The number one complaint, concern, and request-for-help of dog owners has to be what trainers label “the Recall.” Most owners just say, “My dog wont’ come when I call him!” This is frustrating to the extreme! However, look at it from the dog’s point of view:
DOG: Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy! I’m OUTSIDE! Finally!!! Yes! Yes! Yes! Been cooped up all — Ooooo, what’s that smell….and that one….and there’s another; WHICH ONE DO I FOLLOW? Hey! There’s some pee-mail. Hmmm….new dog in town, and….Charlie’s not feeling so well these days, and….. Gotta PEE! Now! Aaaahhhh that’s better. (owner calls dog’s name) Yep! That’s my name all right! Query; why does he always call my name right after I pee? Humans are strange — Hey BIRDS! Woof! Woof! Woof! Woof! Woof! Ha, ha, scared you! Wow! Rodent trail at 10 o’clock! Hmmm….bouquet of raccoon, if my nose serves me… (owner calls again) I heard you the first time! BORING! Now, what was I smelling… Oh, yes! Bunny! Bunny….bunny….bunny….bunny… SKUNK!……… (owner calls multiple times, getting louder and louder) Hey! Not deaf, here! (owner repeats “come” command sternly) Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know what that means! Don’t WANNA. Jeez, can’t you take a HINT? Just started having fun! FUN, FUN, FUN…. (owner chases dog) Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy! TAG! You’re it! Hey! I LIKE this game!
Of course dogs don’t really have a verbal stream-of-consciousness thing going, but their FEELINGS are the same as if they did. As the above illustrates, the Recall problem is really a whole series of problems: 1) does the dog REALLY understand the Cue? (I like this word better than command and will use it throughout), 2) has the dog had enough exercise and exposure to new places? 3) has the owner gotten in a rut, always cutting off the dog’s fun as soon as he does his business? 4) is the owner as FUN as all those other delightful and ever-changing sights and smells? 5) when the dog creates his own game does the owner inadvertently encourage it?
To train a reliable Recall, all those problems must be addressed. However, the root of the whole issue is that Recall, even more than any other cue, must be rehearsed over and over and over in different situations with increasing distractions, until it becomes a Reflex, a Knee-jerk reaction, a HABIT! The trouble is THAT TAKES TIME. It takes a lot of time to build a good habit. (Bad habits, on the other hand, seem to develop overnight, like zits.) It’s hard to find the time to work on all the contributing problems and still have time to rehearse the Recall with the aforementioned distractions and in new places. The best time to do all this is when the dog is a puppy and WANTS more than ANYTHING to be with the owner. However, most of us have dogs that are beyond the puppy stage, and we might feel that it’s a lost cause. It isn’t, but it is more work!
I live on one of the busiest streets in the area, and don’t dare let my dogs off-leash outside of the privacy-fenced backyard. As a dog trainer, this has bothered me, but the fact is I just haven’t put in the time needed to train my two girls to RECALL, no matter if squirrels or rabbits or deer or the five wild turkeys that love our front yard wander by! I haven’t put in the time, because I know what kind of a tall order this is! My girls are very prey-driven gals and to teach them to ignore their instincts in favor of coming to me so I can cut off their fun, is fairly daunting. However, for the next few weeks, I’m going to really work on Recall and will record our daily efforts, triumphs and failures.
First of all, let me introduce my two girls: Kita and Rilka. Both are rescued from animal shelters. Both were found on PetFinder.com. Both are German Shepherd Dog mixes.
Kita came home with me at 4-1/2 months old. She bonded to me very quickly (at the shelter) and has separation anxiety — if I leave her! Outside, she seems to take the attitude that “I know where you are, and can find you when I’m good and ready!” On the training plus side, she is extremely smart, loves to learn new things and LOVES food — even the dry little milk-bone clone biscuits.
Rilka joined our pack around a year or a bit older. She doesn’t really like learning new things, and is less eager to please than Kita. But she is a brilliant escape artist, and displays a lot of problem-solving skills. Rilka also likes food, but if distracted by a good scent trail, will not be interested in even high-value treats. My first task with her will be to find something so good that she is willing to leave a bunny trail to eat it. I tease her all the time about being part Bloodhound!
Today, we’re going to start small. In our fenced-in backyard, as I rake leaves, I’ll call the girls over for a treat from time to time. I’m going to carefully “load the deck” and only ask them to come, when I’m sure they will. (Not when they’re sniffing, or chasing something or lying down.) So, my goal for today is 100% compliance in the back yard.