A Rock-Steady Recall for Dogs is absolutely vital if you want to avoid the stress, and potential danger, of a dog that won’t come when called.
Imagine that you are walking in a park. Your dog is walking calmly at your side until …
… he sees a herd of deer!
How would your dog react?
If he started to chase them would you be able to successfully recall him?
If you are struggling to imagine the scene, take a look at this video from a few years ago that features the briefly infamous Fenton and his hapless owner:
Now, this may well be amusing initially but consider the potential implications of incidents like this one:
- The dog could harm or kill one or more of the livestock in question
- The livestock could harm or kill the dog
- It is a criminal offence in the UK for a dog to worry livestock
- Your dog could be shot if it cannot be brought under control!
- Much stress and anxiety for the owner of the dog
This is, of course, just one example of when a rock-steady recall may prove useful.
You might also be grateful of one if your dog approaches a road with passing traffic, or any other hazard that you have spotted but your dog has not, or to call him away from other dogs for some reason, or simply because you want to put him back on lead (or call him into the house when he is in the garden).
Before we move on, let’s take a moment to consider what we mean when say a Rock-Steady Recall for Dogs.
rock-steady: consistent in performance or behavior; “dependable in one’s habits”TheFreeDictionary.com
recall: to call back; summon to return:Dictionary.com
OK, let’s take a look at some reliable recall training for our dogs.
1 Rock-Steady Recall for Dogs – Training Approach
OK, before we get started with recall training specifically, I want to discuss the approach we’ll be taking and the use of positive dog training.
1.1 Empathy for Your Dog
Do you remember a book called Fluke, written by James Herbert? No? The book’s description was “The story of a dog who thinks he’s a man … or a man who thinks he’s a dog”.
Imagine that you are your dog. I know, I know, that’s a weird request but just humour me for a minute.
Go on! Think of its breed (or maybe its a cross-breed of some description), sex, and age. Think of how it walks, runs, sniffs, and toilets. OK, not the toileting part, you don’t need to imagine that!
Now picture yourself romping around in a field doing the things that you love doing; sniffing the scent of other dogs on the grass, the scent of other animals all around, a quick look back at your human, some more sniffing, then a quick attack of the zoomies!
Suddenly, your nose tells you that there are other dogs and humans approaching. Not ones that you are familiar with. You want to go to investigate. You look back at your human for guidance and it makes that boring noise from its mouth that you think means it wants you to go back to it.
What to do?
The new scent is getting stronger – they are getting closer. The smell makes it difficult to focus on anything else.
You really want to investigate the new dogs and humans.
Summoning all of your powers of self-restraint you momentarily resist the intoxicating new scent and take another look at your human.
Your human really wants you to return.
It’s getting louder and more animated. It looks angry!
Interesting new smells or angry human?
The interesting new smells are so enticing. And getting closer still …
… making the canine equivalent of a Herculean effort (do dogs have an equivalent to Greek mythology?) you turn away from the intriguing aroma and trot back towards your human.
When you arrive you sit neatly in front of your human, still manage to wag your tail, and give your best smile. How could your human be anything other than incredibly impressed with your super-canine behaviour?
But it isn’t incredibly impressed.
Nor moderately impressed.
In fact, it doesn’t seem pleased at all. No play. No praise. No treats. Just loud noise from its mouth. And attaching that rope thing to your collar.
Not pleased at all.
Perhaps the new smells were the better option …
So, if the same scenario were to arise again. How keen would dog-you be to return when called?
Now imagine an alternative approach. You are human-you again now but you are going to do things differently.
Firstly, when your dog looks back at you for guidance:
You don’t give some half-baked verbal cue, while distractedly looking at your mobile ‘phone, that gives the impression that you aren’t really bothered whether or not your dog comes back. Nor do you angrily bellow the verbal cue.
You deliver your verbal cue in the most clear and enticing way that you possibly can. You are a human squeaky toy whose sole purpose is to encourage your dog to come back. Now is not the time to worry about what other people may think of you!
Secondly, when your dog does what you have asked and returns to you.
Don’t punish him – reward him! Make sure that he knows that he made the right choice in choosing you over the enticing smell.
Praise him. Give him a treat or play a quick game. If you do put his lead on while you pass the new dogs and humans, make sure that you let him off again afterwards even if only for a short while.
With this new approach in play, ask yourself the same question as before. How keen would your dog be to return when called?
This reward-based training is the key to our objective of a rock-steady recall for dogs.
1.2 Positive Dog Training
There is a phrase used by trainers that advocate positive dog training and, for me, it pretty much sums up the whole approach.
If your dog does what is asked of him, he gets rewarded. The act of rewarding him makes it more likely that the behaviour will be successfully completed the next time that the cue is used.
If you keep that in mind while you undertake your recall training it will serve you well.
If you’d like to read more about the topic then I have a post dedicated to Positive Dog Training.
1.3 Reward Currency
We use currency to pay for things, right?
So, in terms of rewarding your dog, what is your dog’s preferred currency?
