Why is the Perfect Recall Challenging?
Most dog owners are able to call their dogs in low-distraction areas, but what about when strong distractions are around? It often feels like calling a kid at a carnival or talking to a teenager with his headphones on-- doesn't it? Too many distractions going on and your dog tells you to leave a message and he'll come back to you later.
This is often where things get more complicated. The perfect recall is a form of advanced training that requires a great level of commitment, but practice tends to pay off with time. It's a sort of investment: every time you call your dog and he comes to you, you are adding 10 coins to your virtual recall "piggy bank", but every time your dog doesn't come it's as if you are withdrawing 50 coins. So make sure are wise and make the right investment choices or you'll risk losing a big chunk of your hard work!
So why are some dogs so difficult to train around distractions? What is going on in their mind? Why does your dog come running to you readily when you are in the home, but then loses his mind the moment you step outside? These are great questions. Distractions are hard to resist for many dogs and if you want a strong recall, you'll have to compete with squirrels, birds, p-mail, other dogs etc.... Following are some possible explanations about why dogs cannot focus when outdoors. .
Many dogs remain hunters at heart. Hunting is something they naturally do because it's in their instinct for survival. In some dogs the need to hunt is stronger than in others. Regardless, a large amount of dogs just cannot resist the urge to explore, stalk, chase. It almost looks like a reflex, something they just do without even thinking. It's ultimately an instinct deeply ingrained in their genetic makeup. Despite being domesticated and fed kibble from a bowl, prey drive is an instinct that allowed dogs to live--and may help them survive should a catastrophe such as hurricane Katrina happen. And you can also see it in bits even in those lap dogs who were raised with aristocrats to warm the feet and laps of royal women.
Consider that some recalls go somewhat against nature. Some dog breeds were selectively bred to have very strong instincts to make them effective hunters. For instance, some sporting /hunting breeds were meant to take off after quails, ducks and rabbits. If you could ask these dogs why they won't come when called, they would probably say: " What is wrong with you? Why do you keep calling me when this is what I was bred to do? You know... I have been doing this for centuries, no hunter in the past has ever dreamed of calling me when dinner is right there in front of my nose! Now let me do my job so we have dinner for tonight!" This is especially true when you are dealing with the scent and sight hounds who have been bred to hunt independently at a distance away from their masters.
Those Amplified Senses
Whether it's an interesting smell or an irresistible sight or a sound that makes your dog cock his head, most dogs will want to investigate their surroundings. The saying "curiosity killed the cat'' applies to dogs as well. They have powerful sniffers, eyes meant to detect the slightest movements, ears ready to capture the faintest sounds. Their powerful senses seem to have been crafted in such a way to allow them to be explore their environment--and they sure are geared to that! At times, it's as if they just can't help it--which brings us back to their main purpose to hunt, scavenge, reproduce and survive.
Prey drive, survival instincts, selective breeding and extraordinary senses...this all seems to compete with our desire to have a friend who can be under control despite distractions. Today, we call this so strongly desired composure "obedience training." Suzanne Clothier claims though" Selectively bred behaviors aren't always in alignment with our training goals - thus the Bloodhound in the obedience ring. Handlers who are successful with "tough" breeds are creative handlers who are willing and able to make training fun, interesting and relevant to the dog."
After all, what is really a recall? It's not just having a dog coming when called; rather, it's our ability to make ourselves more interesting than anything else so that our dog will make a choice "us". In the next paragraphs we will see some tips on how to accomplish this and create a foundation for recall training.
Are you more interesting than your dog's environment?
Top Tips for Training Your Dog's Recall
Among the many commands dogs learn, the recall along with the leave it and drop it command can be life savers. For a good reason, I write many hubs on the recall command; it's something really important that deserves loads of attention. I can never emphasize the importance of this enough. Last month my dear friend in Italy lost her dog as he took off from her yard and he ignored her calling only to end up under a truck. The stories of dogs dying because they had a poor recall are many and sadly, many could have been prevented if only dogs responded to a recall that could have saved their lives.
Create a Foundation
The bond you have with your dog plays a big, big role on the outcome of your recall success. If you have an adversarial relationship, your dog will fear you and not be eager to stick nearby. Make sure you do your best not to punish your dog with leash corrections, verbal reprimands and anything physical. Embrace positive reinforcement training. Make great things happen in your presence and you'll build a strong foundation where your dog will want to stick to your side because great things happen in your presence. Focus on rewarding all the great things your dog does rather than reprimanding the negative.
Choose the Right Treats
The saying you get what you paid for applies in dog training too. If you are happy with so-so results, use so-so treats like crunchy dog cookies or kibble. If you want to see superb results, then using high value treats pays off. For this, you'll need to do some experimenting. Try steak, chicken, meatballs, string cheese, desiccated fish, freeze dried liver. Try to see which treat makes your dog drool and respond more enthusiastically. In the video below, you can see me "testing the grounds" with a hound mix notorious for finding more reinforcement sniffing and searching for rabbits that live under our brush. As you can see, it looks like I have found the right concoction as every time I send him back to have fun in the yard, he comes looking back which I promptly reward for making good choices.
