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Things To Do On A Dog Walk To Improve Recall

30/06/2018 - Dog Behaviour

A lot of the enquiries I receive are about recall, or should I say the lack of it.  Owners tell me that their dog usually comes back when called just so long as there isn’t another distraction such as a dog, person, squirrel, deer, scent, tree, bush, blade of grass etc.  So why don’t dogs come back when asked?  Well there are a number of reasons but the main two are lack of training and whether you like it or not, you are boring to the dog.  Once we accept this then we can start to understand why sniffing a lamppost, rummaging in a hedgerow, running off to meet other dogs or people, or chasing a squirrel is far more fun than being with someone who’s constantly on their phone or in a world of their own thinking about what to get for dinner or getting back quickly in time to take the kids to school.  Ask yourself this.  Who would you prefer to spend time with, someone who’s boring or someone who’s lot’s of fun?

To get your dog to willingly come back to you every time, you have to be more interesting than anything else on earth. If you are fun, then training your dog to come back to you is easy because you are giving your dog a really good reason to want to be with you. If however you don’t engage with your dog and just let him off the lead to do his own thing, then in reality all you’re doing is training your dog to ignore you. Teaching your dog a reliable recall is certainly achievable but it does mean taking a long hard look at yourself and questioning what it is you actually do with your dog whilst out on walks.  The same applies at home.  If we don’t give a little bit of time during the day to play with our dogs, then why should they want to be with or listen to us?  

Once you invest some time in putting your relationship with your dog on the right footing, you might just find that your dog pays you more attention generally and is far more inclined to come when called anyway. If you’re really lucky, you might need to do no more than that for a better recall!

Most dogs, however, will benefit from learning a new set of rules about coming back when called and it isn’t rocket science, or a ‘secret’, just plain ordinary training that all dogs can understand. To do that you in turn will need to understand how dogs learn so that you can implement the training in a way that will work quickly, and work for you.

The first stage will be to teach your dog what ‘come’ really means. To your dog, ‘come’ should mean ‘if you come here you will be rewarded for it’, and like all dog training it is best started in a place with no distractions.  Indoors is best to achieve fluency before generalising to the outdoors.

Hide-and-Seek in the house is a great way to start to teach your dog recall and something you can get the kids involved with as well.  Dogs will absolutely love the attention.  Just remember to make it easy to begin with so the dog learns the game and succeeds as opposed to getting frustrated and failing.  Lots of treats and praise when the dog finds you.  

What Not To Do
It’s understandable that people get very frustrated and angry when their dog doesn’t come back when called. However, when their owner is angry, a dog can tell from their body language and tone of voice that all is not well, and will be even less likely to want to go back to them. So, how do we go about convincing the dog that you are the best thing on offer?  By never punishing a dog when they return, no matter how long you have been waiting, shouting and worrying, and always rewarding the dog when they do come to you however long it takes. Punishing includes smacking or hitting, shouting or berating, frowning or scowling, or even just ignoring.

Rewards – Rewards can be praise, food treats, playing a game or with a toy, or cuddles. Use a high value reward for coming back outdoors. If you use dog biscuits indoors, use boiled/roast chicken outdoors.

Get Attention – If you haven’t got your dog’s attention, they won’t come. Use your dog’s name, clap or whistle (high pitches are more attractive to dogs than low ones); use exciting tones, crouch down to dog-height, lie on your back and wave your legs in the air if necessary, but get your dog’s attention.

Feedback – Once they start to come, praise, praise, praise. They’re not here yet, but they’re heading in the right direction.

Practice – Practice, Practice, Practice recalls on walks. Randomly call your dog, give them a reward and send them off again. Call them, clip on the lead, reward them and let them go again.

Think about the times when you call your dog. Home-time, end of the walk, to stop it meeting another dog/person, to stop it chasing something, to stop it eating or even sniffing something. From your dog’s point of view, being called often predicts the loss of something. It is an event that they associate with a negative outcome. You can change that by introducing positive associations.

Don’t grab – your dog as they run past. This won’t teach them anything except to give you a wider berth next time. Wait until they voluntarily come right up to you, take hold of their collar and reward.

Failsafe – If you really have no confidence that your dog will come back when off the lead, then common sense should tell you not to let him off the lead.  You can practice on lead at first, or you can attach a long training line to your dog’s harness and tie the other end to something sturdy, then play the recall game in a field. When your dog is very good at that, untie the other end of the line and play with it dragging on the ground. Your dog will still feel under control, but is free for a gallop (you can catch the end of the line in an emergency). As your dog becomes more dependable, shorten the line to half, then half again and eventually there will be no line at all.

Things To Do With Your Dog On A Walk

Practise off-lead walking
Practise a little off-lead close control work when in a safe area where you can safely let your dog run free but never when near roads or walking on pavements which run alongside them. Keep such sessions short as they require a lot of concentration and self discipline, and make them as exciting as possible with lots of changes of speed and direction. View it as a game as much as an obedience exercise and your dog will enjoy rising to the challenge as much as you. Make sure you have some really tasty treats or a favourite and highly desirable toy to help you motivate him, especially if there are lots of other distractions and interesting things happening.  Teach your dog that being by your side is far preferable and much more fun than being off doing his own thing..