Now, the currency that everybody first thinks of is food. And this may well be the preferred currency for your dog. But, two caveats:
- There are many different types of food for your dog. You need to establish which types are highly regarded by him.
For example, warm chicken may be “Woohoo!!” but regular kibble may be “Meh …”.
A rock-steady recall for dogs will necessitate “Woohoo!!” and not “Meh …”
- At least consider the possibility that something else may be regarded as higher value than food.
What else might our dogs prefer as a reward?
It wasn’t until we went to some training classes given by a police dog trainer that we discovered just how much our Lab, Harvey, likes tennis balls.
In fact, ‘like’ doesn’t really do it justice. He absolutely loves playing with tennis balls. It’s partly the chase element and partly the way that the texture of the tennis ball feels in the mouth.
“What the heck are Puller Rings?” I hear you say.
Well, as the name suggests, they are rings that you and your dog can pull – like a mini tug-of-war. But you don’t have to leave it at that. They can be also be used for games of fetch. Or sometimes just being played with by your dog on his own.
They are quite tough but they are not designed to be chew toys so I wouldn’t let your dog keep it to use in that way. Play with it for a while and then put it away.
Despite his love for tennis balls, Harv actually prefers the Puller Rings.
If I was just starting Harv’s recall training now, Puller Rings are the currency that I would use to reward him.
Whatever ‘does it’ for your dog.
What works for one dog won’t necessarily work for another.
So, if you don’t already know what it is, devote some time to finding out. Try old things, try new things, ask other dog owners what reward currency they use for their dog.
1.4 The Right Cue – Your Dog’s Recall Signal
There are two main types of recall cue:
- Audio – a verbal cue word, or some other sound
- Visual – a hand signal, or some other sign
It’s useful to have a combination of cues in your training arsenal.
These are the ones that I’d recommend:
- A whistle – this will be your recall cue of choice
- A verbal cue word – like “Come” or “Here”
- A hand signal – I use both hands held out to the side (like the Angel of the North!)
The whistle is an excellent recall tool.
It enables you to give a consistent cue every time. Its sound travels further and more clearly than a verbal cue (cutting through wind and traffic noise). And it can be given when your dog is out of sight.
Dogs’ hearing is able to distinguish the sound of one pitch of whistle compared to another. It is important, therefore, to always use the same type of whistle.
The one that I use is an ACME 210.5.
I would advise getting 2 or 3 so that you have spares. (I keep one on my keyring, greatly reducing the possibility of being without a whistle when out with my dog).
I’d also recommend having one on a lanyard for when training. Its so much easier than having to keep retrieving it from a pocket – and reduces the risk of losing the whistle.
You will need to decide on what whistle signal that you want to give as your recall cue. I went with 5 rapid pips. Its easier to be consistent with short pips. I wouldn’t recommend a long, single sound.
Throughout the rest of the post, I’ll talk about the whistle recall cue but once your dog is happy with one cue there is no harm (and, in fact, it can be useful) in adding other cues too.
Simply give your existing cue (for example, the 5 pips on the whistle) and then, as your dog is recalling to you, add the other cue (for example, the arms outstretched hand signal). Repeat this a number of times over a week or so to really reinforce the new cue and then try it on its own.
2 Stages of Training
The establishment of a rock-solid recall doesn’t happen overnight. (Apologies to the eternal optimists who thought otherwise!)
Reliable recall training, as with other areas of training, necessitates going through a number of stages:
- Obtaining the desired behaviour – come when called
- Attaching a cue – verbal “Come”, auditory via a whistle, hand signal
- Performing the desired behaviour ‘on cue’ – testing the attachment
- Proofing the behaviour – adding various distractions
The first 3 stages are pretty self-explanatory but you may not be familiar with the concept of proofing. Let me explain:
We humans are very good at generalising what we learn. If we learn how to read a book while in the classroom at school we can …
- Read on the sofa in the lounge
- Read in bed
- Read on a patio chair in the garden
- Read on a park bench
- Read in a cafe
- Read on a bus, train, or plane
- Given the appropriate equipment we can read underwater … or in space!
Dogs are not very good at generalising.
If you teach a dog how to sit in your kitchen then that is, for most dogs, the full extent of your teaching. It does not mean that the sit cue will necessarily work in other circumstances.
So, to help our dogs to generalise, we need to practise our cues in a variety of situations and with various distractions. This is known as proofing the behaviour.
Typically, in addition to making use of different locations, proofing involves using the 3 ‘D’s:
Distance. Recalling a dog from 1 metre away is easier than recalling one from 10 metres away, or even 100 metres away.
Duration. Asking a dog to Sit for 5 seconds is easier than asking a dog to Sit for a minute. For Recall training this is effectively the same as Distance as longer Recalls will take longer to perform – and the longer the recall takes the more scope there is for something to go wrong.
Distractions. This is the biggie! Your dog may happily Recall from 20 metres away with no distractions but what if there is a loud noise? Or people nearby? Or other dogs? Or … pretty much anything that your dog may find interesting.
Now, we want our dogs to succeed in their recall training. If they succeed then we reward them. And what gets rewarded … remember? … gets repeated.