Give Amazing Jackpots
Leslie Nelson in her famous "Really Reliable Recall" suggests to train an every-day recall and then an emergency recall. To make a recall very impressive to a dog you must find a way to amaze him and leave a strong impression. Instead of giving just one treat, which will cause your dog to grab the treat and then take off, give a jackpot of about 20 small bits of treats in a row for at least 30 seconds.
Start Small Sessions
A recall always starts small, then as your dog gets good at it, you raise your criteria--gradually. Any time your dog fails to come when called, you need to evaluate if you have progressed too fast too early. Distance and distractions are the biggest obstacles to a good recall. So if you want to train a strong recall, start in quiet areas where not much is going on, then progress gradually to more distractions and then add more distance to the picture.
Watch Your Body Language
At times, our body language conflicts with that of dogs. For instance, when we call our dogs we may feel tempted to lean forwards, stare and move in the dog's path. This in doggy language is a way to say "stay away." When there is a dog who is guarding an object, you'll notice how he leans forward, lunges ahead and stares to keep another dog away. So to convince your dog to come, try leaning backwards, looking sideways and with your shoulders make a move that entices the dog to follow you. Clapping your hands may also add an extra visual and auditory signal to come.
When your dog is off leash in a secure area make sure you reward frequent check ins. This is when your dog is wandering exploring and all of a sudden your dog comes near you to check on you. If your dog never checks in, you need to practice on this adding distractions gradually. Start in your living room, walk around and reward your dog with a treat every time she comes near you and looks at you. Then try in the yard. Best to do this off leash so you are sure your dog is checking in with you voluntarily and not because a leash is there keeping her away from temptations.
Don't End the Fun
Many dogs are reluctant to come when called because they fear that all the fun will end when they come to you. This is often true if you call your dog, put on a leash and leave the place your dog was enjoying. To prevent this, call your dog, reward him with treats and then give him a release command to go enjoy himself more. Chances are though, that if your goodies you are delivering are really good, he may keep on sticking by your side. Then, go get your dog (don't call or you'll risk poisoning the cue) clip the leash on and deliver several treats in a row and play a game together before leaving.
Long Line Pros and Cons
A long line can be your best friend if you want to practice recalls safely with your dog at a distance without risking to lose your dog, but it can become a problem over time. The main advantage is that you can practice in increasing distance without worrying about your dog taking off. It also is good because it takes your dog's option to flee away. But after all, it's a crutch. Many dogs learn to associate the feeling of wearing the long line with coming when called and the lack of long line with doing what they want. It's difficult therefore to fade the long line once introduced without getting your dog into this mindset. Have a professional help you out.
Play Fun Games
There are many games that can make recalls fun and rewarding for both you and your dog. These games also help you bond more and become more interesting than other stimuli. Games worth playing are hide-n-seek, Round robin, the name game, follow the leader and fetch. If your dog loves to chase, he may find chasing hard to resist. Try calling his name and then running off, when he then reaches you give a jackpot of treats. Don't ever chase your dog though or you'll be stuck in a dangerous game.
Set for Success
You know you are on a good path when the times you call your dog are far much higher than the times he doesn't come. To do this, you'll need to set your dog up for success. Help your dog succeed by not calling him unless you are sure he will come. Here are some examples that may work for some dogs in the initial stages of learning.
- Call your dog when he is actually already coming towards you.
- Call your dog just a second before you grab the leash if you know your dog comes running to you when he hears the noise.
- Call your dog a split second before you pour his food in his bowl if he always comes running towards you when hears the kibble hit the bowl.
- Prepare your dog's meal, put the meal on the floor and then let your dog out. Watch him from the window. Then open the door suddenly and call him inside. He should be rushing towards you and the food bowl.
- Read your dog's mind. Let's say when you come from a walk and it's hot outside and the first thing your dog wants to do is go inside to drink water? Ask somebody to hold on to his leash,call him then from inside, reward and then allow him to go drink.
Capture Interest in You
Life gets challenging if you must compete with all the things that lure your dog away from you like a magnet. Yet, at times, we miss the slightest signs of interest in us and soon ..poofff... they are gone, and gone for good because what is not rewarded is likely to extinguish over time. So fill your treat bag and get ready to go on a hunting trip with your pal. Your dog may be hunting squirrel, but you will be hunting for the slightest signs of interest in you. So any time you see your dog looking at you even for a second, say his name and immediately give a treat. Repeat, repeat, repeat and sooner than later you'll have a dog that keep his head more and more up and less towards the ground. This is because your face will have become the new magnet.
Protect your Cue
Do all your can to protect your recall command. It's a big investment. So don't call your dog if you are angry, to punish the dog or to do something your dog dislikes like giving him a bath. If you do call your dog in any of the above circumstances you will poison the cue and your dog will be reluctant to come next time. If you do messed up several times, consider that at times it's best to change the cue and start all over than to continue using a cue that has assumed a negative connotation. So instead of "Rover come", you may want to try "Rover, over here!"