 

Hide-and-seek
Continue the game played in the house to the great outdoors.  As well as enjoying chasing and tug games using toys, encourage your dog to use all his senses to the full by playing hide-and-seek with him. Wait for a moment when he's busy investigating something else and slip behind a tree or bush, or squat down in a patch of long grass next to the path. Although hiding yourself from his view, make sure you can see him so you can call him again if necessary to help guide him to your hiding place, or to reveal yourself if he becomes panicky when he thinks he's lost you.

Wait a moment or two and call his name and call again if he's having trouble finding you to make it easier for him. When he discovers you he'll probably be highly pleased with his cleverness, but be ready with a toy or tasty treat and plenty of praise. As well as being fun, this game can often help encourage your dog to keep a close eye on you and improve recalls.

Lead by example
Keep your dog's attention on you and add an exciting element of unpredictability while walking on the lead by varying your speed and by making rapid changes of direction. Try zigzagging, circling, or retracing your footsteps a short distance before going forward again.

Take a toy
Letting your dog loose to run around off the lead doesn't mean you need to stop interacting with him until it's time to clip the lead back on and go home again. By all means allow him some time to himself to run round, sniff at bushes, and do other doggy things, but don't leave him entirely to his own devices. Rather than just being the person who takes him to and from the off-lead area, become the really important companion who adds to the enjoyment. Take a favourite toy along, and from time to time invite him to join in a short but very exciting game with you - stop while he's still interested in it and wanting more and send him off to do his own thing again. You'll find it also encourages him to keep a close eye on you in case the toy comes out again, so he'll be less likely to stray too far.

If your dog likes chasing after balls, it can be tempting to use a ball launcher or tennis racket to send it a long distance, but shorter throws by hand keep your dog closer to you and involve more exciting chases. Never throw sticks as they can be very dangerous,  You can buy substitute rubber sticks, or use a piece of old hosepipe as an alternative.

Do some training
Include a few training exercises while out on walks, both when on and off the lead. As well as keeping you both up to scratch, it's important to do the work while out and about in all sorts of different places, it's no good having a dog who only does what you ask when at home or in training classes. Include sits, stays, downs, heel-work, and any tricks your dog knows, rewarding him between each exercise with praise, a treat, or an exciting game before releasing him for more free running. Even though he might know and be able to perform an exercise really well at home, it can be much harder for him when he's out in a distracting environment with lots of fascinating sights, sounds, and smells, so be prepared to use high-value rewards to help motivate him. Include lots of recalls: if you only call him to you when it's time to go home he'll understandably be inclined to keep his distance so the fun can continue for longer. A good recall is essential if you're going to be able to safely let your dog off lead.

Add variety
If you have a limited number of everyday routes, try adding some variety by walking them in reverse rather than always going in the same direction. Walk on different sides of the road where there's a pavement and you can do so safely, as although it might look the same to you, there will be different scents for your dog.

Be imaginative and use what's available to help spice up walks a little, asking your dog to jump over or crawl under a fallen tree trunk for example, or even to walk along it a short way if it's broad enough and safe for him to do so; weave in and out of fence posts, jump on to and walk along or wriggle under a park bench.

Pulling dog
Teaching your dog to walk nicely on the lead makes going for a walk much nicer and less frustrating for both of you. If you're having difficulty overcoming pulling problems, then get some professional help. Don't forget to praise your dog when he's walking nicely, don't just take his good behaviour for granted.

Go somewhere different
Spend some time studying a map of your local area - you might think you know it pretty well, but looking at a map can often reveal some places you perhaps haven't explored yet or never thought of going to. Alternatively, make an outing of it and venture a little further afield to enjoy some new scenery and a bit of variety. Ordnance Survey Explorer maps are ideal, showing good detail or visit the following sites for ideas for places to go: www.woodlandtrust.org.uk, www.forestry.gov.uk, and www.naturalengland.org.uk

Find a walking buddy
Finding a companion to walk with can liven up walks, making it easier to play hide-and-seek and tracking games, as well as giving you the opportunity to chat. It's safer to go with a friend if you walk in more isolated areas too and if your friend is also a dog owner, then your pets might enjoy the opportunity to romp around together. Obviously they need to be compatible, and keep a close eye on them to ensure that games don't become too rowdy or start to get out of hand. If you don't know of anyone you can approach, try looking on Facebook to see if there is a local community page to see if anyone local is interested in joining you.

Follow your nose
Most dogs enjoy the chance to put their powerful sense of smell to work with this very simple scenting game. Leave your dog in a sit/stay, or if the temptation is going to be too great for him to maintain it, ask a friend to hold him while you lay a short trail of really tasty and smelly treats. Let him see them in your hand and watch you lay the trail. As you move away from him keep bending over to touch the ground, sometimes putting a treat down and sometimes not. Place the treats at close distances to start with, and as your dog gets better at sniffing them out start spacing them further apart. Make it more difficult by zigzagging rather than moving in a straight line so he really has to use his nose and be thorough to find them all.

Always remember, the more positively your dog views you and the keener they are to interact with you at any time, the more likely they will come back whenever you call them.