Sure, most dogs are great at finding adventures, but when they live in our human world, we hope they will behave certain ways on their adventures. At TransPaw Gear, we believe there are three key canine skills that will maximize everyone’s enjoyment of outings together. We’ve told you a bit about the first one, loose leash walking, in two posts from this fall. We’ll talk about taking loose leash walking to the next level in the third part of this series. The other two components are recall (coming when called) and leave it (ignoring items or areas you don’t want the dog messing with). In this post, we’ll talk you through the steps of teaching the recall.
Overcoming Common Recall Pitfalls
Teaching a rock-solid recall is, as the saying goes, simple but not easy. Very often we inadvertently poison the cue (we create a bad association with it) by calling our dogs to us and then doing something they don’t like, or even just being less interesting than the bush they were sniffing in the yard. (Remember, your dog is the one who decides what is and is not fun; if you’re not sure what your dog enjoys and what bums them out, keep an eye on their body language for clues.) The risk of the poisoned cue is the reason that the first rule of recall training is “Never call your dog to deliver bad news!” In fact, you must make it your goal to reward your dog’s return to you with something amazing: deliciously stinky treats, a super-fun game of tug, or the opportunity to go right back to whatever fun they were having. You will be rewarding this behavior for many, many repetitions. Vary those rewards so no one gets bored, and so the payout is always a (pleasant) surprise.
Another common recall mistake is using the word over and over before the dog understands what it means. Repeating yourself numerous times without being able to follow through and get your dog to come is a surefire way to teach them that the word means…nothing. If you’ve already got a word that your dog ignores sometimes (or all the time!) pick a new word and start over.
Foundation of a Recall
Work in an environment with few distractions, such as in your home. Start right next to your dog. Say your recall cue and then back away from your dog using your happy voice, clapping and praising as they approach you. Remember, only say the cue once, and then just cheerlead and praise. Stop, and when your dog gets to you, reach in and grab the handle of their Happy Harness with one hand, and give them a tasty treat from the other.
Repeat this several times, until your dog is almost chasing you around, not allowing you to get very far away from them. Next, try the same thing but starting in a different location in the same room, still with few distractions. Practice calling from a few different spots in this room, and then move to different rooms and do a few repetitions around those areas.
Next, stand 8 to 10 feet away from your dog, say the cue and begin backing away. It’s OK if your dog is doing something else, so long as they aren’t deeply involved in a distracting activity, such as getting a belly rub, eating a meal, or chewing a favorite bone. Cheerlead with the happy talk and praise, and when the dog arrives to you, reach for their collar with one hand and give a delicious treat with another. If your dog doesn’t come to you right away, go to them, lure them back to where you called from, and then reward.
When this is going well, you can try the same exercise with your dog in different rooms of the house, especially when they aren’t expecting it, and reward in the same manner. This way, they continue to associate coming to you with wonderful things!
Upping the Challenge
Once your dog can do these exercises reliably, start to practice outdoors in your yard or another secure outdoor spot. If you don’t have a fenced outdoor area, clip a long line* to your dog for safety purposes. Gradually increase the distance you are calling your dog from, and the types of distractions you are calling them away from. Remember, whenever possible, release your dog back to whatever it was you called them away from! This will teach them that your recall cue does not mean the fun is going to stop.
When these exercises are going well, you may begin to try to practice the above steps off leash in a secure area with few distractions. Again, gradually increase the distractions your dog is facing when working off leash. Always obey leash laws in your area!
If at any point you find that your dog is coming when called less than 90% of the time, go back to an easier step. This may mean starting closer, reducing distractions, increasing the value of your rewards, or some combination of these. The more often your dog does not respond to the recall cue, the harder your job will be later! Aim for lots of early successes, and don’t increase difficulty too quickly. A solid recall can take months to teach, but once you’ve got it, you will truly be able to take your adventuring to the next level.
*Be cautious not to get your dog tangled up in the leash. This is meant to be used for safety purposes only; do not use this leash for pulling or dragging your dog away from something. If your dog does not respond to the recall cue, go get them and lure them back to the spot you called them from.
Remember it’s always easier to train your dog when they are comfortable and confident and an easy way to make that possible is with the TransPaw Gear Happy Harness, the premiere dog training and dog walking harness.