Working on recall with your dog


We’ve all been there – your dog sees a squirrel (or a box of hot pizza just laying on the ground) and all of a sudden their attention span and recall for you goes in one ear and out the other. So if you want your dog to come when called, lets try another method from the one you’ve already been trying. Don’t call them when you need them to come – call them when you know they will come.

So how do you work up to squirrel level? We’re gonna help you with that!

Ideally you don’t test a skill when it is still being learned or at least not until you’ve done lots of practice at that level of training. Training is best started in a low distraction environment and gradually proofed in different situations. Lets put it into perspective for you. Are you ready to try aerial slacklining? Well, you would be better to practice in many different scenarios and have lots of successful repetitions at every level before taking that harness off – right? It’s the same with teaching your dog.

The problem is that owners take their dogs out into real life situations and test their recall before they’re ready. Even when their dogs come, owners rarely pay their dog well enough that they’ll eagerly respond again next time and the time after that and… well, we think you get the idea.

At the same time, we understand where you’re coming from. You want to give your dog opportunities to be leash free and do dog-like things, because let’s face it – you want them to be tired after their outing! So what are your options if your dog’s recall isn’t perfect yet? We’ve got a few for you to test.

Leave your dog on a leash.  For your dog and for everyone’s safety.

Long lines are a great tool when used properly. (More on that another time! We have some definite safety guidelines to follow when using long lines).

Do not let your dog off leash in situations where you “need” them to come, for their safety and for others’ safety and enjoyment. For example: away from another trail user, away from bear habitat, away from the road or river.

Don’t’ like those options?  Keep training!

If you call and your dog doesn’t come they’ve learned to ignore you. Meaning, the word becomes irrelevant to them. They will only come when they are ready or when we prove to them we have something better than they have. However, it’s important to keep in mind that bribing isn’t training.

Remember that long line? Using one prevents the dog from self rewarding if you do exceed their training level and they don’t respond to your recall cue. Start with a 15 foot long web or rope line and work up to a 30 foot thin cord. Learning how to handle a long line with a flipping, flopping dog on the end is a skill you may need to hone before heading out in public too. Necks are sensitive so be sure to have it attached to a well fitted harness. (Save the retractable leashes for senior dogs or… or never…).

Call your dog often, but only when you are absolutely sure (i.e. you’re willing to gamble your pay cheque!) that they will return to your cue. I say cue rather than command simply because command implies forcing compliance and good luck forcing that once they are on the run!  A cue is an opportunity to do something — an opportunity to do something that has been reinforced repeatedly and that the learner is eager to do as soon as he hears the signal/word. The learner happily responds because it has always paid off regardless of the situation.

For best results, start in a low distraction environment, set up for hundreds of successful responses and with random rewards that your dog finds uber reinforcing. Gradually increase distance and distraction. Regard every recall as if you saved your dog’s life!

Think about what your dog would truly find rewarding enough to make the return trip to you worthwhile so they would not think twice about doing again. Make the reward relevant to the situation! Random and novel! Ensure that you leave no question in your dog’s mind whether or not it is worth responding to your signal. It always has been and it will always be. No thinking. Just immediate response. Like that childhood response you used to have to “you won a prize”!

In an emergency do whatever it takes to keep your dog safe. Sure, I’ll go against what I just said and you may even call your dog to come.  Know that emergencies aren’t the time to learn new skills. Always take care to not put your dog into situations beyond their level of training.

When your dog does come to you, what can you provide them with that will increase the chances of them coming again next time? It better be something worthwhile or they may second guess you and become jaded. Like the adult that doesn’t trust the phrase “you won” anymore.

Keep the dream alive! Don’t let them become doubtful. “Come” is an opportunity eagerly awaited and worth celebrating!