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How to Get a Recall

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The standard answer is, “Make it worth the dog’s while”.

Odds of this approach to recall training working go up quite a lot under a few circumstances:

1.  Your dog isn’t hugely self confident.  Dogs that are a little nervous on their own have a natural inclination to stay relative close.  That makes recall training a lot easier.

2.  Your dog is under  about four months of age. Puppies usually know that they cannot survive on their own; unfortunately at around four or five months of age they often get stupid and think they can rule the world.  That is when recalls (and training in general) can be challenging for many dog/handler teams.   Don’t give up; your nice dog usually comes back.

3.  Your dog is fully mature.  After your dog has  worked through the stupid age and has seen a few thousand dogs, trees, and leaves, they aren’t quite so over the top when they encounter another.  Excited?  Maybe.  But not riveted.  Some environmental realities (usually critters but other possibilities exist) will always be very powerful for some dogs.

4.  Your dog wants what you have more than the alternatives.  Some dogs live for food – a 10 out of 10.  Those dogs are easier to recall off of distractions  because food overwhelms environmental realities.  All you have to do is convince your dog that you have food every time you call, and you’ll generally get a good recall.

5.  Your dog isn’t all that interested in the environment. Even if food is only a 6 out of 10, if the environment is a 5 out of 10 you’ll still win.

6. Habit.  If your dog hears “come” a few thousand times, and it ends up being a neutral or positive event when they do, then habit takes over to a large extent.  They just do it. When I hear my name called, I respond.  I spend very little time making a decision about it or weighing out the options – it’s a habit.  I respond to my name.  As do my dogs.

7.  All of the above, working together.

There you have it in a nutshell – what most trainers will tell you about recall training if they take a moment to think it through.

Let me add one more that I personally believe in.

8.  Relationship.  This is where I get to irritate some people.  Fortunately this is my blog and therefore my soapbox so I’m going to go through this topic again.

My dogs care what I think and they like it when I’m engaged and happy with them.  Yes, even my Terrier cares.  They care because I make it a priority to create a strong relationship.  I talk, celebrate and play with them as part of our daily habit.  I make an effort to be their ally as much as possible.  Some dogs make it easy to develop a relationship because of their temperament. With others, you’ll have to work hard.  Sometimes….very hard.

I have relatively few rules.  I do not nag.  I’m nice and playful and fun.  I have food and toys.  I have personality.  I use all of those in concert – not prioritizing them in any particular way.  I’m not the least bit concerned about what I have “on” me when I call my dogs; I know how to interact in a manner that will make them want to be with me.  The younger the dog, the more I will use classic rewards with a recall, but that’s not the reason they come back when I call – not over the long run.

I hear that this won’t work with my young dog because he is a terrier.   That is not correct; it will work. I know this because it’s already working,   I used to spend 50 – 90% of my training time either actively using toys and food to prevent him from leaving me, or getting him back  when I failed and he’d already run off (even though I had food and toys on me and he knew it).  Now I spend 10% of my time getting him back, so we’re progressing.  That’s because we are developing a relationship.  While the food and toys have decreased in usage over the past month, his commitment to me has increased.  That is because he is learning to value me – not simply the food and toys that I may or may not have in my pocket.

Brito can wear a long line if I’m in a place where I know he is either not safe or where “getting him back” will make him want to avoid me.  That way he can’t develop a habit of ignoring me because I can step on the leash.  There is no nagging.

I don’t call if I think he’s not going to come; instead I time my recalls for when I am pretty sure he is likely to respond anyway.  If I see a deer go by, I’ll just pick up the leash. If he’s totally engrossed in a smell, I can wait for him to finish before calling.   Why call when I’m going to lose?

I pay attention to my environment – I can’t pick up the leash to prevent chasing the deer if I don’t even see the deer.

I set up my environment to make him “sorry” for not coming when that is practical.  If I am in a safe spot and have multiple dogs, I’ll call all of the dogs one time knowing that he won’t come.   Then I turn my attention to the other dogs (who did come) and make a huge fuss over them, including food and toys, if possible.  But…for that to work the alternative interest has to be mild – he won’t care about the other dogs and their party if he has something that he considers even better.  Pick those moments with care.

I express my disapproval when he does not come and we are in a safe and relatively dull space.  If I let him out into the yard and after a reasonable while I call him in, then I’m going to tell him I’m not happy if he does not come back.  I will pressure him by moving into his space, so he can’t simply sit in the sun and snooze.  I’ll be verbally irritating. I won’t touch him or try to grab him – that sets up a game of keep away.  And when he does decide to come rather than put up with my irritating ways, then I make sure to tell him he’s amazing. If I want to use food and toys then I will, but it’s not a requirement.

The fact is, your best bet for a reliable recall is a dog who finds you fun to be with – YOU.  Not your food and toys.  A package deal.

Lots of people believe this can’t work for their dog – but I’ve noticed that many of these same people do a lot of cookies with very little personal interaction to back it up.  If you don’t make a relationship a priority, it’s not likely that your confident and independent dog will think it up either.  How much energy have you put into making sure that your dog values your company as a person rather than as a pez dispenser?  Seriously.  Think about it.    How many minutes did you spend today being fun and interesting, just one on one with your dog, without food or toys? One minute? Five minutes?  Ten minutes?  None?  And the rest of your dog’s day….how much time did he find entertainment without you?

