Sunday, February 27, 2011

How to Teach a Reliable Recall

I've been thinking of something to post about this week, without getting all "dear diary, blah blah blah" on you guys.  The quick recap is this: I worked a lot, Parker and Skye didn't enjoy how busy we were at work, and I picked up a sudden new training client.  It's this last point I thought I'd focus on today.

Chica is a 1 year old German Shepherd, whose owners just want to be able to bring her to the beach and not have her run away.  Simple enough to say, but not an easy task for me.  I had never met Chica before, and only had a week to get her well on her way to having a reliable recall.  I tried to get a thorough background from her owner, but humans tend to leave out important details when they're halfway out the door for their vacation.  My assessment of Chica was this: very typical nervous shepherd, slightly possessive of toys and food, liked to be where the action was, but didn't interact a whole lot with the other dogs.  When new dogs entered or left the play yard, she would practically climb my body in the "I'm excited and nervous and I have no idea what I'm doing" kind of way.  When I had her out alone in the yard, she wanted my treats sooo badly, but refused to be within arms reach.  When it came time to go inside, she put on a merry chase game that I refused to participate in.  Eventually I tricked her into a corner and got a leash on her.  Again, with only 5 training sessions ahead of us, I had a lot of work to do.

Reliable recall is one of my favorite behaviors to teach a dog.  It takes a long time for a dog to be truly reliable off leash, and even Parker and Skye have their temptations that I can't call them back from (hence my hatred of squirrels).  I thought I'd share essentially the process I go through, and some tips I've picked up along the way.

Step one involves choosing the word or noise that means "come over to me ASAP," as well as a hand signal that your dog can spot from far away.  I almost always use a cheap plastic whistle from Walmart, and hold my arm out at a 90 degree angle- very referee looking image, I know.  The whistle is my noise of choice because you can blow it loud or soft, with a pulse or as one long sound.  I typically do 3-4 short bursts of noise, because it breaks a dog's focus and brings them around to you faster.  I also avoid using my own voice, because many dogs find it much easier to ignore the sound of their human, who insists on talking to them all the time for no good reason.  When Parker and Skye hear the whistle on our walks, they race each other back to me because whoever gets there first gets a really good treat, and whoever is second gets a boring dry treat.

Skye wins!

Step two is to pair the whistle with the treat.  I blow it softly, then drop a treat.  I'll do it a few times, then walk away and blow the whistle.  Dogs have a natural inclination to walk in the same direction as you, so the dog is usually already heading your way.  After a few of these, most dogs are hooked, and make a point to come running when they hear the whistle.

This is all done in a very boring environment, so that in the next few steps (let's call them steps 3-5ish) you add in distractions.  Gracie and Gunner loved this game, so we were able to quickly move outside, and add in toys.  I'd blow the whistle while they were wrestling or chasing each other, and they'd make a beeline to me.
Once I move outside of a fenced-in area (Step 6 or so) I put the dog on a long line and play the same game.  In each new environment I'll make things a little easier for the dog by crouching down, then walking away while whistling.  It is also a good idea to give the dog 5-10 minutes of exploring the new environment before attempting a recall.  Dogs are naturally curious, and I like to just get that initial period out of the way rather than expecting a miracle on round one.

Step 7.5 occurs once you have an immediate recall on the long line.  At this stage I drop my end of the line, but keep moving with the dog.  I whistle them back before they get too far away, and change directions every once in a while.  If you see a major distraction ahead, you need to be close enough to easily reach the line again.  Reward the dog with more than treats when they turn away from a distraction- let them go check it out!  Coming to you shouldn't signal that the fun is over, it is just part of the process of doing what they want.  Let them say hi to that friendly dog, or sniff that dead fish, so that the next time you drop the line they aren't hell bent on investigating that odd smell from a ways back.  Got it?

Steps whatever to who knows involve making things harder a little at a time.  If your dog has a relapse, take a few steps back until they have mastered each level.  Ideally you want dogs that see something worth checking out...

In this case a lady with 2 dogs.
Then look to you for what they should do next...

Can we greet them in a rude and overly friendly manner?
Many times, they won't get to do what they want, and that's okay.  As long as you still make it worth while with food, a toy/game, and lots of praise, they'll come back next time as well.

So where does this leave Chica?  In the end, I brought Parker and Skye out with us, and rewarded them for coming over.  Chica is not the type of dog to be left out when there is food being passed around, and it got us past the initial problem of dancing away at the last second.  After that, she just liked having a job to do.  I gave her family detailed instructions on what to do (and not to do) to continue her training, and we have a follow up session in two weeks. 

In other joyful news, Gracie and Gunner leave tomorrow, and we had our last training session yesterday.  They exceeded my expectations by far, at least when we trained one-on-one.  Together they are a blur of silver fur and teeth, but even that is somewhat under control.  They do wonderful sit or down stays...

Their recall is great, and they have finally realized that jumping and mouthing gets them absolutely nothing.  I just had to sacrifice 8 of my fingers before that lesson sunk in.  The only problem is the loose leash walking, which is spot on when they're alone.  But I suppose the level of distractions in the kennel is a bit much, and the owners plan to take them through Basic Obedience class next month for follow up.  All in all, I'm going to be more pretty excited to take a week off from the training game. 

We're excited too!  But we're always excited!!


  1. We took a really reliable recall class when living in Alaska. The teacher brought in moose poop...


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