Teaching recall is easy. The rest is art!
Reliable recall - getting a dog to come back when told - is a big deal, not just for a stress-free walk, but also for your dog’s and other people’s safety.
The quality of recall is highly dynamic, and is influenced by a wide range of elements - like an external stimulus, context, learning, relationships... Understanding, influencing and managing these elements to get the best outcome in the circumstances though, is an art!
As in all things, it’s easier if you acquire the skills to juggle these elements and apply them with your dog from day one. If you have just brought your puppy home, start building the foundations of good recall in the home, then elsewhere, and then reinforce those on every single walk. Forever!
Here are some tips to get you started with recall for a dog of any age:
It’s easy to teach recall!
Recall is easy - it’s a simple association with, usually, a noise and a reward.
In the following video, watch how I create an association between the sound of a whistle and a reward.
In this second video, watch how the anticipation of reward incentivises Fletcher to come to me. The ‘whistle’ noise is associated with a reward at my feet. That’s recall. Young or old, try it with your dog.
Check out this video of 8 week old Martha. Within an hour Dawn had taught Martha the link between a sound (‘Come’), an action (coming to Dawn) and a reward (in this case a food reward).
Where does it all go wrong?
If you watched the video, you’ll see it’s not difficult to teach an association between a noise and a desired action. Job done?
Typically, recall starts to go to pieces as the dog matures. He realises, from about 9 months, you have increasingly less control. He’s worked out what makes you tick, how to push your buttons and how to manipulate you. He realises he can get what he wants with little effort.
Your intentions are good, but dogs don’t care about a human’s version of good intentions!
You find yourself anxiously following your dog around the park, repeatedly shouting a dog’s name in vain, or waiting til he eventually comes back. ‘Good boy’, you say, just somehow releived and grateful that he’s come back!
Here’s the thing
Dogs only really care about resources, who’s got them and how to get them. If your dog’s recall is patchy, chances are you’re not in control of what your dog considers the important resources, or you don’t have what he wants, or you’re less entertaining than the other thing, or probably a fun combination of all those elements!
If you can accept that, you’re more than halfway there.
Your dog can very likely hear you shouting, he just doesn’t care: the thing over there is more interesting, you aren’t fun, and it doesn’t matter what you say anyway!
But don’t get annoyed. It’s time to take your dog’s feedback about your relationship. Your dog needs a leader! Your dog needs to learn that you can be fun too! It’s time to take back control!
Your dog doesn’t understand
Often, the dog has no or only a contextual connection between the word ‘come’ and what you want it to mean.
If you think your dog has no understanding of what you want when you say ‘come!’, look at the video of Fletcher and Martha and start from scratch.
Dogs learn things in the context that you teach it but they don’t readily apply new knowledge in different areas. If your dog appears to know what you want at home, for example, but not elsewhere, you probably need to teach the dog the meaning in different contexts.
You get what you reward
Commonly, you give your dog more reward for doing something you don’t want. They get attention, and any attention is rewarding. Chances are you give attention to the behaviour you don’t really want, not only in the park, but elsewhere too.
What do you do if your dog jumps up, or barks? What do you do when you’ve said ‘come!’ and he stands a few meters away? Do you plead with him to come closer but then end up going to him? You’ve rewarded ‘standing a few meters away’, and you’ve no doubt lost your dog’s mind game too!
Older dogs may have already learnt that the smoke and mirrors of living with dogs are exactly that - smoke and mirrors. They may already have learnt that “over there is more fun and rewarding than you, and people are not the boss of me”. When those genies are out of the bottle, it can be quite some work to teach a new view of things. But it can be done with some more effort, and some useful tricks.
Control your resources
Whether it’s food, a toy, a bed, or a person (your dog probably sees you as a potential resource to control), it’s the one who controls resources who is wise and strong, and decides where to go and what to do. Dogs listen to leaders.
When you control the resources, and access to those resources, your dog is more likely to behave in a particular way (come back, for example): you have status as well as leverage. You have the resource he wants, and chances are greater he’ll do what it takes to get what he wants.
So, if your dog is always gets treats, is surrounded by toys, or merely has to stand in front of you for some attention, what leverage is a treat in the park, a ball, or a cuddle, in comparison with almost anything else in the park that he doesn’t get on demand and for little effort?
Be less boring
Too often, a walk in the park for your dog will involve being let off the lead, and it is the park’s job to entertain him, or other dogs. It shouldn’t be a surprise when the dog would rather be elsewhere more interesting. ‘I can be bored here, or entertained there.’ What would you do?!
Instead, be the focus of your dog’s fun. Teach him to play meaningful, constructive, problem-solving games, and reiterate your leadership by insisting he can only get what he wants by doing what you want.
Don’t be your dog’s white noise
Does what you say matter? Do you constantly talk at your dog? Do you just say your dog’s name repeatedly in different tones to to reflect your growing annoyance at his ‘wilfulness’ and ‘disobedience’? Do you say 'come' repeatedly, when what you really wanted was for your dog to be aware of where you’re going and come in the general direction?
Just like humans, dogs soon switch off when you constantly talk but say nothing that matters. If you constantly talk and give meaningless ‘commands’, your dog will stop listening.
What is rare has value, including you and your voice. When you constantly talk at your dog, you make it difficult for the dog to distinguish between the general baseline noise you make and what should, in fact, be rare utterances of high value and consequence.
Instead, make your walk mostly silent. Only speak when it really matters. When you said ‘come!’ did you really want your dog to be right in front of you, or were you just a bit anxious, or did you just want him to pay attention and follow, or does it really matter at all?
Take control of your walk
Do you just go in the same circle, day in, day out? Or worse, do you just stand in the middle of an oval gossiping with other dog owners? Do you hover a few meters from your dog, or follow him around the park?
Instead, just get on with your walk. Take control, mix things up, go to different venues, take different paths, go in different directions and let your dog ‘get lost’ and have to regularly check where you’re going.
Add spice, and meaning to your walk by playing intelligent games that grow your dog’s skills and problem solving so that he has used his body and mind.