< Updated 14JUL19 >
We do not spend lots of time discussing recall in our Puppy Headstart class; there simply is not enough time in the four weeks we have. However, it is a critical behavior, and one most new puppy parents want to start teaching their puppy. A puppy usually stays pretty close to its new family the first few weeks, making it is easy to get a false sense of security, believing that your puppy has already mastered the recall behavior and will instantly come back to you in any situation. Based on twenty five plus years as a professional dog trainer, I can tell you that this is extremely unlikely.
It is not my intention to scare you but to be honest with you. Your puppy will reach a point where they will be confident and ready to leave your side without warning. This urge to bolt often happens between twelve and sixteen weeks of age, roughly equivalent to humans becoming teenagers. The recall that you thought was perfect will no longer work. That is why I recommend that dogs be secured in fenced areas when they are off leash. I have had too many phone calls from students telling me that they wished they would have followed my advice because their puppy bolted into the road in front of a car and was seriously injured or killed.
Below I describe how you can start building a reliable recall with a game called puppy ping pong. This is something that you can start doing immediately. However, pleased understand that having a recall that can save your dog’s life takes lots of practice. In my experience, very few dogs are at that point before they are twelve to eighteen months of age. Some dogs, despite working with incredible trainers, never reach the point where they can be safe off leash in non-fenced areas.
OBJECTIVE: To teach your dog to enthusiastically and immediately come to you in any circumstance, when given a single visual or verbal cue. Teaching your dog the Attention/Look cue and Collar Control and Restraint first will make teaching recall easier.
I believe “Come” is the most crucial cue your puppy/dog needs to know. It means, “Come to me happily without any hesitation or wandering.” It is a behavior which may save your dog’s life. It can take many months of training and thousands of repetitions before you will have a dog that reliably comes every time you ask for the behavior. Even if you think your three-month-old puppy knows to come when called, do not be surprised as this changes when the dog becomes older and begins to explore the world. This is often when a puppy takes off and gets killed when they are hit by a car. In my 25+ years training dogs, I heard that story far too often, so if it scares you, I am sorry, but if it keeps you from making that mistake, I have accomplished my goal.
Remember, often when your dog to instantaneously stop what they are doing and return to you, they are engaged in something extremely enticing such as eating a tasty piece of deer poop or chasing a squirrel. To be successful, you need to have a significant history of offering the dog something equally and preferably better than the object that has your dog’s attention. Training a reliable recall takes time, patience, and many repetitions.
- NEVER scold or punish your dog after he has come to you, even if it seems like he took forever. Unless you are excited, happy, and pleased that your dog had returned to your presence and allowed you to catch me, your dog will think even longer before coming the next time. Your recall cue MUST be the most positive word that your dog hears and should never be associated with anything negative. (Remember, think like a dog. Coming to you must always be safe and rewarding from your dog’s point of view. For example, asking your dog to come when they are playing outside and then putting him in his kennel or calling your dog to you and then trimming their nails will be NOT be considered to be rewarding for most dogs. Call them in, give them a treat, play with them for a little bit, then put your dog in their kennel, or trim their nails.
- ALWAYS reward and praise your dog for coming to you, even if you did not ask them to come. Remember, the best reward for most dogs is going to be a high-value treat, something with is mostly meat. Expecting your dog to be excited about getting a dog biscuit would be like you offering me a box of soda crackers for helping you move to which I would respond; “I’m sorry I’m busy all weekend.”
- While training the recall, do NOT use the verbal cue you intend to use for the recall; most people choose the word “Come,” unless you are 100% sure that your dog will come to you. Most people start using verbal cues before the dog is ready. Some dogs have heard the word “come” so many times while doing everything but running towards you that to them, it means “continue doing what you are doing.” Until your dog has been trained reliably to a recall cue, go and get your dog when required and reward him for being “captured.”
- ALWAYS use a pleasant tone of voice when asking your dog to come. If you sound angry, your dog will perceive you as being a threat and not safe and is not going to want to come to you. Many times I hear people start with a very friendly “COME” and then when the dog does not move towards them, the person follows it up with a harsher sounding “COME.” Would that make you more likely to move towards someone who is now angry with you? When you go from happy to angry you have made two mistakes; you have not adequately trained your dog to come on the first cue, and you allowed yourself to become frustrated with your dog for your error, which decreases the probability of the desired behavior. Be enthusiastic and happy and use your voice to reflect that attitude. No deep booming voices, high-pitched squeals work much better (Guys, man-up, you can do this!) and do not keep repeating the same annoying and nagging phrase over and over (e.g., “Come Sparky, come on, come, Sparky, Sparky, come”).
