Originally posted in June 2013
When clients come in with a dog and tell me that they want their dogs to come when called I always tell them that they are off to a good start because they have their dog at the moment. At some point, the dog came when called. He may have come slowly or he may have come by a very long route, but he did come back to them at some point. The recall or come to me behaviour is probably the single most desired behaviour in pets, and the after leash manners the one that gives people the most difficulty. When asked, fewer than one in every ten of my students can tell me how they originally taught their dogs to come when called. When they can tell me how they taught the behaviour, I can trouble shoot the problems. When clients cannot tell me how they taught the behaviour to begin with, often they didn’t teach the behaviour at all; they just started calling the dog and hoping for the best. Hope for the best is not a really good way to train; results are really dicey.
How we look at the recall can be very helpful in how we teach it. I look at the recall as a puzzle for the dog to solve. At first, I make the puzzle really easy. I hold the dog and have the handler feed the dog and then run away. I get them to stand up and call their dog. This makes the puzzle really clear to the dog and he can get the right answer really easily. I get my students to grab their dog’s collars and then feed to help the dog to understand what the right answer is. The puzzle starts out as “how can I get away from the person holding me and to the person who wants to touch me and feed me.” This simple puzzle lays the foundation for the more complex puzzle of “I am rolling in dead fish, and I hear my person calling me, and there is probably a really good reason to leave what I am doing and go find my person, who I cannot see and may only be able to hear faintly.” The steps in between are important and what I find is that most people don’t put enough recalls in the come when called bank before they try and get this upper level of behaviour.
|This behaviour is one that can be morphed into a recall fairly easily. Coming back with a ball is a game for many dogs, and it helps to put pennies in the recall bank. Image ID: 86327139 (S)|
I also think about recalls as a bank account. I am aiming to get a million recalls in the bank. Every time that I call and the dog doesn’t come is a withdrawal. In order to get a million recalls in the bank, I have to do hundreds of thousands of practice calls that WILL be successful before I do any recalls that might not work. If I am overdrawn on my recall account, then I have undermined the work that I want to do. Here is how I do the accounting. If I call once, and the dog comes once, that is a penny in the recall account. If I want a million dollar recall, then that means that I need to have 100 million successful repetitions of one call, one dog with me. Every time I call and the dog doesn’t come, then that is a penny out of the account. So if I call and the dog comes, five times, I have a 5 cent recall. If I then call two times and the dog only comes once, I am down a penny, meaning I only have a 4 cent recall. You may be thinking this is a drattedly long training process, but I have a few cards up my sleeve.
The first card is the set up card. I say “here” and grab my dog’s collar and feed him a treat. One cent. I say “here” and grab my dog’s collar and feed him a treat. Another cent. But wait, you may be thinking. The dog didn’t go away. How does that make up a one cent recall? Remember what I said to begin with about not thinking about recalls only as a come when called? Another way to think about a recall is as an opportunity for your dog to get a treat. When I say “here” it means that a treat is coming. I just happened to grab your collar in between the name and the treat. I can get in a good dozen recalls in the amount of time it takes you to read this paragraph. I am not thinking of recalls as getting to me from a distance, but rather as the number of times that a treat has been associated with my call. In the amount of time it took to type the last sentence, I can get in another three. Four. Five. And so on and so forth.
If you are calling your dog and he isn’t coming and you call and call and call and call, and then he comes, you are down four cents of a recall, so another important aspect to consider is that if your dog isn’t coming, don’t keep calling. This afternoon on our weekly dog walk, a client was calling her dog and he would not come. I went to where he was gleefully rolling in a dead raccoon and he started to play keep away. He ran straight in to my vet student volunteer who corralled him and gave him a treat. With a weak recall, his person spent four cents on her million dollar recall, so she will have to work on recalls at home to put money back in the account. The lesson is simple. Don’t spend money you don’t have. If you don’t have a strong recall, don’t call your dog, just go and get him. Going to get your dog gives you another successful recall or penny in the bank.
