ClickerSolutions Training Articles

Magic Emergency Recall Cue

My service Papillon "Peek" has been off-duty due to a slipped disc, and he's starting to get "cabin fever." I've been using management for the last couple of weeks to keep him quiet, but now that the pain is not so acute, he's rip, roaring and ready to boogie.

Yesterday, I took him on a short walk. Free of house-confinement at last, prancing instead of walking, he's a bundle of nerves and energy. Every bit of that energy went into Lunging after the lizard who had the audacity to skitter right past Peek's nose. Peek shot like a cannon out to the end of the leash, hitting the end of his 1/2 inch flat collar. The collar clasp breaks from the force, and Peek is finally free.

I'm so stunned by this unexpected performance, I can't get the words "Leave it" out fast enough to cue him to return his focus to me. I just open my mouth and watch bug-eyed as my dog still in red service dog dress, sprints across the driveway and toward the road.

I know my chances of getting this dog back after such a lengthy confinement are pretty slim. "Peek, Come!" is not going to do it. Not when he's on lizard patrol, something that my "untrainer" husband has reinforced hundreds of times on their nightly walks. And not when his prey drive has been triggered. Clearly, I'll have to bring on my "big guns."

My emergency cue word. That one sacred word so strongly associated with "good things, really, REALLY good things" in my dogs' mind now, that even when the dog is in manic mode, adrenaline and endorphins surging, he will still respond. And for me, that word is "COOKIES!"

"Cookies" means more than "cookies" to my dogs. It means the best of tidbits, the best of interaction with me, and it means "there ain't nothin' on the planet better than stopping whatever you're doing and running to mom." It's grueyere cheese and nuked garlic chicken and liverwurst and pot roast. It's also toy fetch games, targeting games, tummy scritches and undivided attention and everything wonderful all rolled into one.

I see Peek heading for the road at warp speed, with Rocky Balboa determination in his body language. Nothin's gonna stop that boy. Frozen with fear, I finally squeak out the magical cue word: "COOKIES!"

Peek slides to a stop like a baseball player hurling into home base, turns his head, looks at me. Then he pauses for one second, two. He's making a choice here. I have stopped breathing and pray for resuscitation soon. But, after two seconds, he races back to me, leaving the lizard to cross the road and get smooshed.

I am overjoyed! He responded! He responded to the magical emergency cue word even when the deck was stacked against it! I highly doubt my "cookies" could be any more reinforcing than that lizard and getting a chance to "get out of jail free" and be dog again, run without pain and chase fast-moving objects.

But what I do see is that he is now strongly conditioned to respond to this magical word,--so well conditioned that it has become a default, and still works even in the face of incredible distractions.

I have nothing but a few crumbs in my treat bag, but I give him the ultimate treat when he gets to me: the bag to lick out. The forbidden fruit: the bottom crumbs of Mom's wheelchair bait bag. He licks and moans in ecstasy, then takes the piece of near-mouldy string cheese I keep in my on-board emergency kit, and nibbles it as I mete it out from my closed fist. Jackpot!

Then he gets happy voice, hugs, kisses and a chance to do spins on my lap in the powerchair, another favorite carnival ride of Peek's. I slip my emergency collar on him (also carried in my emergency kit!), let him down from my lap and continue the walk. An even bigger jackpot.

He gets no points for taking off, a totally unacceptable behavior for a service dog, but one I completely understand considering he's been in jail for so long and in pain so long. He gets big points for coming back when the enticement of chasing that lizard was nearly unbearably wonderful. And that's what I choose to focus on.

And I get points for taking the time to teach a really reliable recall and having instituted a cue so powerful it could bypass his hardwiring.

Debi Davis
copyright 2000 Debi Davis


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