Recall-training a new puppy – it’s almost too easy. You put them on the floor, you walk away, and they follow you. For those of you who’ve tried it, it’s a pretty heartening experience to have your new best friend so eager to stick by your side from the get-go… that is, until a few months pass by and adolescence rears its terrifying head!
Oh my. Honestly, the biggest proportion of pleas for help I receive come from owners of dogs aged between 6 and 18 months. Adolescence in dogs always shows up at just the wrong time – usually, if you’ve been implementing a good training programme from day one, you’ve just about cracked it – and then suddenly that once obedient, attentive, relaxed play mate turns into a wild, oblivious lunatic – chasing off after everything that moves and leaving you left in the dust without a second thought. Before I advise you on recall training from here on in, I’d just like to immediately say that adolescence will pass, and along with it - as long as you STICK with your training through the thick and thin of it - will the erratic unreliable impulses of your teenage companion.
The age ranges of adolescence differ amongst breeds due to size and maturation variations, but you’ll recognise it as a massive development in your dog’s independence and sexual motivation. Suddenly his once tiny world expands massively, and you as his owner become a tiny fish amongst the big pond of chasable cyclists, humpable dogs, harassable cats, alluring scents, and the rest.
The solution? You need to go right back to the very beginning. And I mean the pre-recall beginning – so let’s concentrate on your leadwork, and perfect it. The essence of any reliable recall, is having a dog that fully understands that he needs to focus on YOU and know what you are doing at all times, if he is ever going to get anything he wants. So let’s put a lead back on your dog, and ensure that when he’s walking with you on lead, he’s paying you all the attention he can muster.
The First Step…
A dog that’s hyped up as he steps out of the front door is not going to pay you an ounce of attention (you know the dog I mean – he’s bouncing off the walls as soon as the lead appears, and strangling himself just to get to the front gate.) so let’s get him ready to leave the house in a manner the Queen would be proud of. Desensitise your dog to the prospect of going for a walk by regularly ‘preparing for a walk’ throughout the day. So get out the lead, but then put it on the kitchen table, go and read a magazine, then get up and put the lead away. Get out the lead, put your coat on, then go and have a cup of coffee. You can even put the lead on your dog, then drop the lead and go off to potter in the garden for 5 minutes, then return, remove the lead and put it away. VERY quickly your dog will stop reacting like an Arkham escapee every time a walk is on the cards.
The next stage is to attach your dog’s lead, and walk him in the home – I don’t mean aimlessly lap your house for 20 minutes, but go about your life as you would, were you not leading your dog. So attach his lead, go into the kitchen and make a cup of tea. Your dog will need to wait for the kettle to boil and the drink to brew, and for you to then carry your drink through to the living room, where you will sit and drink your tea, whilst watching 20 minutes of television. Keep hold of the lead all the while, so your dog must learn to settle beside you. After all that tea (sorry!) it’s time for a toilet trip, and Fido needs to come to. He’s learning that you are in charge, you dictate where he’s going to and how long for, not him. Do this regularly across a few days for short periods of time, to realign what the relationship between you and your dog should be when there is a lead involved – YOU are the leader, and you make the decisions.
All or Nothing…
Eventually you can move this exercise to the garden, and once successful there you can move it to the front of the house. There is a good heelwork exercise coined by Dr. Ian Dunbar that’s worth mentioning here, particularly if you have a very ‘pully’ dog on-lead. It’s called ‘all-or-nothing’ training, and works well because it really engages the dog’s brain and encourages active problem-solving. Simply attach your dog’s lead, and stand still. Your dog will be excited to go for a walk, and confused that nothing’s happening… but stay firm and do not engage with your dog, or give any verbal commands – the aim is to get your dog to sit down beside you. Some dogs get this within minutes… some have been known to take more than 20 minutes on the first attempt – going through their whole portfolio of tricks to get the owner’s attention first! As soon as your dog sits down, you praise and treat, then take one big step forward, and stand stock still again. Your dog will probably work it out quicker this time. Once he is sitting beside you again, you praise, treat, and take another step.
