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Recall: Why Has It Become So Difficult

26/10/2018 - Dog Behaviour

I get a lot of phone calls and emails about recall problems.  It always starts off with “My dog’s recall is really good apart from when there is a distraction”.  Sorry to say but this is NOT recall.

As far as I’m concerned, if your dog does not have a reliable recall, regardless of the distractions present, he simply should not be allowed off a 30’ training line for his own safety and that of other dogs and people. However, it's also my belief that every dog can be taught a reliable recall so that, where appropriate, they can run free. After all, this is the biggest reward we can give any dog.

So why do owners struggle with recall, one of if not the most important commands you can teach a dog to keep them safe and to stop you from raising your blood pressure to dangerous heights.  Well, there are a number of reasons, all of which are within the power of the owner to correct.  It just means that we, as owners, have to put the effort in.


Lack Of Education
There is no regulation within the dog industry which means that anyone could set themselves up as a dog trainer or behaviourist even if they have no qualifications or experience to back up their claims.  Unfortunately for the owner, this then means that taking their puppy or dog to a class run by someone who has just read a book and watched some DVD’s could mean they find themselves inadvertently playing a form of Russian roulette with their puppy/dog.  It’s always worth while asking if the trainer is properly qualified. 

Are there too many puppies/dogs in the class meaning you get very little one-on-one time to ask questions?  Is your puppy/dog overwhelmed by the number of dogs in the class or the environment the class is being taught in.  A puppy/dog who is so distracted by everything around him isn’t going to learn anything.

From my point of view, there are very few classes which give the owner the right information in order to teach the recall skill to your dog.  After speaking with owners, there appears to be very little information on teaching the importance of the dog focussing on the owner, or the dog developing self control.   No-one talks about the ‘flight instinct period’, what it is, when does it start and what to expect when it does kick in and how to correct it.  The same goes for the second ‘fear period’ and the issues that can bring.  Commands such as Sit, Down, Stay, Leave etc are all things owners can teach their puppy’s or dog’s in their own time.  Recall and the emergency stop however are vitally important skills which can be life saving for the dog as well as giving you peace of mind and yet there appears to be very little importance attached to them.

Owner Expectations
Unfortunately, owner expectations can quite often be far too high and well outside the abilities of the puppy or dog.  For example, a 12 week old puppy in human year terms is the same age as a 3 year old human child.  Imagine trying to communicate with a 3 year old child who can’t speak or understand English.  

Owners also get lulled into a ‘false sense of security’ because their puppy happily follows them around the house or outside without understanding that the puppy’s confidence levels are pretty low and so they continually look to you for support, their safety net.  This will change though as the puppy gets older and more confident when they enter their ‘flight instinct period’.  

Some owners believe that the only way a puppy or dog can get enough exercise is to let them off-lead to run around but then still expect them to come when called regardless of distractions and ignore the fact that the puppy or dog hasn’t been taught to come back to you.  

Then there are some owners who think that all puppies/dogs come pre-programmed without them having to put any work in and a small number of owners who simply can’t be bothered and allow their puppy’s/dogs to run and create havoc and failing to take any responsibility for their dog’s actions.

The dog world is full of myths and misinformation, often passed on by other owners to new owners who are sometimes desperate for any information that could help solve a problem such as lack of recall.   Everyone you meet is a dog expert and has an opinion on how best to teach your puppy/dog anything and everything.  If this was the case, then there would be no need for professional dog behaviourists or trainers.  

Owner Impatience 
It appears that every owner can’t wait to get their puppy/dog out and about as soon as possible regardless of whether they have actually taught their puppy/dog to walk happily on a loose lead or happily come back to them.  Everyone loves to see their puppy/dog running free and happy which is great but what about when a distraction appears and the puppy/dog heads off at a rate of knots ignoring your calls to come back.  

Owners will talk about  ‘socialisation’ without properly understanding what ‘socialisation’ actually is and so happily allow their puppy/dog off-lead to go play with other dogs without realising that all they are teaching their furry friends is to totally ignore you.  Incidentally you are also teaching your puppy/dog that every time they see another distraction then they are free to go and investigate whether they are on-lead or off. The reality is that the quickest way to teach a dog not to come when called, is by allowing him to run up to and play with every dog he sees. This is confirming in his mind that you are less fun than other dogs who are always worth investigating. This is also the quickest way to get your dog hurt by other dogs.

As with any training, recall is all about putting a routine into your dog’s day which he enjoys taking part in and should be practised repeatedly. Recall should never mean "if I run back to my owners, I’ll be put back on the lead" but always, "if I run back to my owner, it's going to be worth my while". With any puppy/dog, all recall training is easier done using a long line. Never go from on-lead to off-lead without taking that interim step with a long line which gives your dog freedom without you losing control in a distraction rich environment. 

How To Teach Recall

  • First, pick a recall command (not your dog's name) and only use it when the dog is either running towards you, or can be enticed towards you because you are worth running to (what reward are you offering?).
  • Start all training in a low distraction environment such as your house and then your garden.  Be exciting, jump up and down, wave your arms in the air, anything that will convey that you are worth coming back too.  Don’t be stern or grumpy after all, would you happily go to someone you felt was telling you off.
  • Only call your dog to you when you are sure he will come back, or you can bring him back or go to get him. Don't waste your recall command, no point in calling if he's ignoring you.
  • Always make it worth your dog's while to come back to you, at first using food or his favourite toy. Surprise him with the reward, sometimes using cooked chicken, liver or cheese. Always keep him guessing and deliver the reward in a fun way. Don't just push it into his mouth. Toss it, drop it or roll the food/toy.
  • When first training recall on a long line, give and expect 100% attention. This means that even if he's only on the long line for 2 minutes, during this time you are playing with him. This way, he's really paying attention to you and enjoying his time as the most fun he has on a walk. If you cannot watch your dog he should be on a lead.
  • Invent games to keep your dog thinking "it's always worthwhile to check in with mum/dad". Any voluntary engagement by the dog should be rewarded. Use tasty treats and toss or roll them on the ground. Take out his favourite toy and play for a short period when he's not expecting it. Drop some food then quickly run away using his recall command. When your dog catches up, drop some more food and run away again. 
  • Teach your dog a range in which to stay while walking off leash. When he's reaching the end of his long line, give a command such as 'this way', then change direction. This teaches your dog to watch you and to keep an eye on where you are going. When you've done this a few times, begin to change direction without saying anything, always rewarding your dog when he catches up.
  • Teach your dog that the quicker he comes back, the quicker he'll get to resume what it was he was doing before you called him. This improves speed of response and enthusiasm and means you don't always need to use a food or toy reward.
  • When you see another dog, always teach him to focus on you, sit and not leave you until you release him. Remember just because your dog is friendly, does not mean the other dog is.

Taking on a puppy/dog is a huge responsibility and we need to take that responsibility seriously.  If we want a well trained dog then it is up to us to teach the things we want the puppy/dog to do.  They really don’t do things instinctively, or wake up in the mornings thinking today I’m going to be good or simply because you want them too.  Recall is easy to teach, after all, your puppy/dog wants to be with you so take advantage of that fact and put some effort in.  It will be worth it in the end.