So, only work on increasing one ‘D’ at a time.
Once you have successfully increased one then move on the the next.
3 Recall Training for Puppies
OK, let’s move on to some actual recall training.
3.1 Recall Advantages for Puppies
If you are looking for a rock-steady recall for your puppy then you have some substantial advantages compared to those training older dogs.
- The chances are strong that the recall cue hasn’t yet been tainted
- Puppies will naturally follow you because they see you as their protector
- Chasing is a fun game!
There are two main forms:
1. Cue ignoredLet’s say that your verbal recall cue is “Come”. If you use your cue and your dog ignores it, the cue is weakened because it didn’t have the desired response. The situation is then compounded if you continue to give the cue multiple times and your dog still ignores it. To your dog “Come” doesn’t mean to recall to you. It means to carry on playing, sniffing, going the opposite direction, or whatever it was that he was actually doing when you gave the cue. Or it means nothing at all – it’s just a noise that you make!
2. Negative associationYou have again given your verbal “Come” cue. Your dog is a little slow to respond but does eventually trot back to you. When he returns you don’t reward him, you don’t praise him or play with him. You angrily curse him for not returning as quickly as you wanted. You put him back ‘on lead’ and stomp off, resolving not to let the dog off again for the rest of the walk. What have you communicated to your dog? You’ve told him that whenever he hears the word “Come” nothing good happens. But bad things do happen. Why on earth would he rush back to you if he hears “Come” again in the future?
So, we should capitalise on these advantages as part of our recall training.
3.2 Puppy Recall Exercise 1 – Feed Me!
- Start off in a safe, enclosed area
- Have your chosen treats, or other currency, to hand to act as a reward
- Attract your puppy’s attention and let him see that you have his favourite reward
- Take a couple of steps backwards and, as your puppy starts to move towards you, give your whistle cue
- This may sound a little odd but, try to deliver the whistled pips in a rapid, happy, upbeat manner. Not long, angry, blasts
- When your puppy arrives in front of you say “Yes!” in the same happy, upbeat manner and deliver the reward. Let your puppy know just how clever you think he is for doing this
- Repeat 3-4 times daily. Don’t overdo it – puppies tire easily and we don’t want any failures
- If your puppy really enjoys his meals you could incorporate recall training into mealtimes. Let your puppy know that his meal is ready and then give the whistle cue as the puppy eagerly races towards his meal
- Once this section is being performed satisfactorily, move on to the next
3.3 Puppy Recall Exercise 2 – Follow Me!
Many dogs like a game of chase – but puppies absolutely love it!
Let your puppy move a short distance away from you and watch to see when he looks back at you. This is the puppy wariness that we are going to capitalise on.
As soon as he does look back, turn around and run a few paces away.
Stop and turn to face your puppy – you should find that he is following you. Quickly sound the pips on your whistle and then enthusiastically say “Yes!” as the puppy arrives. Give him his favourite reward and make a big fuss of him.
Repeat 3-4 times daily.
Continue for at least 2 weeks until your puppy is completely comfortable with this.
3.4 Puppy Recall – Progress Evaluation
Do you remember the Stages of Training that we outlined?
Of course you do, but just as a quick reminder for everybody else:
Obtaining the desired behaviour – Attaching a cue – Performing the desired behaviour ‘on cue’ – and Proofing the behaviour.
Well, we’ve just done the first two stages.
We’ve obtained the desired behaviour by enticing our puppy to come to us and, as he does so, we’ve given our whistle cue.
In doing this we are already linking the two stages in the puppy’s mind (if you want to know how this works, and you haven’t already done so, go and read the Positive Dog Training post).
The next stage is to test how well this link has been made. Time to now give the whistle cue before the dog starts to recall.
3.5 Puppy Recall Exercise 3 – Run With Me!
OK, the moment of truth …
- Start with your puppy in a safe, low distraction area
- Wait until he is a little distance away from you
- Give your recall whistle cue
- Immediately start running away from your puppy in order to trigger his chase response
- Stop, turn around to face him, crouch down (to minimise any feeling of intimidation for the puppy) and reward him with his favourite currency
- Don’t be stingy with the praise and reward(s) – let your puppy know just how brilliant he is!
- Repeat 3-4 times daily (stop before your puppy gets too tired – we don’t want any failures)
- Continue for at least a week
Well done, you’ve successfully recalled your puppy on cue.
3.6 Puppy Recall Exercise 4 – Proofing
Alright, we’re now 3 down (Obtaining the desired behaviour, Attaching a cue, and Performing the desired behaviour ‘on cue’) and 1 to go (Proofing the behaviour) in our training stages.
Once you are completely happy with the ‘Run With Me!’ phase it’s time to take our first look at some proofing. (Please do not move on to this stage until your puppy is completely reliable with the previous exercise and has been doing it for at least a week)
As we noted above, proofing makes use of the 3 ‘D’s (Distance, Duration, Distraction) to help our dogs better generalise the behaviour that we are teaching.
Keep in mind that we are teaching a puppy / young dog. Do not expect too much of him. Remember, you want him to succeed – that’s how the training works.
