Saturday, February 21, 2015

Teacher's Pet Training: Building a Solid Recall

by Brianne Statz, CPDT-KA
Ever heard someone say that the key to getting your dog to come when called is to be more exciting than the rest of the environment?  Um, that’s all well and good in theory, but I am sadly lacking the squirrel skills of running vertically up trees and then back and forth across the telephone lines.  Pretty sure I cannot match that level of excitement.  The good news is that you can still teach your dog to come reliably when called without being a ninja squirrel.

The real way to get a solid recall is to build a strong “reinforcement history” for responding to the recall cue.  I like to think of it as a bank account.  Calling my dog away from something really exciting is like making a big withdrawal from the account.  In order to do that, I have to have made enough small deposits (rewarded easier recalls) along the way.  A great way to make those small deposits is to incorporate them into your daily routine.  Think about your day from your dog’s perspective.  What are the things that your dog gets most excited about?  Here are some examples from my household:

  • Payton:  Breakfast, go outside to chase those squirrels, a new bully stick, a yogurt container to lick, a visit from Grandma, dinner
  • Pepper:  Breakfast, go outside to chase Payton, a squeaky toy, tug of war, dinner
  • Finley:  Breakfast, go for a walk, special snack closet opening, dinner

So even if I’m feeling particularly lazy about training, I can still build up my reinforcement history for the recall by simply inserting it in front of these exciting things that are going to happen anyways.  Right before I open the snack closet, I can call “Here!”  Guess what?  Finley was going to come anyways as soon as she heard that door, but by calling her first, I make good use of classical conditioning (learning through association) and make a small deposit in my recall bank.  If I want to start a play session with Pepper, I can call her first, then start squeaking the toy.  Again, I’m conditioning her that “Here!” means something really fun is about to happen.  I want “Here!” to mean start running to me right now.  If I call “Here!” right before I set down food bowls, I am pretty much guaranteed some very motivated (and fast!) dogs, and it was not a lengthy training session – it actually required very little effort from me.  Think about what gets your dog excited, and then just find a way to stick your recall practice in front of it.

Once you have made lots of small deposits, try out your recall in a more distracting setting.  If your dog doesn’t come, you need to build up your account more.  In the meantime, try not to use your special recall word in situations your dog will fail in.  Either go get your dog, or keep your dog on a leash or long line until he is ready for that big withdrawal.  And one last hint – sometimes the best reward is to send your dog back to the fun thing you called him away from.  Check out this VIDEO of Payton and Finley practicing being called away from foraging for kibble in the yard.

Happy Training!