Recall training can be one of the hardest things to teach a dog.
Some dogs are easier to train than others. You need to know and remember that. You also need to know and remember – there is no intrinsic drive in the domestic dog to understand the English language or to understand your desires without huge effort and perfect timing and an investment on your behalf. The recall command, or teaching a dog to come back to you when you call it is the bane of many dog owners lives. I often hear ‘oh, yes, he does come back when I call him unless he is distracted’. To be honest, we don’t often need to call dogs unless they are distracted! So let us clarify what a ‘recall’ is before we start trying to achieve it.
Having a dog that will recall on command is “Regardless of any distraction, attraction, location or situation, your dog will come running to you upon the command”
There are not a great many dogs that will do that, but it is more than possible. As with all areas of life some people put in very little effort and achieve great things and many others have to struggle to achieve something nearly as good. It all very much depends on the breed, type and character of your dog; some are naturally more deferential and willing once they understand. It will depend on the age that you start training, your skill and as importantly your commitment to the goal. There are many other factors – your dog’s general obedience, communication with you, the lifestyle that you and your dog lead, the areas in which you walk and all manner of other factors.
I have spent many years training dogs and their owners teaching recalls successfully using various methods, I have also owned personally a great number of dogs all of which recalled on command – however, my youngest Rottweiler has truly tested my skill, patience and repertoire of methods. The factors here that I have highlighted are that he was obtained at a difficult time in my life and so training him took a back seat (I missed that critical window for one on one time), he is a European working Rottweiler with vast energy levels, he is a confident, independent dog, his focus for prey/chase/hunting/scenting is immense. Physically and psychologically he is a very strong dog. Therefore, I have done a whole load of re-evaluation of what I have learnt and herein is my most up-to-date thoughts on the matter!
Let’s start by clearing one thing up. Recall is not as simple as having a bit of kibble in your pocket and rewarding the dog. I am sick of reading that nonsense. That will work for very few food obsessed dogs – however, even those, when they stumble upon a picnic or a half-eaten KFC in the park – that’s out of the window as they prefer to gorge on the delicacy that they have sourced themselves, ditching you and your kibble!
You have to know and understand the dog that you have. That starts with breed. Why was that breed developed? Hunting, coursing, guarding, retrieving, alerting etc? Is your dog true to breed – what makes him tick? Does he love playing ball, does his tummy rule his mind, is chase what he wants, is it the fight with tug toy that fires his drive? Is he obsessed with you, aloof, independent, needy, fearful, outgoing? Get to know your dog, what drives him and what he wants – then we can work with that and not against it.
Recall training is not exclusive to recall training. If you have no control of your dog at other times, he will not recall. If you have taught sit and stay for example, and he will not do that reliably (again regardless of distractions) forget the recall training for now. If you command him to lay down in the house and he ignores you and wanders off, forget the recall training for now. If he jumps up, runs away from you in the garden, pulls on the lead, ignores basic commands, forget the recall training for now.
Before you start – you need to get your house in order. Firstly look honestly at your dogs responses to learnt actions. If your stays are hit and miss, if he will only do something when you wave food under his nose, if the down is sporadic, you need to sort that all out first. Why? Because if you can not adequately control your dog on a lead, in close proximity, in your house, then there is no hope in the great outdoors when free to ignore you. You will set yourself up for failure.
Check your leadership. The more control you have over your dog in the house, the more responsive he is to the rules of the house, the more he listens generally the better your recall will turn out.
You must remember – dog training is made up of two components – the learnt action (does the dog understand what is required) and the motivation to respond (what is the outcome?) For example, the dog may well understand what ‘come’ means, but the outcome of ignoring it and chasing a deer is much more rewarding for the majority of dogs.
Starting at the beginning is always a good place to start. If when you are reading this you have an eight week old puppy, then you are lucky indeed. The simplest way to teach a recall is to never allow the dog to learn to ignore you in favour of something else. For this you need a trigger clip, tied on to a piece of long string (strength depending on breed and size). I simply attach 50ft of cord to the puppy when I release ‘off lead’ and then when I say ‘Rover, Come’ I can use the line to guide him to me. After some repetitions, the line is not needed and then I begin to cut chunks off over a few weeks until I end up with nothing other than a dog that recalls each and every time. This same method can be used with an adult dog with great success assuming you have the previous stages covered.
Once your relationship is in balance – ie the dog responds to all other taught (and understood commands) has decent leadership in the home the next stage is to teach the action.
How you teach the action will be down to what you have learnt about your dog – is food the motivator? Are toys? Is play? Is the tug? Are you? Regardless of your answer – you should have said yes to the ‘are you?’ question. For you are the one who facilitates food, toys, play, fun et al!
There are a million films on you tube and similar teaching you how to teach the ‘come’ with food toys etc, so I will not go in to the depths of that. What the films do not cover of course is the underpinning relationship that you need to have with your dog to make it work. The DVD – The Canine Lifestyle is available from Pets on Film and covers in depth the leadership required to undertake any training.
One thing that I have found very successful with some dogs is telling the dog to ‘go away’. I learnt it some years ago with a very young Rottweiler of my own. His recall was excellent, until one day, at dusk, a man and a little Miniature Schnauzer stepped out of the bushes in my local park. I called him and he ignored me and off he went to investigate the schnauzer. I was embarrassed at his lack of response and carried on walking. When my dog had said ‘hello’ and had enough of the schnauzer he came trotting after me. I was furious at the embarrassment and simply said, ‘Go Away’ and moved towards him pointing in the opposite direction. He had never known anything like it and looked puzzled. I continued walking and turned around to see him sitting in the spot where I had left him which was quite some distance away. I then called ‘Come’ to which he came running like a bullet. His recall thereafter was 100%. He knew the rules, tested them and was not keen on the outcome. This will not work on all dogs – my youngest dog, would take the ‘Go Away’ as carte blanche to do just that!
I have recently had a German Wirehaired Pointer, Lilly in for residential training. I was walking her in the park and an amorous Labrador came over to us. His owner called him and he ignored the recall in favour of following this attractive gundog. I stepped between the Labrador and Lilly and told the Labrador to go away at the point the owner gave the second command. Off the Labrador shot. A success. Had I done nothing or had some treats that I would try to proffer, the dog would fail. Help other dog owners out – don’t judge, don’t feed other peoples dogs – help them!!
To conclude recall training. You need to have the right relationship with your dog, the dog needs to understand what you require, you need to raise your expectations. You then need to ensure that the dog understands the command and then you enforce it and proof it in all manner of locations.