Gail Fisher's Dog Tracks: Young dog's 'Flight Instinct Period' can undo training if not addressed
Right after I finished writing last week's column, which included a subtle "brag" about the fact that our Chinook, Larry, quickly learned not to counter-surf, he reminded me that it's not a good idea to speak too soon when talking about an adolescent dog's behavior.
There I was, standing in front of the kitchen counter holding a bag of chips. As I reached for a scissor to open the bag, suddenly Larry appeared in front of me - standing on the counter! He came out of nowhere, from a standing jump to landing on the counter. I think he was just as shocked as I was. Hopefully, the combination of my shock, the explosion after the jar he knocked off the counter smashed on the floor and him being carried ingloriously out of the kitchen and shut away to avoid the broken glass while we cleaned up the mess was enough to teach him that counter-jumping isn't such a great idea.
The joys of living with an adolescent dog continued a few days later with something I should have expected, but thought I might be fortunate enough to avoid. No such luck. Larry has entered the "Flight Instinct Period," a time in adolescence that is marked by the dog's failure to come when called, despite extensive prior training. Suddenly, Larry blew me off twice - as if he had never heard the word "come."
The Flight Instinct Period generally occurs sometime between 4 and 8 months of age - earlier in smaller dogs, later in larger ones. Larry, a large dog, marked his 8-month birthday on Feb. 27, so he certainly read the book on this one, because this event occurred just a week before he turned 8 months.What owners experience at this time is that the adolescent dog doesn't come when called and either continues running in the direction he was headed or engaging in whatever he was doing when you called, as if he is deaf.
This developmental period likely corresponds with the time when the dog's ancestor, the wolf, moves from the summer den, where the puppies are born, to follow the herd (their food source) to their winter quarters. Because moving house requires more independence than the pre-adolescent puppies exhibited, the adolescent wolf (and the adolescent dog) are more interested in exploring the world - in testing their wings. Part of the test, apparently in dogs at least, is what has been termed the "Flight Instinct Period."
Fortunately, this period doesn't last very long if handled properly. Proper handling means managing the dog's freedom, so he doesn't learn that coming when called is optional. It definitely is not. To avoid the dog learning to ignore the cue to come, I recommend keeping the dog on a leash or long-line and continuing to practice recalls for about two weeks. Avoid calling your dog if you're not able to enforce the cue, so he won't learn he has the option to ignore you. After two weeks, try the dog off-leash again in a safe area. If he is not over the flight instinct, keep him on leash for an additional two weeks, then try again.I foolishly thought it was a controlled enough environment in Larry's training class this week, so I took off his leash to call him. Unfortunately, a cute Australian shepherd was more appealing than coming to me. He ignored me to go play with her and didn't come when I called - yet another humbling experience for the "professional trainer."
To borrow a maxim: This cobbler's child will be wearing shoes for the next few weeks. I'll be setting Larry up to practice recalls without giving him an opportunity to ignore me or blow me off. Hopefully, he'll be over this in a couple of weeks. I'll let you know.
Gail Fisher, author of "The Thinking Dog," runs All Dogs Gym & Inn in Manchester. To suggest a topic for this column, email firstname.lastname@example.org or write c/o All Dogs Gym, 505 Sheffield Road, Manchester, NH 03103. You'll find past columns on her website.