By Morag Heirs
The automatic check-in is one of the most valuable skills to teach your deaf dog. There are a couple of different options, but the principle is to instill a strong habit of visually checking in with the handler at frequent intervals. The dog does not have to actually come back to your side (as in a recall) but just make eye contact so, if you needed him to lie down or recall, you would be able to signal for this.
While it is essential that our dogs choose to come back when we call them, it is just as important that they do not ignore us in between being recalled. The check-in is an exercise which came from training deaf dogs who need to be looking at the handler before a recall signal can be given.
The aim is for your dog to choose to visually check in with you during your walks, at which point you can then give him permission to continue or come back beside you if there might be a hazard ahead.
If we call our dogs back too often during walks, they will get frustrated and possibly bored. They might wonder, “Why on earth does she want me to come back to her side all the time?” However, with a check-in, we actively reward the dog for making contact without insisting on a full recall. The result is a dog who chooses to maintain a connection with us during our activities, and often one that opts to come back more often of his own freewill too.
There are two options for teaching the basic check-in. It comes down to personal preference and what best fits the individual dog and handler. Both options will create a dog who spends a lot of time looking back at you. Don’t worry, this is exactly what we want. You will be rewarding frequently during your walks and at home too, and this inevitably creates a super strong habit.
On every walk with the deaf dog, take a big bag of tiny treats. You may need to cut down on meal rations during the training period or find a version of your normal dog food that works well as rewards. For example, Rosie and I have found the ‘small bite’ version of Fish4Dogs food works really well – small, very smelly and appealing.
The Dog-Directed Check-In (1)
• Before starting your walk, wait for your dog to look at you – mark and reward with tasty food.
• From now on, if your dog looks at you even from a distance, mark and throw the reward to him – the dog does not need to come back to your side.
• Resist the temptation to try and attract his attention. If your dog is totally ignoring your presence, try standing still (the line means he cannot keep going without you) or choose a less distracting location to train in.
• After you have rewarded your dog, give him encouragement to keep going. A release signal or indication that you have finished is helpful.
• Occasionally (not more than three times per walk) you can follow up the check-in with a recall if you think the dog will definitely come back to you – otherwise, forget the recall part for now.
• You can also use a favorite toy as a reward for a check-in – just throw it out past the dog.
• Note: If your dog happens to choose to come all the way back to you without prompting then go wild and have a party with happy faces, best treats and toys!
Over time, you will get a feel for what your dog’s natural check-in time tends to be. Of my dogs, Farah’s check-in is around 30 seconds, while Bronte’s is closer to 40 seconds. If your dog does not check back as fast as you need him to, try the fixed period check-in training to encourage a faster response time.
After three or four weeks, you can start to reduce the frequency of the rewards and replace some of the food treats with cuddles, if the dog likes them, or big smiles and thumbs-up signals.
The Fixed Period Check-In (2)
Decide on the interval you would like the check-in to be. In this case, we used about 20 seconds. As you walk, give the dog a treat every 20 seconds. He does not have to do anything for it, not even look. If necessary, you put the treat in his mouth or walk up to him if he is off sniffing. At this stage, it is not the dog’s responsibility to get the treat; it is yours to give it on time.
Do this consistently for a few walks. You should start to notice that the dog looks at you at around the time the treat is due. If he does, then give a big thumbs-up and smile with the treat. If he starts to just watch you constantly, give a thumbs-up and tell him to walk on. If he is early in looking, you may want to reward him or give a thumbs-up and send on. It depends how early he is and how likely he is to look again. Keep going until you reach the point where he is looking for that treat more or less every 20 seconds.
Do another few walks with the dog taking responsibility. Don’t worry if he is a few seconds late occasionally, but more than this or getting too interested in something else may require a gentle touch to remind him. Once this is consistent, you can start to phase out some of the treats, substituting for a thumbs-up and big smile, a cuddle, a game or anything else that is rewarding for him other than food – but do not eliminate the food altogether.
Using a long line, gradually give the dog more freedom but still expect the check-in – use the line to reinforce him if needs be, or backtrack to a shorter lead if freedom goes to his head! As he gains more distance, you may not want him to return to you, so when he checks in you can just give him a thumbs-up from a distance and give a “go ahead” signal. Alternatively you can recall him for a reward or use heelwork to keep him thinking.
Try to use a release signal to distinguish when the dog is free and has to take responsibility for checking in. When he is on a short leash it is not as necessary as when he is off-leash or on a long line and he needs to remember his responsibility. Over time you will need fewer and fewer treats. This is the part where you need to be patient. It will vary with each dog but eventually almost all check-ins will be rewarded with a smile or thumbs-up. Do not forget to teach the recall as well, so if the dog gets too far ahead you can call him back at the check-in. By doing that consistently you can start to teach an appropriate distance for him to wander away from you as well.
The recall is often the last part of the puzzle to add to off-leash skills for a deaf dog. Just like with a hearing dog, it is best to start working on your recall at home without any distractions. We like to start by teaching a super enthusiastic hand targeting behavior, where your dog touches his nose to your outstretched palm.
By playing the hand targeting game, your deaf dog learns to rush quickly to you and stay close with his nose fixed on your hand. This gives you time to reward him and make the all-important harness grab to secure him too.
You can easily create a recall signal from this exercise by waiting for your dog to look at you, wave your arms clearly, and then sweeping your hands down to create that inviting target. In deaf dog circles we sometimes refer to this as “waving loudly.”
As you can see, it is very important to have a dog who checks in frequently, otherwise you will have a hard time getting him to notice your recall signal. Playing self-control games such as Susan Garrett’s It’s Yer Choice and similar techniques from Leslie McDevitt’s Control Unleashed approach builds a strong habit of waiting for permission before rushing into situations. Combined with a strong check-in, this exercise sets up your deaf dog to see another off-leash dog but pause and look back first. The handler can then either send the dog on to play or use the recall signal to bring him back in. Happy off-leash time everyone!
(1) The Dog-Directed Check-In by Morag Heirs
(2) The Fixed Period Check-In by Rosie Gibbs
This article was first published in BARKS from the Guild, January 2015, pp.35-37. For more great content on all things animal behavior and training, you can sign up for a lifetime, free of charge, subscription to the digital edition of BARKS from the Guild. If you are already a subscriber, you can view the issue here.
About the Author
Morag K. Heirs Ph.D MSc MA(Hons)(SocSci) PGCAP is a clinical animal behaviorist who runs Well Connected Canine Ltd. in York, England. She has been working in academia while also running her own successful businesses since 1999, and knows that it’s not enough just to be good at the job. Marketing, pricing, client communication and building a strong reputation all take a different set of skills. Her aim with this article is to help you love your behavior or training business just a little bit more.