For this part, we are going to focus on the scale of rewards that we discussed earlier. We’ll use low-value rewards as the distraction and our highest value ones as the reward for successfully recalling away from the distraction.
- In a safe, low distraction environment (like your garden), put your puppy on the ground
- Let your puppy see you scatter some low value treats in the grass (if you have no grass, use a snuffle mat)
- Let your puppy approach the distraction
- As your puppy is eating the treats recall him away from the distraction
- This will be a real challenge for many puppies – so you have to put in a huge amount of effort. Only give the recall cue once but you may then need to ‘work it’ – let the puppy see the high-value reward that is on offer, use your happy and excited voice, see if you can elicit a response by pretending to run away
- When your puppy gets it right make sure you let him know how pleased you are!
- As before, repeat 3-4 times daily for a week or so
For an excellent illustration of this exercise, take a look at this video from Emily ‘Kikopup’ Larlham:
3.7 Puppy Recall – Rewards Re-visited
What’s your favourite meal?
Home-cooked? Take-away? Restaurant?
A comforting, familiar dish from your country of origin? Or something exotic from a foreign country?
Whatever it is, how long would it remain your favourite if you had it every mealtime, every day of the year?
Exactly, it would start to lose it’s appeal.
And so it is with training rewards. We want our very best rewards to retain their high value.
So, we use a scale of rewards based upon what part of the training process we are at. For a brand new behaviour, we want the ‘big guns’ – our dog’s most favourite reward. Then, once the performance starts to become reliable we can begin to scale down the value of the reward.
Eventually, a simple, well-known behaviour may just warrant a piece of kibble or some verbal praise.
That said, in the interests of keeping-up your dog’s enthusiasm, it’s worth occasionally still giving a high-value reward for a simple behaviour. Variety is the spice of life!
3.8 Puppy Recall – Moving On to the Next Level
Once you are 100% happy with your puppy’s performance of the exercises above, and he is at least 3 months old, you can consider moving on to the next stage.
Don’t be in a hurry to move on too soon. If you are not 100% happy then wait for another week or two until you are. There is no deadline to meet. No competition to beat. Move on when your puppy is ready and not before.
4 Recall Training for Adult Dogs
4.1 Dog Recall – Preparation
If you have a young dog and have just completed the ‘Recall Training for Puppies’ section then you can move on to the next section.
If you have an adult dog that is just starting, or re-starting, his recall training then work your way through this section first to help prepare your dog for the further training that is to follow.
Do you remember the advantages that an owner of a puppy has when it comes to recall training? Let’s re-cap:
- Strong likelihood that the recall cue hasn’t been tainted
- Puppies will naturally follow you for their own protection
- They love chasing games
Ditch the Tainted Cue(s)
If you have tried recall training before and your existing (non-working!) cue has become tainted then you should ditch it. It will be far easier to work with a new one than to undo the damage done to the previous one.
So, if you used a whistle with 5 pips as the cue then switch to 3 pips. If your verbal cue was ‘Come’ then switch to ‘Here’. If your hand signal was arms outstretched to the side then switch to both arms held up straight above your head.
These are just examples. You can pick whatever cues you think will work best for you. Do try to keep them simple and easy to implement:
Yes: 3 pips
No: Your whistled version of “Come as you are” by Nirvana
No: “I’d quite like it if you would come here, please”
Yes: Both arms held straight above your head
No: Some bizarre canine version of semaphore with your arms waving all over the place
Prevention Prevention Prevention
Once a dog has learned that ‘Come’ means ‘Do whatever you want to do’ it can be difficult to undo.
Ditching any tainted cues, as we mentioned above, will be a big help.
In addition, you need to help your dog to make the right decisions in re-learning what recall really means.
Gradually work your way through the various exercises so that you minimise the possibility of your dog making the wrong decision. DO NOT move on to subsequent exercises until your dog can easily and reliably perform the current exercise.
If your dog is working tremendously hard to re-learn what recall means then the very least that you can do is to exercise some patience. Success at Exercise 1 for the tenth time is far more valuable than failure at Exercise 2 through moving on too soon.
Eliminate any distractions. We will move on to proofing the recall in later exercises. For now, we don’t want anything that might result in our dog making the wrong decision.
- Quiet, enclosed environments
- No other people, especially noisy, easily excitable children
- No other animals, including other dogs
- No toys left visible from earlier play sessions
If you fear that your dog may run away in an exercise, consider the use of a Long Line.
Note that this is a fixed-length training aid, to prevent your dog from running off after a distraction (like Fenton and the deer!). It is not one of those dreadful extendable leads.
A few things to take into account when using a long line:
- They should only be used with harnesses – never collars. Attaching one to his collar could cause serious neck injury to your dog if he came to a sudden stop when running flat out. (It may look funny in cartoons but in real life, it could be disastrous)
- Attach it to the back, rather than the chest, attachment for the harness to minimise the chance of the dog getting entangled in it
- Monitor the amount of slack in the line. If there is a lot of slack and your dog has already run off at speed do not attempt to grab the line – you will very likely get friction burns (I speak from experience!)