If you called your dog and he came, did you reach straight for a cookie?  How much time did you spend backing up that cookie with personal approval?  Five seconds?  Ten seconds?  Ten seconds of serious praise is a long time.  It’s especially long when you’re house training a dog that has to go out every hour.  Do you really spend the time?

I’m quite sure that this relationship based method won’t work for all dogs.  NO METHOD WORKS FOR ALL DOGS.  But I can guarantee that a relationship based method will fail if you don’t make the development of a relationship a very serious priority.  It’s not going to happen by accident!

I just finished teaching a very intense online, six week class on play.  The number one comment on the survey results was….”my dog is paying a lot more attention to me now; both in life and in training!”.  That’s what happens when you spend six weeks playing with your dog.  You develop value.  You develop a relationship.

Maybe Brito will always require a leash in certain parts of the world – that’s fine.   But for the things I need – solid attention at the dog show.  A solid recall on my property.  A solid recall within a training situation – those things I will work hard to get and have, to the point that I will feel safe with him off of leash and others will also feel safe when he is around.  It might take a long time but it is a priority, so I will find a way to make it happen.

I neither need nor expect a 100% recall – it is not a realistic goal for all dogs nor is it truly necessary, unless you feel the need to walk your dog on the side of the freeway.  Indeed, believing that your dog has a 100% recall is a great way to end up with a dead or injured dog.  Ask me, I know about that from days gone by.

Here’s a very long video.  Ten minutes, unedited, of a “play- training” session with Brito.  Note how much time is spent in skill training – so little it’s not worth mentioning.  Most of our time is spent playing and interacting in an informal manner – food, toys and play work together, but none is truly prioritized.  Sometimes he wanders off or does not come when called – it’s not that big of a deal. I do not nag.  I do not insist on much of anything.  We simply spend time together.  And it’s fun for both of us!

About dfenzi

I'm a professional dog trainer who specializes in building relationship in dog handler teams who compete in dog sports. My personal passions are Competitive Obedience and no force (motivational) dog training. I travel throughout the world teaching seminars on topics related to Dog Obedience and Building Drives and Motivation. I own Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, a comprehensive online school for motivational training of performance sport dogs.

20 responses »

  1. I love this. Sibes are the same as terriers in terms of “recall.” And i just got off a 5-mile hike—off leash—with my sibe and GSD-mix. For that very reason: i play with them, and have a solid relationship. Sure, every now and then the “sibe” in her will test the boundaries, but I pretty much do the same thing you do if she doesn’t recall, show my displeasure, move into her space, etc. I still hike with cookies but I don’t care because I still show and tell them how awesome they are every time they come or behave as I like. I also developed a nicer method of hiking with them off leash that leaves little need to constantly recall them if they are too far ahead. I simply allow them to hike beside me or behind me and take their time smelling the pee-mail, they trot to catch up to me for extra exercise. This makes it safer for all of us when we see on coming hikers with or without dogs or I see any wild life on the trail. The GSD keeps an eye on the Sibe and the sibe loves being part of “Mom’s space” so it all works out. But if it can be done with a Sibe, it can certainly be done with a terrier! I have no doubt you will have a beautifully trained, personable and funny terrier!

    Thanks for the reminder tips!

    Reply
  2. LOVE this blog! and thanks for the video, it does help understand what you’re describing a lot better

    Reply
  3. > If your dog hears “come” a few thousand times, and it ends up being a neutral or positive event when they do, then habit takes over to a large extent. They just do it. When I hear my name called, I respond.>

    This is me. ”I now respond immediately without any conscious intention to anyone calling out “MUM!” or “Granma!” or “Jenny!” or even “Evelyn!” (which surprises me because few peop’e ever call me Evelyn!

    Though ‘Mum’ and ‘Granma’ are not usually positive events so much as “immediate attention necessary”.
    I just wish my dogs were as well trained as my kids managed to train me!

    Reply
  4. Pingback: How to Get a Recall | Denise Fenzi | Our Life + Dogs

  5. Worth reading!

    Sent from my iPad

    Reply
  6. This is a great post! Great timing for our household, too; we’ve been working on recall with our shy girl Pyrrha, and then we just adopted a 6-month-old rescue who is — like you said — confident that she rules the world. Excellent tips and advice, as always, and it’s helpful to see your play/training session in action in the video. Thank you! I always look forward to your posts.

    Reply
  7. No irritation here! I had no clue about relationship with my previous dog. And I’ve seen the wonderful things that can come of it when you pay attention to nurturing it!

    Reply
  8. Reblogged this on Dogs On The Ball! and commented:
    Another gem from Denise Fenzi. Teach your dog, love your dog!

    Reply
  9. Thank you for the video. It really helps. And glad to see that petting and tummy rubs count as personal play as that is the bestest thing EVER to my middle furkid.

