How to train perfect recall
Good afternoon dog lovers! Welcome to the August edition our free dog training blog. This month’s topic was selected by our online followers – thank you so much for you input. If you’d like to help us choose future blog topics, join us on Instagram or Facebook and keep an eye on our stories!
What is recall?
Recall is essentially training your dog to come back to you instantly when you call them – no matter the distractions that may be in front of them. Whether they are having a good old sniff, are playing with other dogs or have seen a squirrel race up a tree, recall is the ability to snap them out of any trance and bring them back to you safely.
Why is it important?
Recall is critical. In order to let our dogs off lead in public places, it’s our legal responsibility to keep them under control. This means ensuring they do not approach other dogs, animals or people without consent.
Most of us would like to give our dogs the freedom of bounding through luscious green fields, dog parks and pretty woodland spaces. To make this dream work, we have to invest time and patience in training perfect recall.
How can recall go wrong?
Let me first start by telling you about the mistakes I see so commonly in recall training. They are the key to avoiding a lot of worry and stress when you are dog training.
I think all of us know that basic recall training involves rewarding our dogs for returning to us on cue.
What makes recall so difficult for so many owners, is the amount of conflicting information on the internet, lack of confidence and little errors in training can build up over time and result in poor recall.
I am going to use a real-life case study to demonstrate. This is the story of a dog who came to see me some time ago, but is very true of many dogs who visit Jarvis HQ.
Bono and Jessica
Jessica needed help with her Labrador, Bono. He was a lovely dog, with working parents. At 6-7 months old old Jessica was in a panic about recall. It had been perfect while he was very small and then suddenly vanished on a single walk.
Jessica talked me through Bono’s training.
- They had attended 6 weeks of puppy classes and he knew lots of commands
- They had also attended group walks with older dogs that belonged to her friends (all of which had good recall)
- And until now he had shown very little interest towards the rest of the world
These factors are really common in lots of the dogs that come to me for training.
Where did Jessica go wrong?
Firstly, don’t play the blame game in dog training. Lots of dog trainers will tell you the first rule of dog training is compassion and they’re right. Just don’t forget to be compassionate to yourself too. We all love our dogs so much that when they struggle with training we experience a lot of worry and sometimes even heavy guilt. That stuff can really take it’s toll on your mental health – don’t let it in.
Mistakes happen, you have to let go and start over with new information and understanding – no matter the situation. You matter in the situation, so take care of you too.
Generally speaking recall takes a long time to perfect. We’re talking the first 1-2 years of your dog’s life – enough to see them through the majority of psychological and physiological changes their bodies go through as they mature into adults.
Recall training techniques vary between trainers. That’s not to say there is a right way and a wrong way, you just need to find a technique that really speaks to your dog. Some say it’s best to walk a puppy off lead from day one to teach them to stay by you. Personally I prefer to guarantee the safety of the dog and general public by using leads and graduating to long lines for recall. This is particularly important in urban areas. Off-lead puppy classes in secure enclosures are often very helpful and great fun too – keep an eye out for these in your local area.
So what really happened to Bono’s understanding of recall?
Bono didn’t have the ideal conditions in place before he went for a walk each day. Their routine at home was to jump in the car to visit a local dog walking route and hop out for some much needed fun and exercise. Bono was pretty excitable in this situation and full of energy. He would force his way out of the car and be off in a flash. Although he didn’t usually stray too far, when he caught a smell or found a dog to play with there was no getting him back.
To provide the right conditions for recall training we implemented 10 minutes of one to one training and play before his daily walk in the form of fetch and tug games. This took the edge off his excitement and placed him in a better state of mind to listen. Always speak with your vet before increasing exercise.
Missing the symptoms
Bono had started displaying symptoms of change, but because they didn’t really impact Jessica’s day-to-day life, she let it slide. Here are the most common:
- Starting to pull on the lead
After talking with Jessica we discovered a few symptoms that had been missed when training Bono’s recall. Bono’s hyperactivity and excitement had had been gradually building up with each walk to the point where his loose-lead walking was really slipping. Jessica felt that because she wanted him to be an off-lead dog and that his recall was okay, that this didn’t really matter.
Loose lead walking really builds a solid foundation for recall – it teaches your pup that on lead = paying attention and they can “go sniff” on a long line when you release them. That focus will be needed more and more as the dog gets older and the number of distractions/interest in new things rises.
2. Biological factors
As dogs grow up, their biological factors (that is to say their inherent breed instincts) being to develop. As puppies they are not always very obvious but often develop as the puppy reaches the 12-18 week mark. This is where owners tend to see a jump in confidence as their nose starts to really engage with the world.
