Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Training a Reliable Recall for your Dog

Recall is one of the most important things to teach dogs, but often it's seen as difficult to train. You can get by without it, but with it, life with your dog becomes a joy, even if he can't do anything else.

Make sure you adjust your dog's dinner if you use food as a reward. How long this takes depends on how long your dog might have been playing 'chase me' every time you try to catch him!

Begin at Home

Recall training, as with most training, starts in the home.

Regularly call your dog to you, as many times as possible, using a high-pitched and interesting tone of voice. Pick a word to use and stick to it, making sure all members of the family are happy to use it. If time is hard to find, try doing it when the adverts come on during your favourite telly programme, or if you watch soaps and serials, call every time someone has a drink, an argument, or a snog! Don't try calling him if he's doing something far more rewarding, wait until he's lying down, or looking a bit bored and needing some attention. You want to start with success.

Reward your dog every time he comes with a treat, a game, throwing a toy, or just a lot of love and attention. If at first he won't come, split his dinner into small amounts, and call him for his dinner. Wait until he's given up hope of any more and has wandered off, and call him for the next 'course', and so on. Once he's had his treat or other reward, send him away, again pick one word or short phrase and stick to it, make it flat and a bit dull. He won't know what it means at first, but if you ignore him once you've said it he'll get the point and wander off after a while. This word shouldn't be another command, so don't tell him to go and lie down, it's just to make him leave you - what he does once he's gone is up to him. He doesn't get a reward for leaving you, he should be reasonably happy to go, but leaving his owners will hopefully mean things get a bit less fun once you are out on a walk.

Once he's understood this new game and is nice and reliable, drop the treats or games to every other time, then one in three, then randomly until finally you are rewarding only the very best, super quickest returns - aim for the 'whiplash' effect where your dog's head swivels to you when you call no matter what he's doing – his body should be following!

In the Garden

Now is the time to move into the garden, where there are more distractions – be prepared to start from the very beginning if necessary, and treats should be back to every time at the beginning. It shouldn't take long to get his attention back to what it was indoors, but if it does, persevere. Some dogs are more distractable or just more independant that others, while others still have to spend some time learning that fun comes from being with people. Once his recall is good in the garden, leave some distractions about, his toys, perhaps ask another family member to lurk around the garden, even a family friend. If it goes well, get the other person to play with your dog and work on calling him back from there. Don't take that step too soon though, you want to set yourself and your dog up to suceed. If you have one, you can use a long line in the garden, to encourage your dog back to you to start with.

Don't drag him - if you have to drag him you have gone too far too soon. If you don't have a garden, see if you can find an unused tennis court - early in the morning can be a good time.

Out and About

Once you're feeling confident, take your dog out for some practise in public. Try not to think of this as 'a walk', but recall training with some walking about. That way you won't get so frustrated if you don't get anywhere, and if your dog is being really hard work and you are not getting anywhere you can come home.

The scariest time might be taking your dog off the lead in a public place for the first time. Try to find somewhere safe, away from roads, and quiet without too many distractions – a country park just before lunchtime on a Sunday is probably not going to give you the results you are looking for. Don't do this just after dinner either. You want your dog to come back for food, if nothing else! You can use your long line to start with if you feel you need it.

Take some high value treats or a toy your dog loves with you. If you can keep this toy ONLY for walks from now on this will help a great deal. 'Tune' him into it with some very short, exciting games that finish before he wants to stop, and you always get to keep the toy at the end of the game.

Don't take the long line off until you are successful on a regular basis. Some dogs may never be able to be let off lead, but the vast majority will be fine.

Take your dog's (short) lead off. Then walk in the opposite direction a short way. If properly prepared at home your dog should stay quite close to you, or he may decide to scamper off, but as you are in a safe area, don't panic. Don't chase him either. Or call, unless you think he really will come back, callling fruitlessly encourages him to stay away as he knows you are still with him. Run further away, or make sounds as if you are. Sit down, lie down. Make noises as if you've just found the most wonderful thing in the world, and his natural curiosity should bring him to you.

Don't try to catch him. Go away again. He'll think this is a wonderful new game and follow. If he comes close enough, give him a treat and tell him to go away, ideally before he's gone, but while he's going will do nearly as well. Repeat this a few times, making sure to send him away again each time, and then begin calling him back to you - when he is already on his way to start with. After a while you may find it difficult to get your dog to leave you (possibly unbelievable, but true).

Now is the time to make contact, a pat on the head, flap his ears, if you can, stroke his collar, or even grasp it briefly if you can. Send him away again. Your eventual aim is to be able to call him to you and put his lead on. Once you've done that, walk a few steps, take the lead off, and send him away. This will stop any silliness where the dog sees the lead come out and knows it means the end of the walk and won't come to you.

While you're walking, occasionally hide behind a tree. Your dog will wonder where you are. Give them a few seconds, and call them (you don't want them thinking you've gone home and trying to run off home by themselves so don't leave it too long). Try to vary your route, or suddenly turn and go back the way you came, without telling your dog. Give him a chance to realise you've changed direction (without obviously waiting for him) and he will learn to watch where you are going, rather than going his own sweet way.

If you leave the area by the same gate, or always end up at your car, do the same thing there if it's safe to do so – call the dog, send him away, call, send away, on lead, off lead, send away. If there is a distraction your dog will not leave, try to call before he gets there, or even before he's made one pawstep in that direction. Keep your eye out, and sometimes you can call before he even spots it. If you have to put him on a lead to walk him past the distraction, he should be quite happy with this by now because he will know there is off-lead time coming again.

And Finally

Hopefully by now you will have a dog you can trust to let off the lead. Be realistic - for some dogs there are distractions simply too great for them to ignore in favour of you alone. This is where your toy comes in, or you may just have to accept that you need to keep your dog on a lead for a time. As your dog grows older, or gets more used to coming back it might be that one day the conditioning to return to you will override any impulse of his own, so keep up the work. Once he's learnt this, he should have a solid, reliable recall. But there's no harm in recalling him for no particular reason during walks all through his life.