Troubleshoot your Failures
If you ever encounter problems, don't despair but analytically troubleshoot them. Write down on a paper the circumstances where your dog didn't come when called. Was there an animal, was your dog sniffing or were there kids playing in the park? Then, try to replicate those distractions but present them at a lower intensity and use higher value treats-- you may also want to use a leash the first times. This means work on recalls from a distance from the park, away from animals and when your dog is not sniffing intensely. You may also want to decrease the distance from you. Anytime you encounter a challenge, evaluate the difficulty, and take a few steps back. You may also want to read about reasons why my dog won't listen for some deeper troubleshooting.
That one day your dog doesn't come when called you need to be ready to take action. If you fail to do something, your dog will start thinking he can chose not to come when he feels like it. When this happens, you are basically training your dog not to come when called. So the best thing to do is go and get your dog and give him a treat. Don't chase though or show anger or you will teach a game of keep away. If it's an emergency or your dog tries to escape, you may want to try to entice him to chase you instead.
Reward, Don't Bribe
When you call your dog, it may be tempting to dangle a slice of baloney as a flag. Don't-- or you'll be stuck with a dog who only comes if you show him the goodies. Then, that one day you don't have the ammo on you, your dog will take off in that dreaded road full of cars. You want to keep those treats out of sight and they should come out as a pleasant surprise. To learn more about bribery in dog training read my article "luring versus bribery"
Evaluate and Compete
Dogs are opportunists; they tend to engage in behaviors that are more rewarding to them. If you are calling your dog and your dog is more interesting in sniffing a trail, most likely your dog prefers sniffing than what you have offered to him in the past every time you called. The biggest rule for a good recall is to repeatedly demonstrate to your dog that what you offer is superior than anything in the environment. This takes lots of practice, because consider that you are working against ingrained instinct and perhaps years or rehearsing these behaviors. Behavior takes time to change!
Use That Kibble
Yes, we did say how we want to use high-value treats to train a strong recall, but don't waste that kibble. In you look at your dog's food bowl you'll see that your dog might eat anywhere between 40 to 100 pieces of kibble a day.. now that's a lot if you think you could have used a good part of that to reward about 50 good behaviors. So don't waste that kibble and try hand feeding it indoors or in very low distractions area to reward games and any interest in you. You can use the kibble to reward 50 behaviors you like or you can use it in 2-3 very large jackpots that will have your dog thinking how generous you are!
*Note: when training your dog to come, avoid initially asking for a sit once the dog approaches you. Doing so will teach your dog he's reinforced for the sit, when you really want to reinforce the coming when called!
Alexadry© all rights reserved, do not copy.
Magnet Training.. setting the foundation for a strong recall
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 23, 2013:
Allison, even with negative methods I have a hard time to believe a 100% recall is possible, just as people aren't perfect, how can dogs be? Would an athlete be able to always perfectly perform every single day? Can you expect a child to always get perfect scores? A dog may be sick one day, scared or distracted and they're not robots who mechanically respond to commands. As a trainer, my code of ethics requires me not to make any guarantees on the outcome of training or behavior mod simply because dogs are animals and as such they cannot behave perfectly as we would wish.
Allison on August 22, 2013:
I would just like to point out that it is possible to get a 100% recall using almost completely negative ways. William Koehler trained dogs to high standards using methods that I would be very cautious to use.
rose-the planner from Toronto, Ontario-Canada on July 19, 2013:
This is such an insightful article on dog recall training. You have offered some excellent and worthwhile tips. Thank you for sharing. (Voted Up)
Elizabeth Parker from Las Vegas, NV on July 19, 2013:
You've touched on such a great topic. I'm fortunate that right now, my two girl dogs wouldn't leave my side any further than five feet. But, one of them is going deaf, so unless she is looking at me, she doesn't always hear me calling her. For that dog, I had done a lot of distraction training with her, so when she was able to hear, she paid attention to me at all times, even if another dog was approaching, etc. I hope more people work on this with their dogs.Voted up and shared!
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 18, 2013:
Had to work a case once with a Labrador who was always left in the yard because the owners didn't have the time to walk him. This poor dog wasn't walked for over a year. When I walked him he wanted to attack children, bikes, cars and other dogs. All these stimuli were perceived as a threat because they haven't been a part of his life for so long. For an active breed as such, a life in the yard left him stressed, unhappy and this caused barrier frustration which put a dent in his social skills.
Mel Carriere from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on July 18, 2013:
I always enjoy reading your interesting insights into dog behavior. I always wonder why people buy dogs, like Labradors, that are bred to retrieve, and then they never let them out of the yard. You point out the fact that dogs are hunters first by nature, and the training you receive, such as your recall command, has to work alongside of that and not seek to overwhelm it.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 18, 2013:
Hi Peggy, I better know what I am doing as this is my job;), Thanks for stopping by, voting and sharing!
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on July 17, 2013:
This is very interesting. Most of our dogs have trained us...not the other way around, I hate to admit. Sounds like you really know what you are doing when it comes to dog training. Up, useful and interesting votes.