your knowledge of how to educate people, what are your sort of tips coming from that domain about how people can better sort of teach their clients?
Maria: I think this may seem obvious to a lot of people, but honestly it gets easily overlooked. And the best thing is to really understand where your client is coming from, to understand the framework that they’re operating in. You know if they’re a single mom, they work long hours, it’s really, really important not to judge people for the situations they find themselves in. And to understand you know what their cultural attitude towards dogs might be, you know.
So I see myself as a person who’s sort of facilitating and kind of collaborating with them to figure out how to make sure that their dog can get the quality life that they need to have while also creating the change, the behavior change, that they’re hoping for.
And sometimes the goals are not realistic or fair to the dog and that’s where we might have to sort of try to find that space in the middle. Some people may have different perspectives on how to handle dogs, for example. They might operate from a mindset that if the dog isn’t getting it right they need to use force or be heavy-handed. So when I’ve run into this I’m always sort of cognizant that that person might live in a completely different world than me and just might not be understanding that the dog isn’t trying to be stubborn or willful, that the dog might actually be confused or might need an incentive.
And I think what helps me is just knowing that at the end of the day, there’s no such thing as a person who hires a dog trainer and doesn’t actually love their dog. So understanding their perspective and their world view that they’re operating from is really the first step in making that connection. And you can’t really help the client to progress if you’re not meeting them where they are at. So that’s kind of the big takeaway. I mean my PhD is in multicultural education so that’s where I’m operating from. So sometimes we just you know, sometimes we wind up in terms of like goal setting, we wind up just laughing and learning to accept the dog that they have instead of trying to completely change their dog’s personality. But often I just find it’s a nice journey, to just kind of really listen and understand where they’re coming from, and then share with them what I know about dogs.
And usually the biggest thing is how slowly we need to go with the training and how methodical and systematic we need to be, and you know not necessarily except expect to be able to go so far so fast.
Zazie: I love that. So you’re really talking about it as a collaboration between you and the dog’s guardian rather than you saying I’m the expert and this is what you have to do and I think it makes a big, big difference to know where people are and where they’re coming from. So yeah, thank you for sharing that with us, and thank you for sharing all of your tips with us.
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