Friday, 10 June 2011

Recall - Part III

As you may have realized by the length of this three-part post on recall, getting my dogs to come back to me is a big part of my life with them. I have ex-racing greyhounds and not only are they naturally predisposed, as well as trained, to chase, but they are also very fast. There is no way I can catch them if they decide to run away. I simply have to persuade them to come back to me.

However, even if I employ all the tricks I talked about in Part I to make myself interesting to my dogs, I will quite probably never succeed against thousands of years of breeding and the fact that they spent the first years of their lives chasing for a living. I have accepted that faced with a squirrel, my dogs will most certainly chase it whatever I say or do. This means two things to my recall training. First of all, I simply do not let them off the leash in places where chasing could pose a danger to them. Second, I have tried to teach them to come back and “check in” with me immediately after a chase. Although Eddie is up to speed with this, I am still working on it with Cassie. However, I have to remind myself sometimes that we have had Eddie a whole year longer than Cassie, and conditioning behaviour takes time.

Indeed, it is partly through my trials and errors when training recall with my greyhounds that I have come to the conclusion that conditioning is the way to succeed. Conditioning, with a good dose of patience and persistence. With both my dogs I have at times felt like I have been hitting my head against a brick wall, and thought that the only way to get them to come back must be extreme punitive measures, such as a shock collar, which ultimately I could not justify. They were just too fast and too far away and too excited by the world around them. How would I ever get through to them? I went back to more intense correction on-leash, using a rattle-can (more on which elsewhere) when they tried to chase, shouting and yanking them back. Although this had some success when they were on the leash, as soon as they were off they were chasing, and apparently uninterested in coming back to me until they were well and truly exhausted.

I have since realized that I was making the classic mistake that I talked about in Part II, of not providing enough positive incentive for my dogs to come back, in addition to giving them plenty of dis-incentive (the corrections). Besides, a greyhound’s prey instinct is so strong that it will ignore quite a lot of discomfort and pain (even fractures) to continue the chase. I don’t think that even shock collars would make much difference, actually. No, the tactics had to change completely.

I upped the ante with my treats and, in Cassie’s case, toys. I also intensified the frequency with which I repeated recall. I did not wait until they were off in the woods chasing – that is setting them up to fail, and serves no conditioning purpose – but recalled and rewarded frequently at home, on leash, when they were nearby and so on. I also rewarded them for simply sticking close to me. The idea I was trying to implant deep in their brains was that being close to mama means nice things happen.

I also recently realized that I had done a lot of this rewarding for being close with Eddie, without even thinking, when I only had him, giving him treats and cuddles. It is easier to give a lot of attention to one dog, rather than two, of course. When I got Cassie, however, because the work with Ed was already done, I somehow thought it had come naturally. I had to remind myself to give Cassie as much attention as I had given Eddie. However, I also had to remember that conditioning takes time. It does not happen over night, but involves many repetitions, over and over again. It took Eddie almost a year to become the devoted and reliable dog that never strays very far from me, that he is today.

With Cassie, using the toy was an important step, but became a hindrance as I began using it as a lure, rather than reward, as well as providing too much of a distraction once she was allowed to play (more on which here). I cut right back down on using it, and increased my frequency of giving her especially tasty treats. Cassie is also a much more high-energy dog, and my recall has had to become more energetic. She responds better to high-pitch calls and enthusiastic noises. Her attention is easily swayed so she simply needs something more intense keep her focused. This has worked wonders. A dog that before was quite unpredictable, and kept disappearing, is now coming back with enthusiasm in most cases, as well as keeping much closer on walks in general. We are also coming up to the one-year anniversary of Cassie coming to live with us. Again, I can only stress that conditioning takes time, especially with rescue dogs, with a whole different kind of life behind them.

As I said, however, I know that when they spot prey, nothing will stop them. I have therefore worked on teaching them that the end of a hunt equals recall. I started this at the very early stages of the training process. After they had been distracted by something in the garden, or tried to chase something when on-leash I immediately recalled. Still do. Every time. I yet have some way to go with Cassie. She becomes obsessively focused on the spot where she has lost the prey – usually the tree that the squirrel has scampered up. It is difficult to shake her out of this obsession. Sometimes I simply have to take her on the leash and walk her away for a while until she has forgotten about the squirrel. I am hoping this acts as a dis-incentive in itself, but I wonder if it is immediate enough for her to make the connection – if I don’t come I get put on the leash.

At the moment I am simply continuing with intense recall conditioning with her, and I am clearly making inroads into her mind. Hopefully at some point the association of my call to pleasant treat will be so ingrained that she comes reflexively, even when obsessing about that squirrel. Maybe she simply has to realize that standing by the tree is not much fun in the long run. Eddie has understood that the squirrel is not going to come down from the tree, and that he has far more to gain by heeding me. If anyone has any other tips or tricks on how to wake a greyhound from its squirrel reverie, please do let me know!

The most important conclusion I have come to regarding recall is perhaps that it is an ongoing process. Your dogs will soon cotton on if they stop being rewarded for coming back. If you are no longer the fun person with the treats and toys, they will look elsewhere for entertainment. Indeed, in order to have dogs that reliably come back to you, you have to modify not only your dog’s behaviour but your own, too. Conditioning is not about training obedience, but about setting up a pattern of behaviour – human and canine – that is conducive to a mutually pleasant coexistence. If you want your dog to be your friend, you have to be theirs. 


Anonymous said...

starting training today with Fudge (9 month old-rescue beagle x dachshund, had him for 1 day). I can say it is with some anxiety as i am already trying to manage a herd of unruly children. He is responding to recall on the lead and indoors but we are less sucessful is early days. I am finding it hard not to let the overwhelming feeling of panic, when he disappears in the bushes, affect my ability of calm recall. We have not built up a strong bond yet and although he has had some seems patchy! jo howe

E.A. said...

Hey Jo,
It is VERY early days. I wouldn't even let him off lead yet. Walking on lead helps build a bond. Just keep at doing recall exercises at home and on lead - you want it to become second nature to him. Several times a day but not all at once.
Also: give him some time to get used to you - I'm sure a few weeks in and it'll feel like he's always been yours!