Nor should you be holding the loop at the end waiting for the slack to disappear – that way waits a broken wrist! Instead, allow the line to trail on the ground and apply pressure with the sole of your foot
- Usually, just feeling the resistance of the line dragging on the ground will discourage a dog from running away
- A long line is a training aid, not a long-term solution. Once you and your dog are happy with the recall situation then its time to dispense with the long line
Positive Association with the Cue
OK, let’s get started with some training.
What we want to do here is to link, in your dog’s mind, the recall cue with something that he enjoys.
Grab lots of your dog’s favourite treats and your recall whistle.
Attract your dog’s attention. Let him smell the treats in your closed hand. Gently blow your whistle with the recall cue and immediately open your hand and give some of the treats to your dog.
Then give him some more. And then more after that. And … some more.
Over the next few days repeat this process 4-5 times each day.
This is often referred to as a Jackpot Reward scenario, for obvious reasons, and it can be very useful in creating positive associations like this.
Dogs are intelligent animals and are very good at spotting links or patterns. As you continue to repeat this exercise your dog will make the link between the recall cue and the happy experience (the jackpot of his favourite treats).
Feed Me – Revisited!
This exercise is similar to the Feed Me! exercise for puppies. See if you can spot what the difference is as I run through the sequence:
- Have your whistle and reward ready
- Attract your dog’s attention and let him see that you have his favourite reward
- When your dog is in front of you, give the recall cue on your whistle
- Say “Yes!” in your best happy and upbeat manner and deliver the reward
- Repeat 4-5 times daily
- If your dog really enjoys his meals then you can use the same technique when you feed him his meal, too
Did you spot the difference?
In the puppy recall exercise we gave the recall cue as the puppy started to move towards us – that is, we were associating the whistle recall cue with the act of moving towards us (recalling).
In the above exercise, we gave the cue when the dog was in front of us, not when he started to move.
At the moment we are concentrating on building a positive association for our dog between the recall cue and good things happening. We no longer have the puppy advantages outlined above so we have to work a little harder.
Once you have successfully repeated the exercise for 3 days we can progress to an exercise where we are actually marking the recall – similar to the Follow Me! puppy exercise.
Follow Me – Revisited!
OK, this exercise is very similar to the first one but we are going to throw in some movement – for you and your dog so make sure that you have room.
- Have your whistle and reward ready
- Attract your dog’s attention and let him see that you have his favourite reward
- Slowly start to walk backwards while still showing your dog the reward
- As your dog starts to move towards you, blow your whistle recall cue and stop walking
- Let your dog have both your enthusiastic “Yes!” and his reward
- Repeat 4-5 times daily
Remember what we said earlier about prevention?
Take your time. Avoid distractions.
If you recall (sorry!) the Stages of Training you’ll know that we have been working on Obtaining the desired behaviour and Attaching a cue.
In the next section, we’ll start looking at Performing the desired behaviour ‘on cue’ and Proofing the behaviour.
4.2 Dog Recall – Attaching the Cue
Itching to actually use the recall cue properly?
Well, itch no longer!
As before, we need to minimise, or even eliminate completely, any distractions initially. So, start off in your back garden or even in a room indoors. Ensure there is nothing that could possibly distract your dog (no food, no toys, no other people etc).
And you know those people who say “Winning isn’t everything.”?
They’re wrong! Winning IS everything! (as far as our recall training is concerned, anyway)
Have your dog’s highest value reward(s) at the ready. And your most enthusiastic and encouraging attitude.
- Get a little distance between you and your dog – not too far, say 4-5 paces
- Have your reward ready
- Give your recall cue
- Give an enthusiastic “Yes!” when your dog comes to you and give the reward
- Repeat the exercise 4-5 times throughout the day
Well done – you’ve attached the recall cue to the recall behaviour!
Now, if you have put in the necessary amount of practice in the association exercises the above exercise shouldn’t be problematic for your dog. You did put in the practice, didn’t you?
If your dog doesn’t immediately come to you when you give the cue then you have to make it work! You must put in 100% effort to encourage your dog to come to you.
Crouch down, make kissy noises, slap your thigh, show the reward that is available, be a clown! Regardless of how silly you may feel you MUST encourage your dog to come to you. A dull tone and boring kibble treats are unlikely to entice a reluctant dog.
Think of it like this:
Once your dog is reliably performing this recall on cue without you needing to add any additional encouragement then it’s time to change things up …
4.3 Dog Recall – Basic Proofing
A quick memory test for you :- Are dogs good at generalising?
That’s right, they aren’t.
So, the chances are that we have just taught our dog how to recall in that one, low distraction, location.
A Change of Scenery
We, therefore, need to change locations and repeat the process outlined in the previous section. If you were in the garden then try a room indoors. If you were already indoors try outside, or a different room.
As before, repeat this exercise until it can be performed reliably and without additional encouragement.
This is the first (baby) step in our Proofing training.
Out of Sight
We are now going to recall our dog when he is out of sight.
