Whilst all that makes complete sense, it is difficult (nigh on impossible) for our dogs to learn an effective recall when that’s all we focus on. More often than not, with all our effort, we end up teaching the dog to run away rather than run back.
So what can we do? Well, it’s like anything – you start at the beginning. Think of this like a computer game. Level 1 is usually pretty easy, and once successfully completed, you move to Level 2 and so on. Of course, as you move up the levels, things get progressively harder. If you start a new game on Level 10 (or a new anything for that matter), you’re going to struggle.
Level 1 in teaching our dogs effective recall is all about engagement: getting them to look at us, check in and make sure we’re still there. Rewarding this behaviour, be it with praise, a toy, hand touches or a treat, is going to make the behaviour happen again. The more you reward it, the more it happens.
So any time your dog checks in and engages with you, whether it’s around the house, outside in the garden and certainly when on walks, you need to mark that moment and reward them for doing so. In this way, we’re creating a huge reward history with our dogs that checking in with you is always a good thing.
Sounds easy right? About that. Some dogs are naturally more aloof than others, whilst other dogs have simply learned that disengaging with you is what it’s all about, but it’s not impossible to turn it around.
Teaching an effective, bulletproof recall is all about control. If your dog is off-leash, you have no control and are likely to be rewarding the wrong things. I often hear people saying “My dog never runs away” or “He always comes back”, but this may not equate to effective recall.
If your dog is making the choice to move away from you and towards another person or dog and will not come back when immediately called, then you don’t have an effective recall. Sure, your dog might come running back to you after they’ve done what they wanted, but that’s the point – the dog is in charge and has made the decision for themselves.
This might seem harmless. He just went to say hi to the other dog. But what if the other dog doesn’t want to say hi to him? What if the other dog is on the other side of a road and there is oncoming traffic?
Having our dog on a leash allows us to give our dogs freedom of choice (to a degree) so they can learn to make the right decisions. You can use a really long line (not the retractable type*), so your dog has room to explore, but then call them back. If they listen, we reward them; if they don’t, we guide them back anyway. The end result is the same, but they only get rewarded when doing it on their own.
By practicing this over and over and rewarding our dogs for checking in of their own accord, you start to build a solid foundational relationship with your Fido. Over time, this means we can let them off-leash but with the ability to reliably recall them when needed.
*A quick word on retractable leashes. These are possibly the worst invention ever. Putting aside the inherent dangers they bring, especially if you have multiple dogs, the design of the equipment means there is almost always tension on the line. This ultimately means your dog knows where you are 100% of the time. They can feel the point of tension and know that’s you, so there is no reason to focus on you, ever.
Removing the leash tension puts the dog on their own, so they’re far more likely to check in with you. The best thing you can do with your retractable leash is extend it all the way and then cut the box off. You now have a perfect long line to practice your recall with!
CPA is the only K9 organisation in Thailand accredited with the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT), and as an American Kennel Club (AKC) Evaluator.