- ALWAYS use “dog-friendly” body language when asking your dog to come. Standing or kneeling with your arms open and outstretched and leaning back is very inviting for most dogs. Even the slightest lean forward by you can be seen as confrontational by your dog. Sometimes running a few steps towards your dog then immediately turning around and running away is all you need to do!
- Even after your dog has been trained to respond to a verbal cue for recall, ALWAYS make sure you have your dog’s attention before telling them to come
- Only say your verbal cue once and only after you have your dog’s attention. Saying it several times only teaches your dog that your request is optional, and the verbal cue you are using for recall becomes irrelevant.
- If after training to your dog to 99% reliability and they do not come, go and get him, reward him with a treat! Moreover, praise him! If you yell at him, you have just taught him that “getting caught” results in punishment. Also, understand that you need to do some more training.
- Do not overuse the cue “come.” Allow this word to remain meaningful. For example; do not use your recall cue when trying to get your dog closer to you while working on teaching heel/walking politely. If my dog is out in the backyard enjoying herself while rolling in the grass, I am going get off my lazy butt, go over to her, kneel and play with her, and get her to follow me inside. If we are honest with ourselves, we all know that we could use the extra steps in our daily routine and that the scenario I have outlined is not one where we need an instantaneous response.
- Get your dog used to being handled by their collar when they come to you (see Collar Control & Restraint). Your dog’s collar is usually the only thing you will be able to use to restrain your dog. Dogs that are not given positive reinforcement for allowing us to handle them by their collars often become collar shy.
- Do not always tell your dog to come after he has been placed on a stay. You do not want your dog to lose his stay position because he is anticipating your next cue.
No matter how well you train your dog, there may be some times when your dog does not come. If this happens, there are two things you can do:
If the dog is running away
Throw your arms up, scream, and run away from your dog. Most of the time, the dog will come quickly after you. When your dog arrives, get control of him, praise him lavishly and give him a jackpot of treats. Use this experiences as a wake-up call and recognize you need to do more training.
If the dog is not coming to you
- Crouch or lie down on the ground and start whispering to the ground as if you have just found something incredibly wonderful. Your dog will probably come over to investigate. When he does, gently place your hand on your dog’s collar, praise him lavishly and give him a handful of treats. Use this experiences as a wake-up call and recognize they you need to do more training.
Training Exercises to Build A Strong Recall
- Start with two or more people at opposite ends of a long hall or room or with a group of people sitting in a circle. Each needs a clicker and some treats. We recommend you always use a high-value treat, such as some freeze-dried meat or cheese which you use exclusively for training the recall.
- The first person crouches or kneels, leans back, and says the dog’s name.
NOTE: Dogs respond positively to reduced body posture, which is why we crouch or kneel. Do NOT bend over at the waist, as this as many dogs will feel threatened when you are in this position.
- Get the dog’s attention by clapping your hands while enthusiastically making high-pitched squeaky noises, whatever is necessary to get your dog to come and investigate. If you need to, run up to the dog quickly, then quickly run backward, praising your dog as your dog comes towards you.
- As the dog starts coming towards you, excitedly praise him l “Good Dog!” “Good Job!” Many people make the mistake of waiting to praise the dog until he has arrived. We want to reward the actual behavior of coming towards you.
- When the dog is in front of you, put your fingers on the dog’s collar below their head (see Collar Control & Restraint) and click and treat with a high-value reward, such as noted above. It is imperative that you gently grasp the collar, so your dog associates this as being a good thing. The first few times he comes, praise him for a good 15 seconds, making a big deal about how wonderful he was to come to you.
- Repeat the above steps, having the other person(s) call the dog.
- When the dog starts to automatically return to the other person after the click and treat, you are ready to play this game in another location.
- As the dog gets proficient at this, fade the hand clapping and noises.
- When the dog is consistently coming, you are ready to play the next game, which we will teach you in Basic Manners.
©14JUL19, Donald J. Hanson, All Rights Reserved
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