For most new dog owners, a big part of the future they envision with their dogs involves relaxed strolls through the countryside or on the beach. Usually, this includes their dogs have plenty of time off the lead to run, play and explore freely. To live this dream, it’s important that are dogs are safe and under control at all times – none of these fantasies involve chasing after our dogs as they run towards a road, or screaming at them as they tank towards a reactive dog. Not only are these situations incredibly dangerous, all dog owners have a legal obligation to ensure their dogs are under “effective control” at all times – this means we (and our dogs!) can get into serious hot water even if no one gets hurt. All this means that recall training is a necessity for dog owners who want to enjoy these idyllic walks. So, what are the most important elements of good recall training?
We’re starting off with management, because this is how we ensure we are setting our dogs up for success. This is what prevents our dogs from being out of control – the fact that your dog is still learning is not an excuse for dropping the ball on our moral and legal obligations! – and ensure they are learning the right things.
Every time our dogs run off and ignore us, they are practicing a behaviour we don’t want and probably getting a huge reward for doing so. Whether it is the thrill of chasing a squirrel or the fun of greeting a stranger or playing with that dog, once our dogs learn how fun it is to simply run off, it’s a much bigger job to convince them to do otherwise!
Using a longline to ensure our dogs cannot practice running off after distractions is a key step in keeping everyone safe during the training process and ensuring our dogs don’t learn bad habits.
(We recommend a 10m longline, NOT an extendable lead. Extendable leads are a safety risk (read more here), and also maintain continuous tension on the lead – this means we cannot properly emulate the feeling of being “off lead” while training our dogs and may find that our “perfect” recall falls apart once we finally unclip the lead!)
Setting our Dogs up for Success
Even with a lead or longline on our dogs, it’s important that we set our dogs up to be successful and don’t start aiming for a recall around big distractions too soon. Starting in a high-distraction environment where our dogs will struggle to focus can lead to frustration, for us and for our dogs! Not only does this mean our progress will be slow and it will be harder to produce a reliable recall, but it can even poison our recall cue – meaning our dogs find the cue unpleasant, because they associate it with feeling frustrated!
We always want to start off in low-distraction environments and at shorter distances, where we feel confident our dogs can succeed, and to progress towards more difficult situations gradually. The goal is for the recall to look PERFECT every step of the way – if the first step is from a foot away in the house, that’s fine!
High Value Rewards
Recall is not only important to make our lives easier, but is vital for our dog’s safety. It is a potentially life-saving skill for our dogs to have, so we shouldn’t be stingy with how we reward our dogs after a good recall. Plus, we’re often asking our dogs to return to us instead of accessing something that’s incredibly high value to them – so why shouldn’t they expect us to offer something awesome in return for that gargantuan effort they’ve made! Using our dog’s all-time FAVOURITE reward will up our training from good, to great!
The more our dogs have rehearsed the recall, the better it will get – practice makes perfect, as they say! So, lots of repetition is an important part of developing a great recall. This means that our training sessions need to happen frequently and over an extended period of time – we can’t master a recall in a week! When you’re practicing on your walks, don’t just wait until distractions appear – practice throughout your walks when there is nothing going on, so your dog is learning how great recalling is no matter where they are.
Not only does our training plan need to be long-term, but we need to be willing to go back and revise our recall as and when it’s needed! Just like us, our dogs can get rusty at certain skills. If we’ve not been to beach all winter because it’s been too cold and windy, we might need to go back a few stages and practice some recall on the longline when we do go back!
Trying to persevere and ask our dogs to perform at their best when we can see they are struggling is a recipe for disaster. Remember that they’re not being stubborn; something is making the recall harder for them today. It could be that you are in a novel environment, there is a new and exciting smell or noise that we humans can’t perceive, or they might just be having an off day!
Adolescence is another consideration for those training young dogs – it’s completely normal to need to go back a few stages and recap our foundation training when our dogs are teenagers. Hormonal changes bring with them a whole new world of distractions for our dogs, and can mean they’re more likely to struggle to focus and to manage their emotions (eg excitement!). They may also become more impulsive. Bear with them – as long as we remember the points above and revise what they learned as pups, they will get through this stage!
These are our top tips for good recall training! If a perfect recall is your training aspiration, check out our popular recall masterclass – here we talk more about the neuroscience of building a reliable recall, provide you with a structured plan designed by our behaviourist for you to build a solid recall over several months, and cover a range of fun exercises to supplement your recall training.