It makes sense that we exercise our dogs up close, most of the time. Our dog is right next to or in front of us when we give the cue to heel, sit, stay, lie down, or wave. Calling our dogs is often done remotely, but this is not the case with most of the behaviors we ask our dogs to do.
However, there are benefits in teaching dogs to respond to a variety of cues, even when we are a little (or even much) further away. Unless we have done this type of remote training, it is very unlikely that our dogs will do what we ask in this situation. In order to get a reliable answer at a distance, you have to train at a distance, and a lot.
A dog that is trained to include distance learning may be better protected because the ability to communicate with a dog in an emergency can be life saving. The most common example is a dog that accidentally broke loose. A dog running free in such an unplanned manner can run the risk of being hit by a car, run away and disoriented, or if it happens in the countryside during the hunting season, being shot.
If there is a living person who has owned dogs for quite some time and has never faced a terrible situation because their dog broke up, I would be amazed. I certainly have, and while I’m not proud of it, I’m not ashamed either. Life happens and so do accidents. Screen doors inflate (or even down) during storms, gates are left off the latch, lines break, and people don’t always check where the dog is before opening the front door.
Get the BARK NEWSLETTER in your inbox!
Sign up and get answers to your questions.
If a dog becomes free but has been trained to come when called and made sure to do so, serious hazards can be avoided. But what if the dog has already crossed the street and calls her back, would put her in danger again? There it can be such an important skill to remotely ask her to sit or lie down and then stay. It is one thing to teach her to do these things when she is in front of you, but successful behavior at a distance is a direct result of successful distance training.
While the hazard isn’t that critical, remote training can help you keep your dog safe. Suppose you break a glass bowl and the pieces spread on the floor between you and your dog? If you can tell her to sit and stay until you clear the mess, or send her to her bed to lie down and stay, you will prevent your dog from getting hurt. When you’re barefoot, it protects you too; You don’t have to navigate the glass to grab it and move it to a safe location.
Sometimes having your dog respond to you from a distance is more a matter of convenience than safety. When you paint with your fingers with your (human) children or up to your elbows at the sink, it makes life a little easier when you can tell your dog what to do without interrupting what you are doing. In such cases, remote training gives you more flexibility in your own actions, and such options are usually very helpful.
It is necessary to specially train a dog to respond remotely because generally when a dog is asked to do something from the middle of the room it will trot over to us and then do it. Take “sit” for example. For most dogs, “sitting” means putting their bum on the floor right in front of whoever asked them to. This is a direct result of our training, in which we almost always give the cue to sit when our dogs are at our feet. If we want our dogs to sit wherever they are when asked, we need to teach them that this is what we want them to do.
One benefit of distance training is that it helps us communicate more clearly with our dogs as they develop a better understanding of the cues we give them. Another reason is that it expands their minds and gives them mental movement as we are asking them to make a paradigm shift in their thinking, which is exciting. The end result is a dog whose training is both more specific and more useful in a practical sense. A dog that can respond to cues remotely is one that can safely be given more freedom, which is one way of making their life even better.
After discussing how wonderful it can be to have a dog that will respond to your cues even when you’re not right next to her, now I’ll explain how to get there from here. The secret, as is so often the case with dog training, is that you do it gradually and by reinforcing the behavior every step of the way.
Take, for example, “sitting” (or some other behavior such as “down”, “waving”, “staying” or “turning”). Start with the slightest increase in distance. For example, suppose your dog is about six inches to a foot farther from you than usual when you ask him to sit down. When it sits where it is, reinforce it. After several sessions where she is successful at this distance, increase the distance by a few inches, or maybe even a foot. If she sits back when asked, reinforce her again. Only increase the distance if it can be consistently successful over the current distance.
As she gets closer before you sit down, there are other things you can try, all of which follow the same strategy: to make the task easier so that she can succeed. You can reduce the distance between you and / or work in an area that is less distracting. Or bend over slightly or take a step in her direction as soon as you give her the cue. Moving toward a dog with either a tilt or a step will encourage many dogs to stop any forward movement, and this will often result in a response to the cue before you get any closer. Once she is seated, step up and stop leaning in her direction. When you bend over to a dog, that dog is being pressurized and you will want to relieve the pressure once it is no longer needed.
In the early stages of this training, it is common for people to increase the distance too quickly. It’s too big a leap from what your dog knows, 5, 10, or 15 feet away, or all the way across the yard or park. This is too hard to start with, or better yet, probably for your dog to succeed, and then gradually (I say it again for emphasis – incremental) work towards increasing the distance that your dog will respond to you can.
Staying has two components to remote training: you can tell your dog to stay away and increase the distance between the two of you while he is staying. Both of these involve incremental increases and plenty of practice to make improvements.
Even with a recall, often from a distance, it will take practice to gradually increase your dog’s distance so that he can respond properly. Obviously, it is easier to successfully call your dog from 10 feet away than it is to call your dog from 100 feet away. It’s less obvious that being 30 feet away from your dog when you call instead of 40 feet can make the difference between a training win and a training fight. Lots of successes and lots of reinforcement at ever greater distances without making the changes too big is the ability to train your dog to come when called when you are far away.
When working on training dogs to react remotely, I prefer verbal and visual cues. Visual cues in the form of hand or arm movements are often easier for dogs to learn, and many dogs respond better to them. They are also especially useful when there is a lot of ambient noise.
Verbal cues, on the other hand, are much more effective when your dog is out of sight or not looking in your direction. Using redundant cues – both verbal and visual – increases the likelihood that your dog will react in a situation where your heart is racing and the voice in your head is screaming, “This is not an exercise! This is not an exercise! “
Once we have taught our dogs to respond to our cues remotely, we can give cues remotely and expect them to do what we ask, even if they are out of our reach. That makes life safer for them and better for both of us.