Recall! (Coming When Called)

by Debbie Cerda-Pavia

Background

Many of us, especially those involved in obedience, think of a recall as a specific exercise where the dog must stay, then come when called and sit in front, then move around behind the handler and sit at the left side.  However for most dog owners a recall is the action of the dog stopping whatever he is doing and returning to the owner.

This applies whether you are walking the dog at the park, participating in a retrieving or field trial, out shooting on a swamp, or calling your dog for his dinner.  It is important that the dog should learn to come immediately when he is called for a number of reasons:

  • to stop him from harassing other people or dogs in suburbia

  • to ensure he doesn't interfere with another dog that is working in competition (Field Trials)

  • to stop him from getting into miscellaneous trouble (e.g. running on the road)

  • to make sure he doesn't get shot in rural areas for chasing stock etc.

  • so that he comes back to you after retrieving an item, be it game at a Field/Retrieving/Obedience trial, or his frisbee at the park

  • as a compulsory exercise in Obedience Trials

The bottom line is that the dog that comes when he is called is not going to be a public nuisance or a danger to himself or others.

The usual scenario

The owner takes the dog for a walk and lets him off the lead at the local park.  The dog happily runs around and has a sniff until he sees another person (or dog).  The dog then shoots off to the other person to see what they're up to.  The owner calls the dog, which has suddenly gone completely deaf and can't hear the call!  The dog is now jumping all over the other person who is, justifiably, unimpressed.  The dog’s owner is completely embarrassed by the dog’s behaviour and gets more threatening with the commands.  Finally the owner catches the dog, puts him on lead and proceeds to correct him both verbally and physically to punish him for his performance.  Does this sound all too familiar?

The dogs train of thought

Let’s look at the above scenario from the dog’s point of view:

He's having his sniff, the only bit of freedom in his daily walk, when he sees someone new.  We all know that someone new in Golden Retriever language means "Someone who hasn't had the pleasure of playing with me yet!”  So the dog goes zooming over to get acquainted with this new playmate.  He hears the owner calling and thinks, "I have two options. I can go and play with this exciting new person, or I can go back and be put on lead (by my boring owner that I see all the time) to be taken back home".  Naturally, the dog takes the first option and keeps going.  While he's "playing" his owner is getting angrier and the dog is starting to get worried about the consequences of returning.  "Oh boy, she sounds really mad now.  If I go back I'm going to cop it".  Eventually when he's caught and gets corrected he's thinking,  "I knew this going back on lead business was trouble.  As soon as the lead goes on I'm in strife.  Next time I won't be caught".

The secret to recalls

There is only one reason that the dog does not return to his owner promptly.  Pay attention here, it's the most important point in the whole article:

The dog has to want to come to you more than anything else in the world.

Read that point again please, it's really important.  The reason dogs don't come back when you call them is that you are not interesting enough to them.  Doesn't the truth hurt?  You are boring to your dog and he'd rather be doing something else (anything else) than being with you.  Okay, we're done with the nasty bits now.  Take a deep breath and find out how we're going to fix the problem.

Training for beautiful recalls

The bottom line is that we have to make coming to us the most enjoyable thing the dog can do.  Obviously this will mean different things to each dog and owner. However we can make some generalisations and also offer some Do’s and Don’ts for all dogs.  Note that there is no "quick fix" when you come to recalls - it's a matter of completely retraining the dog.  The more bad habits he started with, the longer it will take to fix them.

One of the reasons that dogs don't come when called is that they are only ever called when one of two events occur: It's time to go home, or something exciting happens (a dog, or person arrives) that they then miss out on.  They make a negative association with the recall.  You need to break this cycle by calling the dog when only pleasant things will occur.  Try taking the dog to a safe area (a fenced, footy oval is perfect) and letting him off lead.  Plan to spend an hour at the designated area.  Bring a whole variety of doggy bribes, these can be food or toys.  Whatever your dog likes best is what we're after, if that's his big fluffy Humphrey B Bear toy ... then so be it!  The idea is to let the dog run off some steam for a while, so just let him run free for 5 or 10 minutes.  Then call him in, be prepared that he will act as usual and probably ignore you.  Do not reprimand the dog for failure to obey.  At this point we're trying to make it fun for him, so find a way to encourage him in.  Raise the pitch (not the tone!) of your voice, do some star jumps, throw yourself to the ground suddenly, throw his toy in the air.  Whatever it takes to get him to come in, even if you have to make a complete fool of yourself.  Remember that a dog is always more likely to come in if you are not so tall, kneel down and encourage him with open arms.  When he eventually arrives, reward him big time.   Make out that he's just won CRUFTS and the National Retrieving Trial Championships in the last 5 minutes!  Use your food or toy and let him know that he's the cleverest dog on the planet.  Yes, even if it took 15 minutes to get him to come to you.  To start with we take ANY progress as an earth-shattering win.  This should be less painful with a puppy as they are naturally more inquisitive and also have not learned the negative associations to start with.

Having made a big fuss of the dog, allow him to run free again and keep repeating the whole procedure at regular intervals.  He should be more responsive as time goes on, as he's learning to make new, positive, associations with the whole business.  It might help to change the command if he seems to droop whenever you use the old one.  Try "Here" instead of "Come".  As he comes in more regularly, praise him verbally and get him to sit before using your other reward.  Occasionally snap the lead on him when he's sitting, praise him and then take the lead off again and release the dog.  Obviously sometimes when you snap the lead on, it's time to go home.  But make sure that's not the only time the lead goes on, or again the dog will come to associate the lead with the end of his freedom and rebel against it.

DO

  • Praise your dog and make a fuss of him when he comes.

  • Remember that you must build up slowly.  Take slow steps to success.  A dog that comes to you today for the first time on a vacant footy oval is not going to come to you tomorrow in a park full of other dogs.

  • Write down a list of the steps you need to undertake and the order in which you will tackle them, i.e. come in the back yard, come at the park with no distractions, come at the park with another dog in the far distance, etc.  This serves two purposes: it gives you a clear direction, and gives you something to tick off when you're happy with the item (thereby allowing you to 'see' your progress).

  • Use an extendible lead when you are ready to start training amongst distractions.  Don't use it to correct the dog, just to stop him from nicking off.  Keep calling whilst allowing the dog to only move in your direction.  He still needs to make the decision to come in so don't reel him in like a fish.

  • Sometimes let the dog know that you've got his reward and have someone else hold him (or get him to stay if he's reliable).  Walk a reasonable distance (start with 30 feet) and clearly display the reward whilst calling the dog.  Let him leap up and grab it from your hand when he arrives.  This exercise should speed him up.  Increase the distance to increase the speed.  Don't do this too often from a "stay" or he will start to break all his stays.

DON"T

  • Don't ever reprimand the dog when it comes to you.

  • Don't ever call the dog to you for punishment for any deed (go and catch him if you must punish).

  • Don't think the problem is "fixed".  You must continually train the dog to expect positive things from you, to ensure he does not revert to old habits.  Vary when he gets the reward so he never knows whether to expect it or not.  Dogs are optimistic, if in doubt they'll hope you've got the reward!  Also vary the reward to keep him guessing!