The (very) basics of a good recall

At last after all the theory I thought I should start writing articles that actually help people achieve real life goals. A good recall is mandatory if you are going to let your dog off the lead. A life on a lead is barely a life and so I will alter that comment to, a good recall is mandatory.

It certainly is for Police and other service dogs and should be top of the list for all dog owners. It is such a straight forward exercise to teach and yet one that seems to cause a lot of problems for many owners and handlers. The main reason is that once off the lead and away from you, it is very much up to the dog whether or not to return. No amount of threats, bribery or compulsion will work if the dog really isn’t of the mind to come back.

This is why knowing your theory and doing your basic foundation training are so important. Far too many people try to walk before they can run and this is what leads to errors that often result in frustration and then the all too common approach of trying to punish non compliance when the real issue is bad foundation training.

Like any exercise the first thing I would look to do is ‘get the behaviour to reward the behaviour.’ No commands just yet. Simply get the dog back to you and reward that behaviour. I would start at home or a secure compound and just wait until the dog looked towards me. I would then make myself look attractive (easier said than done) by moving, waving holding out treats or a ball and when the dog comes to me, lavish verbal praise, give the ball, treat etc.

I do this numerous times. All I am doing is rewarding the act of coming to me. I am making a habit.

When I can consistently get the dog to me, I would add in my given command AS he is in the act of doing it. Some competition trainers may wait until the exercise is perfect before naming it but I work in a world of impatient people where even this method seems too drawn out. Saying the command AS the dog approaches makes the connection between the act and the command. Rewarding him when he gets there increases the likelihood of that action happening again in future.

I would repeat this step around a dozen times just to ensure the association has been made. Most dogs will get it a lot sooner than that but I am generally training multiple exercises at one time and the risk of confusion is increased. There is generally no harm in going too slow but lots in going too fast.

The next stage is to put the command BEFORE the action. I would say my command and then immediately do what I had previously been doing to get the behaviour. Again, repeat this stage a few times. You can slowly increase the time delay between the command and your actions (your actions will eventually be phased out).

There we have our theory in action. Instrumental learning – do something and find it rewarding =more likely to do it again and Pavlovian conditioning between our command and the action.

So we are now happy that our dog understands our command because we have ensured the association has been made. We have also made sure that it is rewarding for him to do it therefore increasing the likelihood it will happen again.

What we now need to look at is the reward level and the reward ratio.

The level is the range in desirability of your rewards from least favorite (low level) to most favorite (high level). Your dog will dictate this not you. The ratio is how often you give a reward and will range from every time to never. For this exercise I reward everytime. Once the exercise is fully trained it will vary from a pat on the head (low level) to a chance to bite (high level) and will include everything in between on a purely random basis.

When the dog is learning the exercise though, the way the rewards are used is critical to the final outcome.

What we are looking to do is make it more rewarding for the dog to come back when called than do anything else. For this to happen we must ensure we adhere to the structure with no failures. The simplest way to avoid failure is to never call your dog in a situation where you aren’t 100% he’ll come back. This may mean avoiding situations for a while or ignoring behaviours until you have a good recall. Control your dogs environment or his movement by means of a lead.

Now we have the dog coming back on command in a certain location, it is time to start varying the locations. From now on, every time you change locations, go back to a simpler recall to avoid any potential confusion before progressing. Two steps forward, one step back.

We want to have really high rewards initially just to create the sense of amazing success in the dog and give high rewards for what is essentially an easy act for the dog. This creates that vital desire to return because responding to the recall is so much more rewarding than what the dog was doing. This mentality and the habit of coming back are what form the basis for the more demanding recalls.

The dog must now be exposed to gradually increasing distractions and recalled away. The odd failure is not a disaster but should serve as a warning to you that you have progressed too fast.

With every situation you should be looking to find an easy version and progressively more difficult versions.

For example, recalling from other dogs. Start by recalling your dog when it spots another dog from 100 yards away. Slowly build your success by getting closer and closer. Allow your dog to play with other dogs and wait until it gets bored before you call it away. Deliberately let it approach boring old dogs that wont play and recall it. As your success grows you will get a better idea of what is within your limitations until eventually any situation involving other dogs, even full playing sessions can be interrupted with a recall.

This may sound long winded but is a sure fire way to get a 100% reliable recall. It is surprising how quickly the dog starts to respond and like a lot of things, experience is the key. Practicing just becomes part of your every day routines.

Giving advice is simple and the proof of the pudding is in the tasting as they say and so I have included a very short video. It shows my Malinois who at the time was 18 months old. To say he enjoys biting is an understatement. His prey drive is through the roof and at the time I had been subjected to some unhelpful training using a schutzhund sleeve but with no control elements. The result was that he would bite one on sight. This fact combined with a bit of agitation produced a very determined run out. It’s fair to say the dog was fully committed to the chase at the point he was recalled and the video doesn’t do justice to how much ground he covered. Once recalled the return journey was just as determined as the chap stood behind me found out.

No electric collar. No punishment. Not even a cross word was used to train this recall which over time has become more reliable.

I hope this helps you to understand how to structure your dogs recall training. As you can see from the video the end result is a dog that wants to come back as much as it wanted to do what it was already doing. To not have to worry about whether your dog will come back is a reassuring feeling. To know that you haven’t had to resort to damaging punishers is also a bonus when your dogs overall confidence is as important as it is to Police and working dogs.

2 Responses to “The (very) basics of a good recall”

  1. I have a young malinois. I just have to say that this is the most helpful information about teaching recall that I have seen anywhere. I have been looking for information to strengthen recall with this young dog and this is just what I needed to see spelled out although I have been already using elements of it. Thank you! I have mostly had Danes and this is my first malinois and though I think she’s wonderful it is a very different training experience and I’d say much more challenging than the Danes…

  2. Much appreciated ! I have been reading and searching for a while for a convincing and logical way of explaining how a + only method was possible for recalling them from highly enjoyable activities that they have already experienced and will keep experiencing. All other methods seem to rely mostly on not letting the dog experience the naturally rewarding things in the first place.

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