Teaching a recall is easy, right? If you are one of the many, many people who are finding it incredibly difficult, read on…
This is a story about Sky’s recall journey, a working Border Collie x Kelpie, who when she came to me at the tender age of 9 months old as a re-home, had a multitude of behaviour problems, including zero recall. She was essentially an ‘unemployed’ working girl without a job to do, who would make up her own entertainment – and chasing things that moved was a huge reinforcer for her. I very quickly found out that she couldn’t be trusted to have complete freedom, so onto a long line and harness she went.
Why did I further restrict the ‘free exercise’ opportunities for an already ‘bouncing off the walls’ collie? Because I didn’t want to her practice unwanted behaviour, chase livestock (especially sheep) or potentially get run over. Behaviour that gets regularly repeated becomes habit. I knew I had to work really hard on teaching her to come back when I called her, and manage her opportunities to succeed very carefully.
Now, like many young working dogs, food wasn’t a motivator for her. In fact she wouldn’t eat on walks at all to begin with, for lots of reasons. Cheese wasn’t going to cut it here… She was obsessed about tennis balls, but I didn’t want to further addict them to her either (tennis ball obsessions can be a real problem if they can’t manage their emotions around them). What now?
I introduced a tug toy to her, well away from any kind of distraction. It’s an easy toy to have in a pocket and whip out at any moment, incorporates play (which can be a huge reinforcer for dogs) and gave her, as an individual, an outlet for her mouthing needs at that age. I wouldn’t use a tug toy for every dog, but it suited her. I then had to teach her how to play with the toy without biting me at the same time (ouch) and also to let it go when I asked. All of this had to happen before I ever attempted to use it as a reinforcer for coming back to me. In the meantime, she was still on her long line.
We started playing for short bursts at home, keeping play short and the toy ‘novel’. When she started to ‘look’ for an opportunity to play with me (I.e. she would pick up a ‘dead’ tug and push it into my hand to start a game), then I started to pair that with a verbal cue – ‘IN’ in our case. And then we did LOADS of practice, but away from anything too distracting – I didn’t want her to fail as much as I could help.
When I thought we could start proofing her recall (and that means adding in distance, duration, and distractions to her training) we started to play tug games outside in the garden. Then in very quiet areas with not much going on – always trying to set her up to succeed where I could. And so it went on – gradually upping the challenge within her abilities at the time.
One of her huge triggers for running off was people playing with footballs (even now she still loves the sight of them, 9 years later, even though I’ve NEVER used one with her). We were proofing her against this on one session at a local park – she had got to the point where I could have her long line trailing rather than having to hold it all the time. We were practicing disengaging from watching a football match from two football pitches away, and she was doing brilliantly.
Then – she made a choice. She looked at me, and instead of telling me she wanted to engage with the tug, took off at warp speed and headed straight into the middle of a ‘proper’ ongoing football match. She found the ball and started stalking it. Oops.
Did I call her? No. I knew she wasn’t capable of responding, so rather than set her up to fail, I had to trot over and collect her (with a red face!). Did I tell her off? No – why would I want her to think that my presence could be a force for ‘bad’? I just removed her and played with her again when we were at a suitable distance, (line in hand!) and then we went home.
Whose fault was that ‘mistake’? Mine, and mine alone. I expected too much of her and she made a decision based on past reinforcement history. What lessons were learned? That I had to spend more time at a greater distance from football matches until we were ready to try again a bit closer.
There was a very long list of things that I had to systematically proof her recall against. These included deer, rabbits, sheep, helicopters if they flew low enough (!), swans…. and more besides. It can be a long and painstaking process – it took me about two years to get her recall to a standard that I was happy with, and where I could giver her much more freedom.
Yep – it took a dog trainer TWO YEARS to teach her own dog a decent recall. Let that sink in for a minute. Two years of dedicated practice and more practice on top of that.
Sky is nearly 10 years old now, and is still intensely interested in sheep, deer and swans. However, her recall is now so reflexive she almost can’t help but respond when I call her (obviously I never put wildlife or livestock at risk). I can whistle her off a running deer (and I mean that she will hand-break turn to get back to me). Impressive, right? Well, only because I put a stonking amount of work into it, and never gave up.
Not all dogs present the levels of challenge that Sky gave me – she’s a complex little dog with lots of opinions of her own, and I accept that about her. Of course, not every dog takes that much work, and many can be taught to recall reliably much quicker. But, please don’t panic if your dog’s recall isn’t quite ‘there’ yet. Manage their freedom so they can’t get into trouble, and do the work – it is SO worth the effort when they can finally enjoy appropriate freedom, safe from harm.