The Recall Game
The Recall Game
Does your pooch come when you call them? Do they come every time?
One of the most common answers a trainer will hear when they ask this questions is, “she comes when she wants to” or “he comes when he knows he is getting something for it.” The biggest problem with this answer is that your dog must come every time you call them. It’s a safety concern! In fact, you are most likely to call your dog when there is something more interesting or fun going on, such as another dog walking towards them, or into the house after romping outside. You don’t want your dog to think about whether or not it’s in their best interest or worth their while. You want them to run to you, immediately and quickly!
If you’re not sure whether your dog understands recall, check out our previous blog on recalls here. You can also try teaching your dog the cue “touch” to enhance your recall. Once you have begun to work on some recall rehab with your pooch, you are probably ready to start playing the recall game.
Recall, coming when called, can be treated much like a video game. You can motivate your dog to win by letting them earn small rewards for some behaviors and bigger rewards for better behaviors! The answer, “he comes when he knows he is getting something for it” can be resolved quite easily: give him something! If your dog is willing to come to you for a prize, that’s great! Give him a prize for coming! This is also how we address, “she comes when she wants to” because your dog will want to come to you if there is a chance to get a reward.
The tricky part isn’t rewarding the dog for coming when called, it’s varying the rewards to keep the game exciting and interesting. If your dog knows they are getting one cookie for coming to you, they may start to weigh that cookie against the squirrel down the yard or the dog across the street. Your cookie might start losing that battle.
It’s much like any of the addictive cell phone games you might be playing: King © is great at developing simple popular games like Candy Crush © that get people to continuously tap their screens like automats and even sink money into the game knowing nothing tangible will come out of it. How do they do it? They vary the game ever so slightly and increase the difficulty level gently enough to keep you motivated and trying without making it so easy that you quit out of boredom. They also give random rewards for certain actions: extra lives, more turns, etc.
When your puppy or new dog is first learning to come when called, you should keep it simple (like the tutorial level of any game) and practice in low distraction environments. However, once your dog has figured out that part of the game, start to mix it up in incrementally more difficult ways: add a mild distraction or a little more distance, consider playing in a new place after your dog has had sufficient time to explore and re-engage with you, etc.
Have you ever noticed that every so often in a game you get to a level that seems strangely easier than the one before? That’s not an accident! Easier levels are motivational and keep you playing, especially after a particularly long or difficult level. Your dog will appreciate these occasional easy wins too, so don’t be stingy!
Varying the difficulty is one side of the game, and varying the reward is the other. We’ve talked about reward schedules before and the effect various reward rates have on training. Here, we can apply that concept and add another twist: swap your reward types and amounts! One example is to call your dog and give them two tiny tasty treats before releasing them to go sniff again. After a few moments or when they are sufficiently far away, call them again and this time give 8 or more tiny treats in quick succession (not all at once but one right after the other). Your dog will hopefully get really excited by this development! That’s perfect! We want your pooch motivated to come back every single time you call them. If there is a chance of winning a whole bunch of treats, there is a greater chance they will want to run back fast!
You can also switch between rewards. For example, asking your pup to sit before throwing the ball is a great way to mix training and playing. But, what if every once in a while they also got a cheese bit right when they got back to you with the ball? I bet they would come back faster and drop the ball immediately after the next throw.
Making recall a game for your dog is a great way to ensure they will rock their recall when you need really need it! Varying difficulty, rate of rewards, and types of rewards keeps your pooch in the game and keeps them coming back for more!
Head Trainer- Perfect Pooch
BA, CPDT-KA, AKC CGC Evaluator