Recall - For the Love of You?
This blog post is for those of you who have tried recall techniques and are still struggling with success.
I've been thinking a lot lately about recall. You know... calling your dog back to you. They come running, you give them a pat on the head, maybe a treat and then off you skip into the hills together like they do in the films. Grinning. Everyone's happy. Your dog listened. Your dog loves you. The woman across the park loves you because your dog didn't go total wipe-out on her. Your XL bully didn't jump on the local enraged Chihuahua and your over-friendly Labrador didn't pee off the local reactive Shepherd and set him back 2 months of progress. They came back when you called. Everyone's a winner.
The majority of my workload is working with reactive, anxious and/or behaviourally wobbly dogs. Sometimes I get to take a mental break and just help out with some recall. Lovely. Not so lovely if its raining profusely and you forgot your travel flask of happiness (tea). Oh well.
So I arrive at a session, we chat a bit about what we want out of the dog. Let's call him Bowser, like my dog. What do we want Bowser to do? Well, we want him to walk nicely on a lead. Cool. Okay. I want him to come back to me when called. Okay, great.
This is usually about the point the doting owner informs me that his recall is actually pretty good unless there is a distraction. Y'know, like another dog or a person. Maybe a car going past. A twig. A butterfly. A bin lid closing seven streets away. A cat. Life itself.
To respond, I politely point out the recall is not really that great then, is it?. These are where my people skills hopefully come in. *wink* I am nothing if not honest.
So then we get on to the conversation of...
"How do you get your dogs to come back to you?"
I respond with the usual management and reward training advice. How long lines are your friend and are a back up for poor choices made by your dog. Reward, encourage, set the environment up for success. Anyway, this blog post isn't about recall techniques. Moving on....
"We tried the long line but as soon as we took it off, they stopped coming back."
Right. Wham. There is our issue. What does this tell me?
The long line was stopped too early, likely because it can be annoying and get dirty and some dog owners would rather rely on luck than deal with that. Not good.
Your rewards are low value, low frequency or non-existent. In other words, doggo mummy or daddy got stingy quickly. Normally to this I reply - "You wouldn't go to work for free, would you?" If I then hear "I want them to come back to me out of respect, they should just do it!" - it's at this point I realise they're with the wrong trainer. I train ethically, not aversively. Respect isn't respect, it's fear and forced compliance. Don't believe the TV or the residential training companies who profess to fix your dog in a day. It's absolute unethical *BEEP".
Your dog does not want to come back to you. Not because they don't respect you. You're just not really that fun. Awkward.
Okay so before you go off and cry and think I'm a horrible person for saying this, let's first look at why. Why doesn't your dog want to come back to you?
The environment is more fun than you
Your history of reward for recall is lacking at best
You have previously used punishment for bad recall
You don't have enough of a relationship with your dog (from your dog's viewpoint)
I know you love your dog, but how much do you do with your dog? How much interaction do you give your dogs outside of recall? What training relationship do you have? What does a walk with your dog mean to you?
You and Your Dog's Relationship Jar
Think of a relationship jar. The more activities you do with your dog, the more this jar fills up. If that jar is full, your recall is going to be much more reliable If that jar is half full or nearly empty because you're busy at work or just not interested in training and simply 'wanted a companion', then your recall won't be very reliable - unless you get lucky genetically! In which case, go home, grab a gin and pat your lucky self on the back.
When I call my dogs Bowser & Rosie back, they come. They come back around sheep, cows, cats, other dogs, people, cars, bikes, birds, skateboards, etc.
On walks I play games, throw balls, engage in tug games, practice obedience training.
In my spare time I have taken them to agility, provided enrichment, enforced consistent boundaries, put activities on a cue such as "Go Sniff" or "Go Play" after eye contact, used management to set up for success. This has all enabled them to be off lead for 90% of their life. This drops their frustration levels and raises their satisfaction. It makes recall less of a chore. Everything is fun with me. Everything is worth doing. In short, my dogs LOVE me, regardless of distraction. God knows why, but I am worth listening to.
Every single thing you do with your dog determines your recall success rate.
There are exceptions obviously. One notable difficulty for most people is prey drive which requires a whole new blog post. But this post is aimed at the 90% of dog owners who are struggling because they are missing one or more of the points on the list below.
So when practicing recall with your dog and you end up asking yourself time and time again, why won't he come back when I call... how many of these boxes can you tick?
The reason my dogs come back to me is because I tick every one of these boxes.
Recall Reliability List
☐ Good long lead management, used as a backup for wrong choice until you 100% never need to use the lead to get your dog back.
☐ Positively conditioned recall cue, e.g. "Bowser, come!" = reward every time until response becomes reflexive.
☐ Praise and reinforcement for correct choices EVERY TIME.
☐ Management and boundaries both inside and outside of the home, enforced firmly but calmly by every family member.
☐ Putting activities on an eye contact cue = *wait for eye contact from your dog* = "Go sniff!"
☐ General positive obedience training both inside the house and outside on a daily basis (both with and without distraction).
☐ Play with you both inside the house, in the garden and on walks on a daily basis (both with and without distraction).
☐ Variety of experiences (change of daily walk locations) - not just around the block or dog park every day.
☐ Daily decompression time for your dog to wander on a long line and sniff, or play with a dog, including foraging and natural exploration.
☐ Activities and sports outlets for your dogs to reduce frustration and increase relationship (agility, flyball, cani-cross, scent-work, advanced obedience, etc)
☐ Understanding your dog's likes and dislikes and reading their body language for stress and frustration.
☐ Calm and clear family life with rest and relaxation time available.
☐ Adequate exercise for your dog's breed, personality and age.
☐ Daily enrichment to occupy and work your dog's brain, giving them a purpose and a job to do, via enrichment toys and puzzle activities.
How many did you tick? Comment below.