    Reply
  10. Reblogged this on Payfer Pack and commented:
    This is a great post about relationship and how it relates to getting a recall. I think that all of my followers will find this a worthwhile post to read. It sums up my thoughts that I never get around to stating.

    To all of my students who are reading this blog, you know how I always tell you in the beginning to have a party with your dog as part of your jackpot, and its not just about the treats, its about you being the center of your dogs world, this article says it all.

    Go forth, read and subscribe to Denise Fenzi’s blog, you will be glad that you did!

    Reply
  11. Love it! May I print this out and share it with my students?

    Reply
  12. Fantastic as always. I think relationship matters more for some dogs than others, like you said, you have to work harder at it sometimes. One of my dogs (who, ironically, is a Pyr mix, and you don’t know how many times I hear the “disapyr” joke), came to me at about 14 months old and was instantly perfect off leash. Checked in all the time and never strayed far. He got to play with other dogs frequently and was often called back and allowed to go back and play – I find that to be very effective as I don’t expect I will always be more exciting than the environment but I figure I can use that to my advantage. My oldest dog is a Pit/Beagle mix who LOVES food and I can call him off anything because treats are the best thing in the world for him. He likes me, but he likes everyone, and he likes food the most.

    My Icelandic Sheepdog has been the hardest dog to teach a good recall to. And she has been MY dog from the beginning. But at first, it was an unhealthy attachment that didn’t have much to do with me as it did with her being very insecure and needing someone to latch onto. She had no problem with running away as fast as she could as soon as she got out of a fenced area. So we worked our butts off, or, I did… played every day, trained a lot, got some structure in her life and practiced recall all the time, always with all sorts of rewards. And she’s still not perfect but after a year we’ve gotten to the point where she CAN be off leash.

    The other day we were at a friend’s house and after a while of playing around with the other dogs she saw the neighbor’s dog out in his unfenced yard, jumped my friend’s fence and went over to play with him. I didn’t even bother to recall her, just went over to go leash her up. Once she realized the neighbor dog didn’t want to play (he wasn’t mean, just old and not exciting), she went off down the road to investigate something and started chasing a car. I tried to recall her at this point but she was totally gone and I was freaking out, my dog’s going to die, I should never have trusted that she’d be okay, I should have worked more on recall etc etc… at this point I’ve lost sight of her so I run back to my car to try to find her (she has a GPS collar on thankfully). About a minute or two has gone by at this point, and as I’m about to turn my car on, I see her flying across the neighbor’s yard and I jumped out of my car – she ran right to me and bounced up on me with a huge grin on her face very pleased with herself for following my recall command. She got a whole hot dog and lots of praise for that one – I guess there is power in a relationship after all, even if she has to go check out some more exciting things first 🙂

    Reply
  13. I love your blogs Denise. I started (tW was 9 weeks old) recall training a la Sue Ailsby’s training levels and still to this day (she’s now 7) she has a really goood recall. It took tons of work and sometimes 2 reps and then GMAB. But I don’t care if you have a terrier or a GSD. Go at the dog’s pace, manage when you aren’t completely sure your dog is safe off leash and then one day, you have that recall “habit.” For those that don’t know, tW is an Airedale and she loves to work. Food motivated and loves tug.

    Reply
  14. GREAT POST! Glad you wrote this. Now I don’t have to. LOL!
    I’m only half kidding, because I just so totally agree with your POV.

    Relationship determines how much influence you have over somebody…I am more likely to weigh the words of my best friend over the words of my local ice cream vendor. I love ice cream, but the person who supplies it to me is certainly not the person whose advice I am most likely to listen to. I listen to those I’ve developed relationships with.
    There are so many ways that people embrace this idea, but then they reject it when talking about their dogs.

    I use food and toys when training. But I never forget that they are not a substitute, but more an adjunct, to the effort I put into being magnetic to my dogs. We may play with toys, but I’m the playmate. I want to be the most interesting, fun, and magnetic thing in their lives. It’s my job to figure out how to be that to each one.

    Reply
  15. My american eskimo and I have a great relationship so I know what you mean. She would rather be with me so even if we’re out and she wants something else she’ll come to me with a quick “Jen”. This relationship has gotten better with time and throwing a tennis ball (her other love). She was an abused rescue which we got when she was one. I haven’t used food with her. My new rescue (a yorkie/shih tzu mix) is still learning 😦 but we continue to work on it. Thank for the info!!

    Reply
  16. What would you suggest, if the dog has otherwise very good recall and relationship with the owner but some things in environment are like addictive jackpot for that dog? For example if that dog loves digging more than anything in her life. The owner is able to call her off before she starts, but after she has allready started digging she doesn’t hear anything around her and is highly aroused. Basically it is the same for that dog as giving steak for not listening to her owner. Since there is nothing in the world that she would like more than digging, it is impossible to even get a slight lookaway from the hole. If left to her own devices she would dig that same hole for hours till she drops. Her paws could be bleeding and that doesn’t matter to her…I think it is quite like ball-crazy dogs or ipo-dogs on sleeves. Heart is beating fast, pupils diluted and all other symptoms included…

    Reply

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