Real Life Recall
When I talk to my 2nd month beginners' class about what their goals are for their canine companion almost everybody says, (sometimes in desperation), 'I just want him to come when I call him.' What many people don't realize is that they have programmed their dog for a slow and lazy response, or to not respond at all. Before retraining assess what level you are at with the recall. Do you want a dog that will stop whatever he is doing and run to you immediately. Have you had a plan for what to do if he doesn't come? Do you call him five or six times before he even glances in your direction? Have you consistently used one command such as 'Buddy come!' or have you been exasperated and resorted to screaming 'Get over here right now!' before the dog comes back ten minutes later (after chasing him.) Most of all have you put him in situations, such as a Dog Park, where he has been given more freedom than he has earned, or you have trained for, and the skills are just not there to be successful. More over do you believe it is possible to train your dog to come when called the first time, no matter what is distracting him? Unless you believe in training for a reliable recall in the face of any distraction, you are not going to get one. You will continue to make excuses like 'Buddy's recalls are pretty good, no one can expect a dog to come when he's chasing a rabbit'! This mindset allows you not train for and not to correct your dog in that situation and he is learning the command come is not always relevant. No trainer is perfect, but my number one rule is that I never call 'Come' to a novice dog when I can't, or don't feel like, enforcing it.
So how do you begin teaching a recall? Just as with most obedience exercises I start in small steps. I wouldn't throw a dumbbell 50 feet and demand a perfect retrieve from a novice dog, just as I would not let him loose in a park and expect him to come back when I call. He must be taught skills so he can make the right decisions in challenging circumstances.
- Put your dog on a six-foot leather leash. Have a family member or friend distract your dog. If this second person is using a prop have it be something of lesser value than what you will have as a reward. (For example, if your dog loves balls you have the tennis ball, your friend will distract with a cookie, or perhaps they will have a Charlie Bear, you will have roast beef.)
- Let the leash out and let him be interested in the other person. When he is distracted call him. One time only. Sound happy!
- If he should turn his head around to come, immediately praise and turn away encouraging him to come with you. When he gets to you (which will happen quickly on a six-foot leash) reward him with your treat or toy. If he does not respond get right in front of his nose and lure him. When he turns his head to you praise him enthusiastically and present the reward when he gets to you. Remember, don't wait to verbally praise him until he gets to you. This will be an important bridging technique when the distance between you and your dog increases.
- Repeat this several times and soon you will see that when you call he will spin around to run back to you. Stop using the reward as a lure at this point and present it when he reaches you. You are beginning to condition a response.
- Eventually change so that you have the low value reward and your helper has the high value. Insist that he respond quickly to your command. When he gives you a fast and enthusiastic response you can even send him back over to get the other reward as well, telling him 'OK, get it!'
When you have your dog responding easily on a six foot leash it's time to extend the distance and move outside. I attach a 15 or 20 foot thin nylon cord with a small clasp. Do not go to a new exciting location the first time. Remember you are still conditioning fast responses and you don't yet want too much stimulation in your learning environment.
- Attach the line and walk with your dog. Let him get used to the line and relax with it. Let him sniff and notice his surroundings. Let him know it's OK to look around, he just needs to remember your there.
- When he's distracted call him and praise when he turns his head to you, just like when he was on the six-foot leash. If he ignores you begin walking off and praise when he responds. In either case reward him when he catches up with you.
- Repeat this many times in all sorts of situations. Repeat this several times, two sessions per day, three, if you have time. Start in your backyard, eventually moving to the park, a sidewalk, or a friend's house.
- Begin with small distractions and when your dog is becoming reliable and you are having lots of successes, increase the intensity. Think about what your dog reacts to. Some dogs are more distracted by bicycles than other dogs. Some dogs want to chase joggers. Set up situations and go places where you encounter different sounds and sights.
- Begin rewarding randomly, but always use the verbal bridge as soon as he turns away from the distraction. This means he gets rewarded, but not the same reward every time. Use toys, food and most of all yourself to keep your dog coming to you. Let him chase you and really rev him up when he gives you a lightening fast recall off of an intense distraction. Keep him guessing as to what may be waiting for him when he gets to you. Remember random means unpredictable. If food is his greatest reward that's OK, but make it every 2nd, then 4th, then perhaps two consecutive times, then not again for three.
- Eventually go to a longer light line. I start using a 30-foot cord when my dogs are responding easily and quickly at least 80% of the time, and I also begin letting the line drag. What you want to create is a sense of the dog feeling he is free from restraint. I believe this is when all of your training kicks in. It will take skill to make the right decision when you call him and he feels free. The line will be there as a back up. Don't let him get farther away than what you can enforce.
How long will it take to get to this point? Susan Garrett has a similar program for a recall outlined in her book Ruff Love. She states that if you practice three sessions per day, 15 to 20 recalls per session you will have at least 3,000 recalls under your belt in two months and your dog will have generalized to most locations. I have not been that methodical. Most of you know I live on a 45-acre farm with many challenging situations for my dogs and me. All my dogs, (eight different breeds) have been allowed to run free with supervision. I kept a line on them whenever we went out the door for about a year, and if we had a breakdown in training the line went back on.
How do you know when to take the line off? How do you correct a dog that has chosen not to come when you feel he has been taught the skills and you know you have been consistent? Is it possible to train all breeds with this method, or are there some breeds, such as Sight Hounds, that can never safely be let off leash?