This is your dog’s first time doing this so … you know the drill by now … low distraction levels. Do this with your dog in one room and you in one next to it (nobody else in the rooms, no other dogs, no toys, no food etc).
Give your recall cue on the whistle. As soon as your dog arrives immediately give an enthusiastic “Yes!” and present his valuable reward to him.
Wait until your dog is focused on something other than you and leave the room and go to the room that your dog came from. Repeat the recall exercise 4-5 times across the next few days until it is being performed reliably.
5 Rock-Steady Recall – Proofing
We have a basic recall. Well done.
What we must do now is to continue with the proofing process. This will help our dog realise that when the recall cue is given he should, whatever the scenario, return to us.
Throughout the proofing process remember the principles that we have used in getting this far (we don’t want to undo all of that good work).
- Empathy for your dog. Want him to succeed and design your exercises accordingly
- It’s a partnership. Work with your dog to achieve the desired outcome
- Positive dog training. What gets rewarded gets repeated
- Reward currency. Find what works for your dog. ‘Big guns’ for new exercises
- Proofing. Increase the difficulty of only one aspect (Distance, Duration, Distractions) at a time
5.1 Proofing – Location
In our efforts to minimise distractions we have, so far, limited our recall training to our house and garden. Obviously, this is of somewhat limited practical value!
Let’s take our recall ‘out and about’.
As with all changes to difficulty in training we want to do it gradually and avoid increasing the difficulty in any other areas at the same time.
So, we want somewhere that isn’t our house and garden but which still enables us to work in a fairly controlled environment.
Don’t agree to meet with a group of friends who are doing a Park Run and think that this is an ideal place to practice. Hundreds of runners, many with dogs, hundreds of excited children cheering on their parents, not to mention bored ones looking to entertain themselves.
Ideally, you want something like a cricket pitch or a football pitch, and somewhere that is fenced or hedged around the perimeter – this minimises the options available to a curious dog in a new environment.
And, anti-social people that we are when training, we want to be able to avoid other people and other dogs. Get into the habit of checking the area for distractions both when you arrive and during your training.
If somebody arrives while you are training then keep your dog on-lead. Depending on the circumstances you can either wait until they leave or you can leave and try again another time.
DO NOT attempt recall training while they are still there. That is unfair on your dog and has a high probability of resulting in a failed recall. Remember, this is a partnership – help your canine partner to succeed.
Try to pick a location that is close to where you live so that you can further your anti-social attitude by training early enough or late enough that you minimise the chance of meeting anybody else.
What’s That Smell?
Have realistic expectations when you take your dog somewhere new.
You appraise new locations by looking around. Your dog does it using his sense of smell. And there are likely to be lots of scents that he wants to smell!
Don’t go straight into your recall training. Have a relaxed walk around the new area for a few minutes – let your dog sniff and investigate.
Once your dog has sniffed and is settled move on to some very simple recall training. Keep to small distances initially. Use the highest value rewards possible for your dog.
Only do 4-5 repetitions on the first visit, as this will be quite a challenge. Something like:
- Arrive and scan the area for distractions
- 5 minutes for your dog to sniff and investigate
- Recall practice #1
- Walk for 5 minutes
- Recall practice #2
- Walk for 5 minutes
- #3, walk, #4, walk, #5, walk
As your dog becomes more and more comfortable in this new location you can begin to add other proofing distractions (one at a time) like distance, people, and dogs.
If you have further venues available then visit these too. Make sure to start from the beginning again at these places (small distances and no other distractions).
5.2 Proofing – Distance
Being able to recall your dog from a few metres away, or from another room in your house, is good. But it needs to be better.
If you are out for a walk and your dog is off-lead how far away from you will he go? That is your initial target distance for a reliable recall. (You can then extend beyond that distance for the ‘just in case’ scenario where he wanders off a little further).
The video below, featuring my dog Harvey, shows what sort of distance we built up to. Watch the top-left corner for Harv’s start point.
Start by moving to a location that allows you some scope to gradually increase the recall distance – but don’t increase the distance yet!
Initially, just do some recalls at your established distance. We don’t want to ask too much of our dog as we have already placed him somewhere new. Reward heavily for success – even if it looks quiet to us there will be many (scent) distractions for a dog.
After a couple of successful sessions, you can gradually start to increase the distance.
Let’s say that your dog’s current recall distance is 5 metres and the initial target distance is 25 metres. I would choose 7 metres, 10 metres, 13 metres, 17 metres, 21 metres, and finally 25 metres. (Keep a note of the distance level on your ‘phone or notepad)
Remember, you are in no hurry. There is no deadline. Move at your dog’s pace. If he struggles at a particular distance then reduce it a little for a few sessions – help your dog to succeed!
Now, some of you may already have thought about the matter that I’m about to mention. For those that haven’t, contemplate this for a moment … how did I manage to get so much distance between me and Harvey in order to perform the above recall?
5.3 Proofing – People
Other people are important to your dog’s recall for two reasons:
- You will wish your dog to recall away from other people you meet while out on your walks
- You may wish your dog to recall for other people, like your partner or children
Recall Away from Other People
You know the drill by now …
We’re adding a new level of difficulty so we want to minimise any other distractions. So, back to a room in your house or your back garden.
