Photo by J. Nichole Smith | Little & Large

Photo by J. Nichole Smith | Little & Large

I am lucky to have 35 acres to share with my dogs. But it is wild land. There are chipmunks, deer, elk, and turkeys. There are bears. There are mountain lions. It is a thick wood of shrub oak, aspen, fir and spruce with an under brush of various shrubs and flowers. My 35 acres borders neighbors with 35 acres, BLM land and Forest Service land. Open country and big country. We have limited fencing and lots of places for a dog to run free.

In one sense this is paradise. In another it can be intimidating. It has taught me to trust my dogs, trust the training I have done with them, and trust the relationships I have forged with them.

Most of my 5 dogs are easy “stick-around-dogs”. Never too far and always checking in (which is always at least verbally rewarded). A couple of others have wider ranges. One in particular is part sight hound, has an insatiable curiosity and lives life in the fast lane… literally.

At the time we adopted him at 2 years old, he had had 10 homes. His trust in people was thin at best. The first year I worked to show him that I was trust worthy. That if he made a mistake, he would not be tossed out, but still remain a part of our family.

I also worked for the first year with this dog systematically training a recall. Often times many people are terrified to loose their dog and will resort to aversive methods such as shock collars to train a “recall”. I have never believed that training should be painful to a dog. Not only is it ethically wrong, but it often results in fall out behavior (like bolting away instead of coming) and it destroys trust. It is always much better to take the time to train your dog without resorting to force or pain and establish a relationship based on trust.

  • We started inside with the “name game,”” puppy in the middle” and “hide and seek.” We spent at least 2 weeks inside with this training.
  • Then we started the same exercises outside on a 6 to 10 foot leash for another two weeks. All training was reward based and set up to succeed, bringing in distractions as he could handle them. I call this the “achievable challenge”.
  • We spent at least a month on a long line of 25 to 30 feet with the same exercises, now adding in “running away” from him and encouraging him to follow in order to build a fast and motivated recall.
  • Next we did months of off leash recall exercises in a fenced safe area. We did our training and homework. With this kind of training I can successfully call my dogs off of deer, elk, chipmunks, etc.

Then came the time to trust. In the training and in this particular dog, we were camping in the Flat Tops wilderness in Colorado, a vast open space of wilderness and sheep. My husband let him off leash and told me to trust my training. I called him and he came flying back to me. This was the beginning.

Yes I had a solid recall, but I still felt I needed to do more work with this dog. However, it turned out that I needed to become more of the equation and work on myself. Did I understand my own dog? Did I trust him? Did I understand the relationship we had?

I took him to a workshop with Linda Tellington. I told her I still felt I could not connect with this dog. She told me to trust him. She said, “He sees you”. At that moment he turned and looked straight into my eyes and ran to me.

Trust takes time. One day I lost him in the wilderness skiing. He thought I was up trail and went looking for me, when actually I was at the trailhead. It was winter with an early dusk, and late in the afternoon. I skied up the trail after him, panicked and crying. Then I remember what Linda had said and I told myself to trust. I pictured him looking directly into my eyes. There he came back down trail to me. Yes he had gone to look where he thought I was, but loosing my scent, turned around and came back. I hugged him on my knees and thanked him.

Agility was still a challenge. I was hesitant to bring him out. I was worried he would run off, investigate something more interesting, and ignore me. He often ran off course. I came to realize that he ran off course when I lost my way on the course, when I did not give him clear direction. I knew he could be a great agility dog if I could become the handler he deserved. I have been working to run a course with more purpose and clear direction. He has begun to pay attention. I now sense a “high” when at the start line he stays, looks straight into my soul, ready to work, ready for me to give clear direction, ready to trust, ready to be a team.

We hike off leash on the 35 wild acres. He stays on trail about 50 feet in front of me. I no longer feel the need to constantly call him back. I feel the connection between us, stronger than any leash could ever be.

He turns and looks back at me and he sees me. He has always seen me. Even when I didn’t think he cared if I was in the same universe, he did. Now I see him too. And more importantly, now I trust the relationship we have formed together.

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Positively Expert: Louisa Morrissey

Louisa is a member of Victoria Stilwell’s Positively Dog Training Team, a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA), a member of the Pet Professional Guild of Non-Force Trainers and a professional member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers. She is the founder of High Country Dogs in Colorado.


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