With puppies as well as with rescue dogs the very first step is therefore to condition your dog that calling their name and “come here” equals good stuff. The word conditioning, I have learned, is operative here. You basically want to play Pavlov, and by relentless repetition of event and consequence imprint it deep in your dog’s behavioural matrix that coming to you is good. It should become a reflex action that your dog runs to you when he hears your call.
Let me state right out that you are unlikely to succeed at the conditioning venture I have just set out at a hundred percent. You may, but you probably won’t. However, the more you condition your dog to your recall, the more often your dog will come back to you. In addition, it is important to realize that conditioning is not finished just because the dog has understood the idea that he or she gets a treat when returning to you. Dogs learn that very quickly, but the simple fact of learning something does not mean that a dog will perform the learned behaviour with the regularity that you most probably want recall to occur. That is why you need to go down the conditioning route, and the one big trick to achieve successful conditioning is repetition. Frequent, consequent, continuous, relentless, ad nauseam repetition.
Start at home with tasty morsels or a favourite toy. Usually at this stage most dogs will respond to food. Perform the following action: call the dogs name and your chosen “come here” command, and when the dog does so reward immediately with a treat and lots of praise. For ways of getting your dogs attention and enticing them to you see Part I. This shouldn’t be too hard unless you are working with a nervous or fearful dog, but these should be treated as separate cases, which I want to consider elsewhere.
Repeat the action at home at varying times, in various places and with various things going on around the dog. Begin by being very close to your dog, rewarding even that the dog simply pays you attention. Also begin in calm situations where there are few distractions. Only when the dog is coming to you almost every time you call should you move on to more challenging situations. It is important not to set your dog up to fail. He or she does not learn that coming back equals treat from failure, only from success. You will probably find, that your dog responds and appears to learn the command very quickly at this stage. You can raise the stakes quite soon – different rooms, more people around, in the garden and so on. Remember to reward every time, most often with treats, but also with praise. Never let a successful recall go unnoticed.
Once your dog clearly understands the concept of recall, you can also start incorporating some training on your walks. Although you may try it if the dog is loose in a safe space, like a dog park, I would recommend to start doing the main part of the training on-leash at this stage. The worst things you could do now is either to end up chasing your dog, turning your recall command to a cue for a fun game of tag, or get frustrated and angry at your dog failing to return to you and start shouting. The latter is very important. One, because why on earth would a dog want to come back to an angry shouting person, and two, because, especially if you tell you dog off when they have finally come back, you are conditioning your dog that recall equals unpleasant stuff. Be careful not to sabotage your own work.
I therefore find it very effective to do initial recall training outdoors with the dog on a standard length leash. While walking, when your dog is at leash-length away from you, call him or her back and reward. Continue walking and repeat several, indeed many, times during the walk. Again, start with less distracting environments and build it up. The benefit of training recall on leash is that you can incorporate some correction. Although the mainstay of your training should be conditioning through positive reinforcement, a gentle tug on the leash can help to get your dog’s attention. Two important notes here, though. Do not rely on this tug. Eventually you will want your dog to return in situations where you cannot tug them. If you find you have to tug every time, you need to do more work at home or in quieter environments. Also, always make your corrective “noise” of choice (no, ah-ah, leave, etc) just before tugging. In this way, you are continuing the conditioning of this noise as a prequel to something unpleasant which happens if the dog does not heed you. I want to talk about correction in depth elsewhere, but needless to say you would rather the dog respond to a correction noise than a tug or other negative reinforcement.
Remember, however, your dog will be conditioned only when succeeding, so you must ensure that you perform the training in such a way that he or she does. Only when you are sure that your success rate is high without corrections move on to more challenging environments. However, do not abandon your work in the “easier” situations, the more times your dog successfully returns to you and gets a treat the more likely he or she is to do it again. Don’t abandon trials outside if they at first fail, but intensify your work at home or in the garden. Equally, keep on doing a lot of work on-leash, even when you have reached the stage of letting your dog off in safe environments. Every step builds on the earlier one, it does not replace it. Yes, eventually you can lay off repeating recall at home quite so much, when you are happy with the dog’s performance. However, I still ensure that if I do call my dogs at home they are always rewarded, with treats, play or cuddles.
I have also done work with longer leashes with my dogs. This is an intermediate step which I have found useful as you can retain the correction element, and stay safe whilst pushing the dog on distance. A word of caution, long training leashes should be used carefully to avoid injury to dog and handler. They are not for normal “walking”. Also, be very careful with long leads, especially flexi-leads on sight-hounds, they can take off very powerfully and quickly and can injure their necks, not to say dislocate your arm.
At some point your dog will respond so often to your call when on leash that you will feel that it is ready to come off it. And, unless you want to keep your dog on the leash forever, you have to try it sometime. You will most likely experience a sharp dip in the reliability of your dog’s recall at this stage. You have suddenly opened up a whole new world of excitement for the dog, and you therefore may have to up the stakes on being exciting yourself. This is where you may need to apply all the things I considered in Part I – toys, games, yodeling, running about. I repeat, make yourself a being that your dog wants to spend time with, and it will come.
Remember that conditioning works by continuous repetition, so don’t stop the work you do at home and on-leash. You may scale it back when your are happy with your dog’s recall off-leash, but I always do a few recall exercises while my dogs are on leash to keep them reminded of the goodies that await if they come back when called. Let them know that you are the guy with ham in your pocket, or the mama with the squeaky, and they will want to be around you.
In Part III of my musings on recall I will continue to consider conditioning and its role in recall, but also to what extent it is feasible to expect “perfect” recall, and what to remember if you don’t or can't.