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!