Good reliable recall and off lead control is for the most part not an easy achievement and requires much more than just handing out treats when sounding the whistle or calling your dog. In fact, it requires quite a bit more than just a decent recall.
Before you start, it is imperative to understand that dogs do not have a moral compass. They do not think in terms of “I should” “I know I really ought to” “It would be very naughty of me not to” come when called.
The moral compass humans have, gives us boundaries for our behaviour and guides us as to what is acceptable behaviour. Don’t transfer these very human attributes to a dog! They don’t have that part of the brain. Far too often do I hear people saying “He knows he has been naughty” or “He knows he should come when I call” These thought patterns will get you nowhere. Dogs do not come wired with a sense of duty to come when called.
You need to know and understand your particular dog and breed.
A dog that is naturally biddable will be easier as these dogs like to please their owners. Most dogs, however, are not by nature biddable and praise from their owner is of relatively little value to these dogs in many situations. You also need to understand the very powerful internal reward chemistry taking place in the brain of a dog that is engaging in behaviour that is part of that dog’s Raison D’être (reason for being).
- If you have a hound, sledge dog, or terrier you are going to have to work very hard as these dogs are not very biddable by nature and not particularly bothered if they have human approval or not.
- Gun-Dogs are much more biddable in nature but these have very strong hunting and chasing instincts, especially the spaniels, making these very hard to control out on walks.
- If you have a sight hound such as a Greyhound you have a dog that is, a) not very biddable by nature and b) also has a very strong prey and chase drive making them exceptionally hard to control in certain situations.
- If you have any other type of dog; Congratulations!
You need to understand what is rewarding to your dog.
- What food/treats will send your dog into orbit? What games does your dog like to play? What other activities does your dog love to engage in such as hunting, chasing, following scent, playing with other dogs?
- You must have full control of these reinforcers/rewards. If you cannot control when and how your dog has access to all the good things your dog wants, especially when you are out walking, your dog will soon go self-employed and help himself.
- You also need to be able to use all of these reinforcers in your interaction with your dog to reward and strengthen behaviour you like. This means understanding the relevance and application of the Premack Principle. ( “ A high probability behaviour will reinforce and strengthen a low probability behaviour.” )
You need to be your dog’s best playmate and interact with your dog on walks
You need to create a relationship where your dog wants to be close to you. You need to be the sources of most of the fun and most of the action not just at home but more importantly when you are out walking. Dogs are constantly looking for fun and rewarding action and if this is not coming from you, they will very quickly find this elsewhere, and who could blame them! Plodding along in a straight line enjoying the scenery does not inspire your dog to stick with you. You have to interact with your dog and be a very interesting person to stick with. I cannot overemphasise the importance of teaching your young dog/puppy to play with you and to become as obsessed as possible about playing with you. Ball play/chasing is probable the best game. A dog that is totally focussed on playing ball games will naturally stick close to their handler. Have you ever seen a Collie walking along totally fixated on their owner and the ball the owner is holding? Recall and off lead control is not much of an issue here!
You must have control over the consequences of your dog’s behaviour.
If a dog runs off chasing something you are most definitely not in control. This means you cannot give your dog more freedom than your dog can handle. Most people grant their dogs far too much freedom when out walking off lead. It is imperative that a dog off lead must not be allowed to stray too far away as even the best of training will falter at greater distances. Teach your dog an acceptable zone to stay within. This zone will need to vary in size depending on: a) what type of dog you have, b) how challenging the environment is and c) the level of training the dog is at. Long lines are a good interim solution if your dog cannot be trusted off lead.
I quote Pippa Mattinson (author of Total Recall and gun-dog trainer):
“Rule One: keep your spaniel close. I can’t emphasise this enough. You need to keep your spaniel close to you. Distance erodes control. My spaniels have never in their lives, been further from me than fifty yards unless retrieving or as part of an obedience exercise. Learning to obey this rule changed my life and if you are keen to have a really good working spaniel, it can change yours too. “
A walk needs to consist of a combination of the below:
- Dog on lead
- Dog playing with you
- Dog walking closely by your side off lead
- Dog working/training/ hunting with you
- Short spells of free time close to you in the zone of control when you signal this is ok such as playing with another dog or sniffing about. This must never involve independent chasing or hunting activities. If you have a hunting dog, free time is never appropriate in an area with high levels of distraction such as areas with lots of wildlife/game.
Punishment must never be used
Punishment can never be applied effectively in a recall situation. You can’t punish a dog that has run away from you and if you punish your dog when they come back, you will make your dog less likely to want to stick around you or come back in the future.
If your recall cue is ineffective and “broken” then you are best off starting training with a completely new one.
The old one will be associated with a history of ignoring it and cannot be easily mended. Whistles are better than verbal cues.
This is an absolutely essential part of all training and yet not many dog owners fully understand this process or engage in this activity to any greater extent. Dogs do not generalise a taught response in one location or situation particularly well to another. Every situation poses different types and levels of distraction. The recall response is particularly sensitive to distractions and distance from the owner. Proofing is the process where the basic recall taught at home without any distractions is progresses through a carefully graded and controlled training program. This means gradually introducing increasing the levels of distraction, whilst all the time maintaining absolute control over the situation and the dog being trained. Otherwise your dog soon learns something else.
Think of this as a pyramid with basic training at the bottom and the most difficult situation at the top of the pyramid. The different layers of the pyramid will be different for each dog depending on what your dog finds to be difficult distractions. A dog that is not interested in other dogs is not going to be difficult to recall away from another dog, whereas a highly sociable dog wanting nothing more than to play with other dogs will find this incredibly hard and therefore need lots of training and proofing for this.
The new recall signal must never ever be used in situations you have not trained for during the Proofing process
It is very hard not to blow the whistle for all your might as you see your dog taking off in the distance. The new recall can however very easily be broken just like the old one. Think about what your dog is learning when your dog is merrily running around or away from you having good time whilst you are repeatedly blowing the whistle.
In summary, when out walking your dog:
- Entertain and engage with your dog when out walking
- Keep your dog close to you when off lead and be vigilant looking for potential distractions appearing before it’s too late.
- Put your dog on a lead or long line when the environment is too distracting/challenging
- Do not use your recall cue/whistle above the level at which your dog has been trained for
- Learn how to use the Premack Principle.
- Do not get annoyed with your dog or expect your dog to respond to recalls you have not trained for and proofed.
If after reading all of this you are thinking that there is no way I can, or want to, do all of that then that is absolutely fine, but you have to then accept that the off lead control and recall response you have will be affected. No one ever said it was easy to be a dog owner!