Young dogs need consistent training for some months before recall can be trusted. What many owners find is that the teenage phase dogs go through (approximately 10 to 18 months old) is quite a trying time. Suddenly new behaviours pop up from what seems like nowhere! I know several perfectly placid dogs that suddenly started night-time barking or digging in gardens to test the teenage waters. You may find this is more likely if your dog is yet to be spayed or neutered. Of course we resolved these behaviours in a very short time together. It’s important to recognise the fluctuations your dog’s body and mind goes through can impact them psychologically, as with many other creatures (humans included).
Some puppies need consistent instructions all the way up until the 18-24 month mark. Others will catch on quite quickly and not have any issues. Truthfully, I think we all hope we have the latter here and can take risks in off-lead settings. Assume you have the former and take it slowly – by doing so you will build a really connected and concentrated relationship. It takes time but is definitely worth it in the long run.
4. Jessica was kind of boring…
How awkward. The puppy that was glued to Jessica’s side for so many months suddenly didn’t find her all that interesting compared to squirrels, other people, dogs, rivers and that totally inexplicable love they have for sniffing and weeing on every single blade of grass. Keeping dogs interested and checking in on you requires upping your game.
If you have a picky-eater, try out lots of different treats and dog-safe human foods like grain-free sausages, turkey, chicken or ham. You may find your dog goes off food altogether and that their prey drive needs to be taken advantage of. Furry or squeaky tug toys often do well in this instance, just make sure your dog can play with you respectfully before you get cracking.
5. Too much focus on the end goal
The truth of recall is, it takes time. Sometimes we have to put what we want on the back burner in the short-term, to give them the freedom we want them to have the in the long run. All Jessica wanted, was for her dog to run care-free off-lead for most of the time. To enjoy sniffs and sights and really stretch his legs each morning. If recall is taking a nose dive, your dream might have to sit tight for a few weeks or even months.
What we can do in that time, is try to make the learning process so enjoyable, your dog won’t know what they’re missing.
How to train perfect recall
I always tell my clients that it’s totally fine to stop and start again from scratch. In fact, sometimes it really helps. If you feel that you and your dog aren’t speaking the same language, wipe the slate clean and start over.
Your dog won’t mind if you suddenly start to have treats, toys and balls galore in your pockets! Start at home in your garden and slowly progress to walks on a long line to encourage them back. Be careful to gradually build up the level of distraction. Try some new walking routes to train fresh, better habits.
Keep them close by
Make recall a game where the closer they stay to you the better life gets. Take 5-10 steps and call them back to you – make sure they get nice and close before you reward them. It’s great to remind them that being near you is incredibly rewarding.
Up your treat game
If you have a fussy eater, treats for recall need to be high value. Ham, chicken, sausage – something dog-safe, that drives them absolutely wild. Always read the label.
If it works, only use these treats for recall. Your dog will soon pick up the concept.
If this doesn’t work, again look at taking advantage of play or prey drive. Some dogs just want to play fetch or tug until the cows come home. Investing in the right tools is crucial.
Jackpots are a great technique to keep your dog on their toes. Once their recall starts to really show consistency, randomly reward their return with a massive handful of good the stuff. A mixture can be fun, it depends on your dog’s taste. My old boy will move heaven and earth for the smallest piece of cheddar.
I like to use a jackpot when a dog performs a particularly speedy recall – they often get faster and faster with this method.
Don’t rush the next step
In terms of health and safety, it’s best not to rush working off-lead until you can see really consistent recall from your dog over and over for some months.
This involves building up the levels of distractions and ensuring you have a generous long line to practice with. A long line will really help you navigate distractions like pedestrians, dogs, cyclists, horses, livestock – you name it. It is your training seatbelt while everyone’s understanding and confidence grows. This will include your learning curve too – each owner’s abilities to read their dog’s micro-expressions and give the best cues are a big step for everyone.
For Jessica and Bono, the process was unfortunately rushed. He knew to come on cue and lots of commands, but he hadn’t had the time or the variation of walking routes to build up a really strong and immediate recall reflex. He was only 6ish months old and although he was enormously intelligent and seemed so grown up already, like many pups he was still only on the cusp of his training journey.
Perfect recall takes time. You can do it folks, don’t be disheartened by set-backs. You will get there with time!
If you’d like additional support to fast-track your training journey, you can read more about our residential training programme here.
This month’s topic was selected by our online followers – thank you so much for you input. If you’d like to help us choose future blog topics, join us on Instagram or Facebook and keep an eye on our stories!
About the Author
Head Trainer – Jarvis Clothier
Jarvis has been training companion dogs professionally for over 10 years. To date Jarvis runs Jarvis Dog Boarding and Training, an exclusive dog hotel based in Hampshire specialising in residential training as well as providing course content as senior tutor for Pet Business Courses. New blog posts are published on 1st of every month at midday.