A reliable recall is one of the most requested behaviors in my private lessons.  I agree that it is important and can even be lifesaving.  I find recall training is based on two things:  A solid reinforcement history, and good relationship building.  A solid history of reinforcement is established over time.  Lots of time.  Don’t let that turn you off!  Just start building today and before you and your dog know it, coming when called will be standard operating procedure.   Two main points: Be reliable for fun and treats and never call Rover over to do unpleasant things. This will build a history of trust in the cue.

Harness the power: Classical Conditioning

Classical relationships work on a one:one concept:  if one, then the other.  This means the cue becomes equal to the reward in the mind of your dog.  Use an impact-making reinforcer (think minced steak from last night’s dinner, or some other very yummy something). When your dog is minding his own business, quietly approach your dog.  Sound your chosen cue and then make it rain yummies from the sky.  Make an impact, and talk to your dog in that cute doggy voice you have.  I want you to see a wagging tail and a happy dog, have a little party, then stand up and walk away.  Eventually your dog will begin to turn his head in expectation of the party and treats as soon as you sound your cue.  You have created a Conditioned Emotional Response. The recall word now holds meaning and is relevant to your dog.  Now you will want to add distance and distractions, but the key is to never break your dog’s belief in the cue having meaning for him.

Adding Distance:

Now that your cue holds meaning, you can begin to require that your dog move toward you to claim his party and treats.  Start by being only a step or two away from your pup, and sound your cue.  When he looks at you (which he will, because you have established the response) talk to him and encourage him to close the distance.  Do anything — kissy sounds, get low, wag your own tail (you know you secretly have one!). Just don’t say the cue again.  It will be easy because you will be close, so you’re not asking too much.  When he gets there, having taken the gamble, you will give yummy treats and have a party.  Let him know that crossing the two steps was worth the effort — because later you will be asking for a lot more!  You want to consistently be worth the effort.  Every time you feel like you would bet your house he will come running, add a step.
 This is the foundation of the whole recall behavior so spend time building your distance.  If you add a step or two and he fails, go back and do several more at the last level.  Adding distance too fast builds a shaky foundation.  You cannot build an solid behavior on a shaky foundation.

Trainer Note: Do not use your treats to get your dog over to you.  If you feel the need to show the dog what you have to create the recall stop.  Go back a few steps and build it up again.  Showing the treats as a way to get your dog over to you makes the food a bribe and not a reward.  More on this concept in a future blog.  

Adding Distractions:

Once you have some reliable distance and your pup comes running at every cue (yes, every cue and yes, running – we are looking for enthusiasm at every turn here!), time to add some distractions.  Make it a game and be sure to start small.  Try giving your cue while your dog is nosing a low value (boring) toy.  You want him to look up in recognition, so you can then encourage him to step away toward you. Give your treats and send him back to his toy.  Work your way up to say, tossing a toy one way and calling your dog in the other direction.  Once the indoor games are easy, go outside and do it all over again.  Work in many environments. Remember, you are building a history over time with your dog and that cue.  When you build distance, do it one or two steps at a time.  When you are working distractions, start easy at first and build your confidence up together.

Trainer Note:  When you try working with distractions, you will have to reduce your distance. You want to work on each piece separately and then add them together later.  So if a tossed tennis ball works at a fair distance in the house, then go outside.  Work on a much shorter toss in the new outdoor setting until you build it up there.

Building Foundation: Recall and Relationship

Harassment.  Resist the urge to do a thousand recalls a day.  You’re looking for quality, not quantity.  If you’re hanging out in your off lead area for 20 minutes, do maybe 1 or 2 practice recalls.  In the house, practice your recall only a couple times a day, several days a week.  You want the recall to remain fresh and interesting — not a dull repetitive behavior they do as a chore.  Do short sessions when working on distractions.  Resist the urge to overtrain.

Inadvertently punishing recalls is also a common pitfall.  Praising and petting a dog who doesn’t actually like to be petted is breaking the trust in the cue. Because you have just called the dog to do something he may find aversive, a shy new rescue might find petting parties overwhelming and might cower and pee themselves.  This is then an aversive or punisher for them.  The subject (the dog) always gets to decide what is reinforcing, so ask yourself, “is my dog enjoying this or am I the only one attending this party?”  If you are working with a soft or shy dog when they come after being called tell them softly how much you love them and calmly pet them in a way they enjoy.  Ultimately, this respect of needs will improve your relationship and will actually reward your recall, thus building it up for the future.

This would also be true for using your recall cue to call your dog then bathe or medicate them (unless of course you have taught your dog to find these things “wag your tail fun” — it can be done!). Don’t use your recall to terminate play with a canine or human friend, but do use play as a life reinforcer.  Call your dog off his friend (this would count as a very high level distraction so be very close when you start this), then send him back to play. If it is time to go, walk up to your dog, ask him to sit, reinforce the sit, clip on your leash, reinforce the continued sit.  And then cue your loose lead walk and leave together, reinforcing for a nice leash walk all the way back.  Now your dog didn’t lose out by ending play; he exchanged one playmate for another.  You want to be your dog’s best friend as much as he is yours.

Be fun, Be a resource, Be reliable.

Tags: , , , ,