A reliable recall is perhaps one of the most sought after and important skills we teach our dogs. It allows us to give our dogs more freedom when we know they can come when called. We take them to beaches and parks allowing them to run free. It is also a safety skill, allowing us to call our dogs from danger. Being able to have a dog off lead is a big reason I and many other trainers are in business. We all want this freedom for our dogs.
Sometimes it is frustrating or confusing why our dogs will not come when called. Especially if they were going well and now the skill seems to have fallen away. There is a lot that goes in to teaching a reliable recall. It takes time and patience and consistency. It also requires an understanding of how to reinforce our dogs and how to gradually increase the difficulty. So, here are 3 reasons why your dog may not be coming when called.
Unintentionally punishing your recall
When we reinforce a behaviour it gets stronger, dogs become more likely to engage in behaviours that have been reinforced in the past. It is a process. Punishing a behaviour is also a process, not a single act, but a behaviour weakening over time. This happens to recall training all the time. We take our dog to the park, then call them away to go home. Or calling them and putting them straight on lead. Suddenly that call becomes the signal the fun is over.
When we call our dogs we are interrupting whatever it is they are doing in that moment of time. It could be sniffing a good smell, engaging in play or getting ready to chase. Interrupting them too often in a short space of time can damaging your recall. Even if you give them that yummy piece of chicken it wasn’t what they wanted to be doing. For a dog who loves food above all else, then most of the time the trade off here is pretty great from their perspective. Other dogs aren’t so simple or would prefer to play than have that chicken. And over time the recall signal weakens, because even though we think we are rewarding them, from our dogs perspective it’s disappointing.
How do I reinforce my recall even if it IS time to go home?
My tip here is the 15 second delivery. Just giving your dog a piece of chicken is not amazing even if your dog loves chicken. However, telling you dog he’s awesome then giving him a small piece of chicken and petting him before giving him more chicken is a much better reward. A good game of tug or chase can also stretch out for a few seconds and be a more interesting and valuable reward than a simple treat. Draw out the time it takes you to deliver the full reinforcement will make it a lot more fun for both you and your dog.
expecting too much too soon in real world settings
Common advice for a recall is to start in quiet areas, like the backyard before moving on to bigger distractions. This is good advice. It allows our dogs to focus on us while we teach them signal for coming when called and practice. But our dogs will not go from responding in the back yard to reliably responding in the world. There is a huge gap between training at home to real world settings, this gap is where good training really happens.
A good recall needs to be practiced in a variety of different environments, in a lot of different situations. There are a range of distractions from people, joggers and picknickers to dogs, other animals, moving objects and interesting smells. You will need to practice when you are close by and gradually move further away.
A solid recall takes months of work and then it needs to be maintained over the years. Most dogs come when called because of the rewards we provide. Stop providing those rewards and your dog is likely to stop coming when called.
How do I train for real life situations?
My tip here is… practice, practice, practice. Look for opportunities to call your dog and reinforce them for coming. The opportunities you have to reinforce them for coming the stronger the behaviour will be over time. Walk on a 3 or 5 metre lead and practice a few recalls on your walk. During adventures such as beach trips or visits to the park, call your dog, reinforce and then release them to keep playing. Practice, practice, practice.
Reinforcement is not valuable enough
Coming when called is a big deal. Your dogs is stopping and leaving whatever they are doing and running toward you. Sometimes they are more than 20 metres away. The activity to your dog is called from could be as exciting as chasing a bird, playing with another dog, rolling in something stinky, etc. Needless to say that the reinforcer needs to be as good if not better than these stimuli.
Using kibble or simply telling them they have done a good job is unlikely to motivate a dog enough to leave play and return to you. Relying on a single great reinforcer can be equally damaging to your training over time. Rarely do our dogs love one thing above all else. Using a variety of reinforcement from food to play to praise is more effective than relying on a single treat.
How do I make my reinforcement more exciting?
Variety is the spice of life. My tip here is to use a variety of reinforcers, all high value rather than relying on a single treat or using lower value items. Ideas are tug, chase, wrestle, chest rub, bum scratches, chicken, cheese and frankfurts. There are any number of things you could use for reinforcement and combine together for fun.
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