Enlist the help of a family member or friend to act as the distraction.
Initially, ask the helper to quietly enter the room where you and your dog are waiting. The helper should not interact with the dog at all but just quietly stand and wait.
Put a small distance between you and your dog and then give your recall cue. As soon as he arrives in front of you say “Yes!” and give him his favourite reward.
If he appears reluctant to recall then it’s up to you to make it work! Do whatever it takes to achieve a successful recall.
Repeat multiple times per day until your dog will reliably recall in this scenario. Its then time to (gradually!) increase the difficulty.
Start by having the helper begin to interact with your dog, just gentle talking and petting. As soon as you give the recall cue the helper should stop interacting – we don’t want it to be a competition!
Once that is being successfully completed you can ask the helper to feed (low value) treats to your dog before you give the recall cue. Again, the helper should stop interacting at this point.
And once that part is mastered you can begin to perform these exercises in different locations.
And then find another helper and repeat from the start!
Recall for Other People
That’s right, start in a low distraction environment again.
You and the other recaller both need to be armed with a whistle and your dog’s favourite reward. Stand 5-6 paces away from each other. When you give your recall cue you should crouch down and entice your dog. The other person should remain standing and not interact with the dog.
Now swap – you stop interacting with your dog and stand up, the other person gives the cue, crouches down and entices the dog.
Effectively you are playing canine ping-pong with your dog bouncing between the two of you. Make sure that both of you say “Yes!” for each successful recall and provide your dog with his reward.
Practice the exercise, using the same principles we have used previously until it is mastered. Then, for the next exercise, have you and the other person in different rooms.
Then take the exercise outside.
And then increase the distance (assuming that you have already increased the distance for your own recall).
5.4 Proofing – Dogs
This is, for many owners, the Holy Grail of dog recall.
Does the following scenario sound familiar? :
- You are out for a walk with your dog, who is currently off-lead
- You spot another owner and dog in the distance
- Your dog spots, or scents, the other owner and dog
- Your dog looks at you
- “Nooo!! Don’t you dare!”
- Your dog races off to investigate
Let’s work on a rock-solid recall that will ensure that our dog will come when called, even in the face of such huge temptation.
You know where this training is initially going to take place, don’t you? Yep, it’s back garden time again!
You are also going to need to enlist the assistance of both a human and a canine helper. And, taking account of our preference for low distraction environments, we want a canine helper that is a calm, well socialised, dog that won’t turn into ‘Taz of Tazmania’ during the training!
Ideally, the dogs should already know each other. If they don’t, have a few dog-to-dog meetings on neutral ground to allow them to become familiar with each other outside of a training environment.
Start with both dogs on-lead, next to their respective owners, about 5 metres apart. Then release your dog and allow it to go and briefly meet the other dog.
Then give your recall cue. The other owner and dog should remain in place.
If your dog recalls immediately then make sure that you are quick with your marker word “Yes!” and providing his reward to him. If he doesn’t immediately recall then, as previously, you need to be at your most persuasive to entice him to you.
Keep repeating the exercise (not all on the same day) until your dog can reliably recall away from the other dog without you having to give additional encouragement.
Then it’s time to gradually increase the difficulty again:
- Work with the helper dog being walked, but still on-lead
- Then with the helper dog loose
Once you are completely happy with your dog’s recall in each of the additional scenarios then you can begin to work in other locations.
As with the ‘Proofing – Location’ section, start somewhere that has a boundary and make use of the location at times when you are unlikely to meet anybody else or their dogs.
Remember to start at the lowest level again, with the helper dog on-lead and not moving, before progressing.
Once you are completely happy with your dog’s recall in all of these scenarios … see if you can find another willing helper with a suitable dog and repeat the process.
6 Rock-Steady Recall for Dogs – Tips
OK, here are a few tips to consider in relation to your recall training.
- Once is enough
Give your recall cue once and once only.
If you use it repeatedly then at best you end up in a situation where your dog thinks that the recall cue is “Come … come … come! … come! … COME!!!” – who wants to have to use that every time?!
At worst you end up with a cue that is tainted and of no use whatsoever.
- I’m free
When you reach the endpoint of a cue, for example, when your dog has successfully recalled to you, or has responded to the Sit cue and waited in that position for the required duration, how do you let him know that is the end?
I use the cue word “Free”, and the hand signal cue of clapping my hands together twice, to indicate to Harvey that the required behaviour has finished and he is now free to do as he wishes.
- Rewards again
Constantly re-evaluate what your dog finds to be most rewarding.
For example, in the proofing section with dogs, your dog may find it incredibly rewarding to be able to play and interact with another dog. If that is the case, rather than giving one of the other rewards used to date you could simply release him to play with the other dog.
You could also make use of tip 2 at the same time and say “Free” and clap your hands to indicate that he can play and then encourage him to follow you towards the other dog.
- Teenage tantrums?
Having had great initial recall success with a puppy, some owners find that recall response can diminish when the dog reaches adolescence.
