In a previous post we discussed recalls and how to teach them as simply as possible (http://perfect-pooch.com/recall-why-most-dogs-dont-really-know-how/), but there is one type of situation where I see a recall ruined the most that I wanted to discuss today. I have seen plenty of dogs ignore their owners recall and plenty of owners using their recall incorrectly. The one type of recall that gets to me the most is one followed by an admonishment. If you say that part out loud: “recall followed by an admonishment,” you can probably already see where I am going with this. However, in reality, many people don’t realize what they are punishing (remember that punishments decrease the rate of a behavior).
Here is the example I was confronted with last week that brought this to the forefront of my mind:
I was walking with my dog off-leash in an area where off-leash dogs are specifically allowed. My dog is confident and well-behaved, but I do leash her during an unpredictable period where an unknown dog or horse is coming straight on. Most people assume their dog has a higher level of off-leash skills than they actually have, which can lead to potential unsafe situations. At the park that day, a medium-sized tri-color dog came running up the path with her ears pinned back and her tail hanging low (tell-tale signs of a stressed or scared dog). Seconds later, I heard a gruff, “Come! Come here! Come!” shouted up the trail behind her. Her ears may have flicked in recognition, but she stopped and stood somewhat paralyzed in indecision.
At this point, my dog is fairly tired and sitting calmly. My hand is reached into my pocket ready to either toss this dog some hot dog to stop her or distract my dog if I saw any signs of trouble (this is not really a training moment for her, but potentially a management moment). As the next few moments unfold, the scared dog finally decides to creep back towards her owner. She gets fairly close then stops again and is almost cringing in discomfort as her owner finally grabs her collar and shouts, “No! Never run off! No!”
Now, I am not trying to paint this person as a bad guy. Clearly he has a good enough relationship with his dog to be taking her somewhere fun off-leash with the expectation that she knows to stay close. And clearly this dog has a positive association with him because she did return to him rather than continue to run. He was probably a scared and stressed owner with a fast running dog.
Keep in mind, this all happened very quickly and I don’t know what led to this dog running off, but I can speculate based on prior experience. Most likely this dog has had the opportunity to run off-leash with her human in the past and has always stayed within an acceptable distance so that the person was confident she “knew” to come when called and not run off. The way she darted down the path leads me to think she got spooked, possibly by another dog or a horse, on the trail. Either way, she looked scared. The way the owner reacted shows that he probably taught her a recall and she has returned many times so he had no expectation of her not coming back. In his mind, he was punishing the running away part of the behavior chain because it is obviously a behavior he does not want to see again.
From my perspective, and the dog’s, he was admonishing right after a high-stress recall in which his dog did return to him. She did not perform a perfect recall after the first cue, but she did complete the behavior. She probably expected the punishment, as well, which caused her to stop approaching and wait for her owner to come to her. This also tells me that not all of her recalls have been heavily rewarded. This recall event however, may make it less likely for her to return in the future.
So what should you do to ensure a great recall and prevent the potential disaster of your dog running off? Keep a few simple rules in mind and build a super strong reward history.
1. Never call your dog and then do something distasteful, like putting them in their crate or patting them on the head and leaving for the day. If you must do something your dog will not like, do not call your dog! Go get your dog and simply do what you need to do.
2. Do not call your dog unless you are prepared to reward heavily. In early phases of training, this often means really good food or an enthusiastic game. Reward every single recall! Make recall the most fun thing your dog can do. Use favorite treats, toys, full body massages, jump ups, etc. to make it awesome.
3. Do not use your recall if there is any shadow of a doubt in your mind that your dog will come. Do not call your dog mid-chase or during an awesome play session. You need your recall to be very salient to your dog, to really matter. Don’t ruin it by desensitizing them to the word.
4. Manage situations you are not ready for. Use a long slack line or let your dog drag a line so that you can ensure it is never rewarding to ignore a recall.
Let’s say you have already made some mistakes and you do not have a really strong recall, now is a great time to rehab your recall! Take a few steps back and reteach your dog to come when called. Pick a new word if possible and even add a hand target (http://perfect-pooch.com/hand-targets/).
Having a strong recall allows you and your dog to both enjoy more freedom in a safe way. Never assume your dog “knows” anything, unless you have practiced a skill exhaustively in all types of environments, with all sorts of distractions. Always have a backup plan and have identification on your dog, as well. Microchips are fantastic, but the first line of security for your dog is a collar tag with accurate contact information. Anyone can read a tag and call you, but not everyone knows to go to a vet or shelter for a chip scan and the delay can mean days of stress for you and your dog.
Head Trainer- Perfect Pooch
BA, CPDT-KA, AKC CGC Evaluator