Your end-game is a dog that follows each single step, and then immediately sits beside you when you stop. It’s called all-or-nothing, because your dog gets nothing, unless he delivers exactly what you want – then he gets it all – praise, reward, fuss and affection. This teaches your dog to pay very close attention to your movement in order to earn his reward, and that rushing off ahead will gain him absolutely nothing.
Time to Take the Lead Off...
The reason I’m talking so much about lead-training in a recall article, is because all these exercises are designed to encourage and increase your dog’s focus on YOU – if we bring you back to the centre of their now widely expanded world, you stand a much stronger chance of being able to get a good recall out of them when you need to.
So now we’ve encouraged them to point their focus in the right direction, it’s time to let the lead off… but replace it with a long line. You can buy longlines designed for recall training in a variety of lengths (or you can buy multiples and attach them together to give you control at an even greater distance) and the idea is that you attach it to your dog, but do not hold onto the other end. It simply provides you with an easy opportunity to gain instant control of your dog from a distance, should you need to.
In this instance, the longline will enable you to prevent the dog from ever self-rewarding the act of ignoring your recall command. If for example, he spies another dog, decides to ignore you entirely and dart towards said temptation, you simple stamp your foot on the end of the longline, or grab hold of it. Your dog won’t be able to reach the other dog, and therefore won’t receive any positive reward for his act of defiance. Instead he’ll be snapped out of his drive to reach the dog, at which point you can give your recall command again, encourage his return with the long line if needs be, and praise, praise, PRAISE when he reaches you.
If, in a parallel longline-free version of this scenario, your dog had great fun by playing with another dog as the result of ignoring your recall, he learns that ignoring recall gains him joy – and we never want to allow this. The only reward he should get is when he returns to you (lots of praise, toys, play, fuss etc.)
Remember never to punish a returning dog – even if he’s been ignoring your for ages beforehand – you will create the wrong association in his mind, and give him no impetus to repeat the experience!
Hide and Seek…
Remember when out walking that your dog should always be keeping his eye on you – not the other way around… so if needs be, HIDE! When your dog runs ahead, you turn and walk back in the direction you came from. If he turns left, you turn right, etc. Don’t constantly call him to keep up with you, if he loses sight of you he must work to find you again, and learn that keeping an eye on you – i.e. paying you a lot more attention – is the easy way forward. It helps to keep your dog within a workable range if their recall isn’t too reliable to start with (again, a long line is great for maintaining this) as the further he travels from you, the less likely he’ll be to respond to you, and distractions will take a priority once again.
Distraction, Duration and Distance…
Always remember the 3 ‘d’s of dog-training: distraction, duration and distance. You can only work on improving ONE of these at any one time; so for example, if u want to practise recall at a greater distance, you must do it in a much less distracting environment. Likewise, if you enter a far more distracting environment than usual, bring the distance right back down again, and work on a very short recall, rewarding every success.
If you feel your dog is failing at any point, put the lead back on, and return to a few heelwork exercises. Bring his focus and attention on you back to the forefront - the reward for doing this well, is free play again. It’s helpful to introduce a phrase that communicates to the dog that he’s free to have a wander – in our house ‘hang loose’ means off you go and relax. Dogs should be allowed free time to sniff and explore on walks; it’s equally as important as strong training.
As I said before, NEVER punish a dog that returns, returning should always be rewarded with praise, fun, and (if safe to do so) the freedom to go back out and play; the dog should learn that listening to you ultimately allows them more freedom, not restriction.
In Case of Emergency…
When it comes to emergency situations, it’s ideal to teach another command, such as ‘sit’ or ‘down’, which you can proof to a much more reliable standard fairly quickly. For example, if you are suddenly approached by horses, another dog, fast-moving traffic or any other potentially dangerous situation or unrehearsed scenario, it’s far less of a Herculean task in your dog’s mind to drop his hind quarters and sit down, than it is to tear himself away from that sudden incredible temptation, and back towards you. Just sit-stay your dog, then approach him and leash him (with lots of praise).
Of course, an article on something as important as recall can in no way replace the guidance and practical training an experienced practitioner can deliver in person, but these are a handful of tips that most everyday owners should be able to implement, and hopefully see some improvements with!
Let me know if you found this article helpful – and if there’s anything else you’d like to see some advice on in future posts.
Happy Walkies! x