This isn’t your dog misbehaving because of his age. It’s most likely that the initial success was aided by the puppy advantages discussed above and that recall training has not continued as the dog got older.
Don’t abandon your recall training once you think it’s all done. It’s like that old variety show act with the spinning plates on top of poles – now and then they have to go back and shake the pole to keep the plate spinning. Similarly, you need to go back and refresh your recall training periodically.
- It’s all a game
A great way of topping-up your recall training, to avoid the problem mentioned at 4 above, is to play recall games when you are out with your dog.
Ping-pong. Like the ‘Proofing – People’ exercise, if there are two, or more, of you on a walk with your dog off-lead then put some distance between you and alternate recalling your dog. This is excellent recall practice for your dog and has the added advantage of being fun for him.
Checking-in. As you walk, with your dog off-lead, you will find that he sometimes looks back to see where you are – checking-in. When you catch him in the act of doing this immediately give an enthusiastic “Yes!” and crouch down to offer him a treat as his reward. Don’t do it every time he checks in – make it random.
You should find that this will generate a race back to you on the check-ins that you mark. It will also increase the frequency of the check-in behaviour and, because it is more difficult to do at a distance, reduce the likelihood of your dog straying too far away from you.
“What’s this?!”. When your dog is a little way ahead of you on an off-lead walk, scatter some tasty treats on the ground, crouch down next to the treats, and excitedly exclaim “What’s this?!“. Focus your attention on the treats – we want the dog’s natural curiousity to entice him to come and see what you have found.
The more often that you are able to do this, the stronger the cue becomes – there is a theory that the dog sees this as a ‘scavenging for food’ trip and the more reliable you prove to be at ‘finding’ food (your dog doesn’t know that you put it there!) the more likely that he will stay fairly close to you.
Admittedly, ‘Checking-in’ and ‘What’s this?’ aren’t actually recall games. But they encourage recall-like behaviour and get your dog more familiar with running back to you – which is, at the end of the day, what we want from our recall training.
- Don’t test me!
Don’t be tempted during your recall training to test your dog in order to show off the results of your training.
A failed recall as a result of being tested outside of the low distraction environment will set-back your training. Remember, it’s all about the win with our recall training – we want our dog to succeed.
Save the testing for when the recall training is complete and you are in the maintenance (spinning plates) phase.
- Prevention, prevention, prevention
Do you remember poor old Fenton and his owner in the video at the start of the post?
Are you thinking “Well, he hasn’t told us anything about proofing with deer!”?
You are right. And I’m not going to.
The training that we have discussed above will greatly reduce the possibility of a Fenton scenario happening to you and your dog.
However, by far the best approach is to anticipate possible problems and then avoid them. If you see deer, or any other animals for that matter, while you are out with your dog – help him out by not letting him off-lead in the first place!
Pay attention to the signs at parks and other venues – they will often warn you that dogs should be on-lead.
When visiting somewhere new – do your research beforehand. Find out if there are likely to be any wild animals roaming there.
- Be realistic
We’d all like a 100% success rate recall.
Guess what? That’s not realistic.
There will be distractions that you haven’t proofed, or proofed adequately enough, which will lead your dog astray. Don’t be mad at him. And don’t beat yourself up about it.
Learn from it – undertake training to reduce the likelihood of it happening again – and move on. Or dismiss it as being highly unlikely to happen again (a lightning strike right in front of your dog) – and move on.
7 Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some Rock-Solid Recall for Dogs FAQs. If you have any questions that you’d like to ask please let me know in the Comments section below.
How do you reinforce a dog recall?
It’s all about finding the respective values of the different reward currencies that you have available for your dog. For some dogs, it’s a tasty treat, like warm chicken. For many, including those trained by the police, it’s a tennis ball. Find what most motivates your dog and use that as the reward in your positive dog training.
Why won't my dog come when called?
There are numerous potential answers to this question. The most common are:
1. There are distractions that are more appealing. Always start your recall training in a low distraction environment and then ‘proof’ it by gradually adding distractions later.
2. The reward isn’t sufficiently valuable. This is linked to 1 – the better the reward, the easier it is to compete with any distractions.
3. The recall cue is ‘tainted’. That is, for whatever reason, the dog no longer associates the cue with the required behaviour. For example, if you have repeatedly used the cue ‘Come’ when your dog hasn’t recalled to you then for him it doesn’t mean to recall. Or perhaps in the past, the dog has had a negative experience when recalling – maybe he was shouted at, put on his lead, and marched home (why would he relish doing that again?)
Are dog whistles good for recall?
In a word – ‘Yes!’
Whistles have a number of advantages when compared to verbal and hand signal cues. If your dog is out of sight then no matter how reliable your recall hand signal is, it’s no good if your dog can’t see it! And compared to verbal cues whistles are emotionally neutral – it is far easier to maintain a calm tone with a whistle than when trying to shout a recall cue. And the sound of a whistle travels much better than a shouted word.
By way of a very quick summary, here is a basic infographic (apologies – my design skills are somewhat limited!)
10 The End
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