When Good Recalls Go Bad

We've been talking about recalls a lot these last couple of weeks here on the dogster blog. That is not a coincidence - recall training...


We’ve been talking about recalls a lot these last couple of weeks here on the dogster blog. That is not a coincidence – recall training and problem solving tend to be one of the most common reasons pet owners seek the assistance of training professionals in teaching their dog. Today, we’ll examine some reasons recall training may fail.

Not enough practice

Recall is something you should practice virtually ever day with your dog, throughout his entire life. Training a reliable recall, like training any behavior, is a “use it or lose it” enterprise – you must train, train, train, and once the behavior is trained, maintain, maintain, maintain! It may take months or years to get to the recall level you want, and the amount of time it takes may depend on a number of factors – how much you practice, how effectively you manage the environment to set your dog up for success, your dog’s age/breed, etc.

Use before ready

I’ve laid out some rather detailed training instructions on how to classically condition a whistle as a very powerful recall signal. This is the method I use to teach my own dogs. I want to practice this thousands of times when I don’t need it so that the few times I do need it, we have already conditioned an extensive reinforcement history related to responding to the sound of the whistle. I tell my clients, “don’t use your recall signal unless you’d bet me $1,000.00 your dog will come to you.” Recalling your dog should NEVER be a guess or a request, it should ALWAYS BE A PREDICTION – “My dog will come to me. He’s got this!” If you would not bet something of very high value to you on the likelihood that your dog will respond to your signal – don’t use it. Just go get your dog.

Unearned freedom

This is a big one. Freedom, at least for my dogs, is a privilege, not a right. They have to earn access to the things they want, including freedom, through good behavior. This means that we as owners must control the variables by not allowing the dog off leash in environments that are not securely contained/fenced in until the recall is reliably trained. When practicing in non-secured environments, use of a long line, or my favorite alternative, known as “The Device,” easily made and used following the instructions in the included video from my friend and colleague Colleen Koch, DVM, of Lincoln Land Animal Clinic.

Giving your dog unearned freedom puts both your previous recall training and your dog’s physical health and safety at great risk!

Environment more reinforcing than the handler

This sort of ties in with the last one. Relationship and response are a direct result of reinforcement history. For my dog Mokie, the opportunity to chase a deer probably ranks right around 10,000 for her in terms of distractions she’d love to interact with. Even the best food treat may only rank around 75 on the same scale. This means that I need to do many, many repetitions of recall with her to build a reinforcement history for working with me approximately on par with that deer chase.

If Mokie is off leash in an environment where she’s able to self-reinforce blowing off the recall by having an opportunity to chase the deer, she learns that blowing off a recall might “just be worth it.” In an environment where she may have the chance to chase a deer, we practice a lot with “The Device.” Approximately one out of every ten times she’s on her long line and we see a deer, she gets reinforced by chasing the deer (with me). The rest of the time, she gets play and food reinforcers – I want to harness some of her drive to chase into our training sessions, but do not want to build the expectation that every time she sees a deer and comes back, she gets to chase the deer. This could be problematic later, because if we were in a situation or environment where the chase was not safe, and I did not allow the chase she normally expects, she would likely find the denial of opportunity extremely punishing – and I never want her to associate the recall signal with frustration, disappointment, or anything remotely unpleasant.

Yucky stuff happens to the dog

True story: dog is inadequately contained in yard (lack of appropriate fencing). Dog, being untrained and excited about the opportunity to explore, takes off carousing the neighborhood seeing what’s good to sniff and pee on today. Owner begins calling dog – dog is running around, happily ignoring her and having the best day of his doggy life. Finally, satisfied with himself, he returns home and is beaten with a “whiffle bat.”

The owner thought she was punishing her dog for running out of her yard and blowing off the recall signal. While I’m not a huge fan of positive punishment generally, any “balanced” trainer worth her salt will tell you that this isn’t even punishment well-used, the timing was WAY off. What the dog actually got punished for was coming home. Next time he gets out of the yard, he’s a lot less likely to come back. He’s not any less likely to escape the yard, he’s just less likely to come home.

While this example is extreme, people often call their dogs and then provide what the dog perceives as undesirable consequences – call the dog for a bath (which he hates), call the dog to leave the dog park (which he hates), call the dog for a grooming/nail trim (which he hates). If you ever have to expose your dog to something he finds unpleasant, do not call him, simply go get him.

We’ll explore a few more reasons dogs don’t come when they are called next time on the Dogster Behavior & Training Guide. Until then, enjoy the holiday weekend, hopefully some summer sunshine, and happy training!

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