A lot of my clients have emergency recall systems that they have accidentally developed just by living with their dogs. One of my clients discovered that calling out “Good Bye Boson” her dog would come running as fast as he could. Several of my clients have figured out that getting in the car will result in their dogs coming very quickly. I am not entirely sure about how these tactics develop, but if it is utterly reliable, it can be very helpful in a pinch. My advice is that as long as you don’t over use them, they can be very helpful in avoiding making excessive withdrawals.
I have worked with a number of clients who look at the million dollar price tag and ask “isn’t there a cheaper recipe?” In the right hands, yes, there is. In the wrong hands, on a dog who is not confident, or in the wrong environment, you will actually overdraw your account, and the risk is not really worth the result. I have many clients who have read on the net, or even gone out and purchased a shock collar in the hopes of getting a fast and reliable result, and have made their recall problems worse. In the interest of honesty, I will share that thousands of dogs are taught to come when called, happily, and reliably on a shock collar. When the trainer knows what they are doing. When the trainer doesn’t know what he is doing, the results are not only not reliable, but are often the opposite of what you may have wanted. Properly executed a shock collar trained recall is a very fast and very reliable method. Improperly trained you can end up teaching your dog to associate the shock with something other than his own behaviour of leaving you. It is much easier and safer for pet dogs to be taught the long way round, and it can be every bit as reliable. I see far too many dogs whose owners have tried this and who have regretted the choice, but in the interest of honesty, you should know that the people who train this way are not lying and they are not necessarily killing their relationship with their dogs-but you may not be able to replicate their methods and there is a huge risk involved of making your recall worse not better.
Once I have a dog who understands the two parts of the recall; that the cue “here” means that there is something he wants available as soon as he is close enough for you to grab his collar, and that it is a puzzle to figure out how to get to you so you can grab him, then it is a matter of setting up as many millions of scenarios that make this happen as possible. One of my clients had a beagle and their dog was notorious for not coming when called. When we turned the puzzle around and sent her out to find someone, suddenly, very suddenly, she became the worlds fastest recall beagle. Every night for an hour, the family would go for a walk in two groups. Half the family would head out in one direction in their local park and the other half of the family would set out in the other direction. A few minutes into the walk, the first group would send their dog out to find the second group. When she found them, they would catch her and feed her, and then send her out to find the first group. Turning the game on it’s head and making it about finding, not coming and we had the most reliable recall I have ever seen on a hound. After playing this for several months, the family stopped sending the dog and started calling her. Familiar with the game of being sent, it was a small step for the dog to learn to come when called, reliably and quickly.
|THIS is what a dog coming quickly to you looks like. Your goal is to frame the game into a fun activity for your dog, so that your dog comes when called even when he might have something that he is really interested in doing! Image ID: 37362458 (S)|
Many dogs avoid being caught at the end of walks because they know that the fun is coming to an end. Like a child at a playground, they realize that if they don’t come close enough to be caught, they can keep playing. The key to solving this recall issue is to put more pennies in the bank during the walk and release the dog to play again. The more often that you do this, the more reliable your recall becomes, recognizing that you have to pay handsomely at the end with a treat or toy the dog really likes to make the final recall the most, not least valuable to the dog. Calling your dog to you in mid walk just to prove you can, might also backfire though. If you call you must have a reason for doing so. Many dogs do significantly better if you call, leash up, do some training and then let them go and have more fun for a while. They see the point in coming to you when you call if you are going to spend some energy attending to them, than if you simply give them a treat and send them along.
There are significant breed differences in recalls. I have always found my German Shepherds learn to come when called and maintain the behaviour more readily than my Chesapeake Bay Retrievers. None the less the principle is still the same. Don’t sabotage your training by spending recalls you don’t have in the bank. If there is any doubt about your dog coming when called, then go get him. The recall is so important to most of my clients that it pays to pay attention to how you teach it and make sure you don’t sabotage it. The more recalls you have in the bank, the more reliable your recall is and the more pleasant it is to call your dog. It is also more pleasant for your dog to be called to you, because he has enough recalls in his account to understand that coming when called pays off more often than not, and it is quite likely that you will pay well for his attention.