Well I guess I should start using this blog for a bit more than pictures and random Spendog updates. Like for the training blog it was actually meant to be lol. I am not a professional dog trainer or behaviourist or anything like that. This is all just my own experience with my own dogs and the occasional help given to a friend. I clicker train and most behaviours I teach Spencer are taught by shaping (breaking the behaviour down into small steps and reinforcing each step until we reach the end goal) but I do use lures now and then and occasionally the dreaded “no” word comes out of my mouth.
So, recall. Or the art of getting the dog to return to you when you call it. Sounds simple enough doesn’t it? Well with some dogs it certainly seems to be. I know a few people who’ve put in no real effort to teach a recall and yet their dogs stop on a dime, whip round and race back to them the instant they call no matter what they were doing. Am I jealous? Oh hell yes! But for the rest of us recall is often something that has us tearing our hair out. Well, it is for me anyway. Shadows recall wasn’t good. I still remember our trainer, who always said never to chase a dog that wouldn’t come to you, legging it around a field along with several others trying to get him back so we could go home. And if it rained while we were on the field he would disappear. I have no idea where he went, there was no for him TO go, but he’d come back a while later bone dry while we were soaked to the skin. Wolfs recall was excellent, the stop on a dime and come back no matter what type, but I think that was purely an accident. Rupert had an okay recall but at the slightest hint of prey he would head for the horizon so couldn’t be trusted off leash unless in a secure area.
And now I have Spencer. Spen is a pretty easy going fellow who for the most part is happy to do whatever it is you’re asking of him as long as he knows what is being asked. But, he came to me utterly obsessed with other dogs. One of those dogs who’d leg it across a field to go and bounce on another dogs head in sheer excitement and desire to play. Recall? What recall? Oh he’d come back happily enough providing there were no other dogs around. But add another dog into the equation and forget it. This is something we’re still working on but we’ve gone from him being likely to leg it across a field to see another dog to him being able to recall with another dog much closer than that. When it gets to within about 10 metres is where it starts falling apart, it seems. I can’t be sure as if we have to pass close to another dog I leash him until I can check it’s okay for them to meet.
Sadly there is no magic trick to getting a “perfect” (sorry, I don’t believe you can ever 100% guarantee a dog will recall no matter what) recall. You can’t just wave a magic wand and instil your dog with excellent recall in all situations as much as I might wish you could. As with everything else it’s a case of teaching the dog what the cue means and putting in the time and effort to proof it in different places and different situations. The more a dog practises a behaviour the better it gets at it. Which is why management while teaching is so important. If your dog is allowed to keep running up to other dogs then the more ingrained the behaviour becomes and the harder it is to stop. I used a long line with Spencer on walks to give him some freedom to run around, do doggy things and burn off some energy while preventing him from legging it to say hello to any other dogs who appeared. We did lots of very easy recalls at home and just outside our flat. I varied the rewards so sometimes he’d get hot chicken covered in melted cheese, sometimes a lower value food reward such as cheese or sausage, sometimes a piece of kibble. Sometimes I even took a tupperware container filled with minced green tripe out on our walks and spoon fed him a little each time he came when called. I also used toys and playing chase as rewards for coming when called, sometimes food just doesn’t cut it, not even for a stomach on legs Labrador and Spen would much rather play than eat. I also made a point of recalling, rewarding and sending him back to what he was doing. All too often people make the mistake of only calling their dog back when it’s time to go home so of course the dog associates coming when called with the fun times ending.
Another thing I did was teach him that simply coming to me from time to time without being called was worth his while. All I did with this was click and toss him a treat any time he glanced in my direction. Or if he happened to come close to me (even if it was accidentally while trotting past or stopping to sniff something). He soon got the idea and started offering to come walk with me. Now he tends to come up to me every five minutes or so without me calling him. I get a lot of “oh but he’s only doing it coz he wants a treat!” but quite frankly I don’t really care. I’d rather him come look at me for a treat or a game (again I didn’t just use food rewards) every so often than be off doing his own thing and completely ignoring me the way I see so many dogs doing and the way he used to do. He does still do his own thing, sniffs and marks and does zoomies and splashes around in any water he comes across, he just keeps an eye on what I’m doing and gets rewarded for it.
Spencer is not perfect, I cannot guarantee he would recall from another dog at close range until he’d said hello and he is still managed in some situations with a long line or by being put on leash for a few minutes. But we’re getting there. I am comfortable letting him off leash on our usual walks, I don’t worry any more abut him disappearing over the horizon because he’s heard a dog bark or legging it off to visit with a dog half a mile away. We go to meet ups most Sundays and he checks in with me of his own accord fairly regularly now rather than being so excited at the prospect of having other dogs to play with that he forgets all about me. I’m not sure he’ll ever be one of those dogs who turns on a dime to come racing back the instant I call but I can live in hope. After all, 12 months ago I wasn’t sure he’d ever be one of those dogs I’d be comfortable letting off leash unless I could see for miles around.
An excellent book, in my opinion, for anyone wanting a sort of step by step guide to working on recall would be Total Recall by Pippa Mattinson. For those with dogs not known for being biddable When Pigs Fly by Jane Killion is an excellent read although not recall specific. It’s also an excellent read for those with breeds generally classed as biddable, you just have to ignore the assumption that your dog simply hangs around waiting to be told what to do lol.