Have you ever watched a dog owner trying to repeatedly recall his/her dog without success? Has this ever happened to you? If the answer is yes and yes, like it is for most of us, you may want to read on. Recall is arguably the most important command your dog should learn, for many obvious reasons. So why do many dog owners end up having an unreliable recall, and what can they do about it?
When we are recalling our dogs in the real world, they are usually busy doing something else they find interesting–not waiting patiently for our command. So, your recall command should override anything else the dog is doing. First, you need to examine the full meaning of the word “come” to your dog. In the past, have you called him to you in order to try make him swallow a pill, clean his ears, take a bath or similar things your dog considers unpleasant? See, this is where the ambiguity starts, and nothing interferes more with dog training than ambiguity. Second, how many times, on average, do you have to repeat your recall command to achieve success? If the answer is “twice or more”, your dog has already succeeded in training YOU. He has trained you to recall him as many times as he wants to, and he gives you permission to stop calling by finally coming back to you. If you find yourself at this stage you may as well delete your recall command from your vocabulary and start over. Choose a word that is easy to shout over a distance and is distinct enough to not be confused with in everyday life. Some people advocate a whistle, as it sounds the same whoever is blowing it, lacks emotion, is distinct and consistent and carries a long way. These are advantages, but then you need to carry another item on you, and what if you left it at home? We use the word ‘HERE’, but you decide what is best for you. Keep it simple and consistent.
As a general rule, a dog must learn the meaning of a command, then he must go through a correction phase where he learns that he will be corrected if he does not obey the command he clearly understands, then he must go through a distraction phase where he is exposed to higher and higher levels of distraction while performing the command.
Start like you would do with a puppy. Let your dog go hungry, and then let him earn his food by coming to you, in a controlled setting like your home or a small enclosed area. Coming after you say your new recall command ONCE gets him a little food, not coming gets him nothing, no food no negative reaction, just simply nothing. Repeat this in numerous short sessions over several days until it is solid. Always end on a high note, and typically earlier than you would want to. You can feed your dog his entire day’s ration this way. Always have a ‘jackpot’ ready (something really good, like hotdog, bacon, whatever your dog craves) and hand out the jackpot after a stellar performance, yet at unpredictable intervals. Then, move on to new environments and longer distances, gradually of course, and remember the difference between training and testing your dog. You only train when you are able to control the outcome, in this case with leashes of various lengths. Once you are certain your dog understands the meaning of your new recall command and the dog does not come back to you immediately, reel him in. When this happens, give no rewards, and also no punishment, only the correction of you enforcing the desired behavior. He did neither what you wanted him to do, nor something bad by running away, so you just want to downplay the situation and try again. The next solid recall should get him a ‘jackpot’ reward and ending the session so the stalk difference in outcome is burned into your dog’s memory. Over time, increase the length of the leash, then drop the leash to drag on the ground. Then add distractions gradually.
Here are a few additional points to remember: It takes about a month for a behavior to be properly conditioned, and you need to keep up practice and reward over your dog’s life, albeit at much longer intervals. Your relationship with your dog will be a strong factor in whether or not he will come when recalled off-leash, so make sure your four pillars of canine-human interaction are intact (love, respect, consistency and fairness). Breeds with strong prey drive are hard to recall once fully engaged in something else, so you need to control the dog and the environment more than with other breeds. Manage the circumstances and don’t set your dog up for failure. Don’t recall your dog if he is distracted and you cannot correct him. Never run after your dog, if you must run then run in the opposite direction. Your dog learns a negative lesson if you get angry at him for not obeying. This is an understandable HUMAN reaction that will set you back further in the CANINE world as you have now associated the command with a negative emotion that your dog will sense and remember. Be positive, be nice yet firm, and more than anything be consistent.