Updated: Jan 4
Reflections on Recall training
Looking back over some old puppy training class notes and have arrived at Recall. After many years of thinking about, working with my own dogs, or helping others, I find it very hard to write ‘recall’ without quotation marks and this is why.
Training Class Recall
My first experience of recall training as an owner of a new pup was in the training classroom. The class, like most at that time, had its roots in the obedience competition world.
The exercise looked something like this – the class assistant would hold the dog, we walked away, we turned to stand facing our dogs and then called our dogs to us with lots of excitement and dog received a treat. We built on this by asking the dog to sit before their piece of food.
When I began teaching my own classes, I continued with this style, but this training didn’t transfer to the park and with the benefit of hindsight, this is why:
Our dogs were being restrained by a stranger - depending on their personality, they either loved it or were in a state of panic as we walked away. When we turned around the dogs who enjoyed the attention of a novel person were busy jumping over person and unlikely to be taking any notice of our cues. The pups who were experiencing abandonment, were too stressed to take in any of the information and were simply fleeing back to safety.
We weren’t clear about what we were teaching. Teaching a dog to come to an open hand and stop in front of you, whilst facing the dog, is a useful exercise. Hands can attach a lead or hold a dog safe. Now we teach this as a protocol called ‘Here to me’.
We didn’t understand that the type of ‘recall’ required for a walk in the park isn’t taught in a classroom. Our dogs already know how to:
Stay connected with their group
Return to, or find, a safe place following a frightening event.
These are life skills, innate in our dogs. What we are teaching is that we represent a place of safety and that staying connected to us is rewarding. We have
a selection of games to build these skills. (see below for one of our games).
We didn’t bear in mind that a recall has two parts:
Give up something, stop doing that activity
Do this instead
Because, we hadn’t thought this through, our reward was often loaded onto the second part e.g. run to me, stop in front of me etc., whereas the first part ‘stop doing that, is often harder for the young dog. Our rewards need to be divided between the two components, with the focus on the weakest.
We didn’t think of sit as being separate. When we are out in the park, we need to keep our dogs safe, from themselves, other people and dogs. This has nothing to do with sitting. Focusing on the sit in front often took our attention, and the reward, away from the key behaviours of giving something up and doing something else instead.
We weren’t prepared for adolescence. For pups safety is a primary reward, they naturally stay close to the group, whereas the hormones of adolescence awaken a dog to other rewards. The desire of a dog to stay close to you for safety can no longer be relied upon. This is the time that a young dog may have to go back onto a long line, be walked with different dogs or exercised in a secure field.
We didn’t understand how much could be achieved at home or on lead. Neither distance or free running is essential to building positive associations between dogs and people, a 6ft (1m) training lead can get you started. Noticing when your dog stops an activity to follow or watch you, can be rewarding. Words, cues and actions can be added as your dog moves with you around the house and garden.
Looking back over the list, it becomes clear that we need to think about what we are teaching and why. Break the behaviours down, assess the learning gap between where we are now and where we want to be. Be clear about what the dog needs to learn, how we are teaching and the rewards for the individual. A dog joining back up with their person is so much more than 'recall', for me it is a precious gift that my dog chooses to give.
Sausage Chase Game
Select the food - visually attractive, contrasting to the ground. We want a clean chase food – grab food. If the dog needs to hunt i.e. misses the food, then leap into action and join in the search. Ensure dog your dog has eaten and is focused before throwing the next piece.
Get the dog ready for the game. You need your dog to believe a hunt is about to happen. Choose your words carefully.
Bowl the food. The follow through of your hand predicts a successful chase, you want your dog focused on your hand because this directs them to the food. The dog can learn to trust us, and the game becomes more fun.
As the dog turns to run back add a cue e.g. ‘fast’, ‘hurry’. Watch their eyes. If the eyes are focused on you, keep on encouraging them but if the eyes drift to the side remain silent.
Finish the game, don’t let the dog know the game is about to end! Keep the last piece of food until the dog is in front of you. Deliver to the mouth instead of bowling and take the collar/attach lead if necessary.
This game can be played with toys, make sure you have at least three of the same type or equal reward.