Shaping up the Recall!

By Valerie Barry, KPA-CTP
In Partnership with Dogs
www.ipwd.ca

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Getting your dog to come when he’s called (the “Recall”) is one of the most important things he can learn. Getting that training to be successful most of the time and in most circumstances is a really big challenge for a lot of dog owners. Almost all the people I meet have an okay recall but not a really good recall.

I’ve tinkered with a variety of different ways to train a recall over the years. With our very first dog, we were instructed to punish for a lack of response – well that’s just plain stupid and it sure didn’t work very well. Why on earth would a dog continue to come when she’s called with the threat of punishment hanging over her head? Predictably, her recall took a long time to train and didn’t become truly reliable until I finally switched training methods and started again.

And that’s probably one of the first pieces of advice I would give you: if it’s not great now, start again and create a better recall than you have – from scratch.

Before you begin training, make sure you are clear on your goals and on what the recall is to be used for. Every time your dog successfully comes when called, it should be a huge party for him with lots of his favorite treats or toys presented. At no point should you risk tainting your recall by using it to leave fun play, get a bath, have a nail trim – or any other unpleasant activity.

Building a strong finished recall involves first developing solid foundation behaviours, next putting them together (dog coming when called), and finally helping your dog generalize this skill by practicing, practicing, practicing in lots of different contexts.

First The Foundation:

The Foundation of the Recall really involves 2 things: (1) Your dog ending up in your close vicinity; and (2) What you use to call them – word, whistle, etc.

When we adopted Quincy last year (then 6 months of age), I decided to do things just a bit differently than I had before. I decided that I was going to start building my Foundation by Shaping the recall and, as a separate exercise, I was going to choose a unique recall word and build the value of it a little bit differently. These are two separate training challenges that would eventually be combined into one finished behaviour.

The training that I’ve done with Quincy, has been so promising that I decided I was onto something. We recently adopted a 9-week old puppy, Jack – a new test subject for my Recall training! I decided that I would start training his recall this way the very first day he came home. Because a puppy’s imprinting period ends around 12 weeks, I had only a short time to firmly embed some good training into his brain – a chance I didn’t have with Quincy. If I’m careful with my training as he matures, Jack’s recall should be stellar!

Training – The Recall Action

Shaping means to build a finished behaviour by using a series of small steps to get there. You’re basically capturing that moment when your dog does something similar to what your final goal is, marking and rewarding it and then waiting to capture it or something similar again. Once your dog figures out what behaviour is paying off, you can begin to mark and reward better and better approximations of your final behaviour until you reach your goal. Shaping is so much fun and I really enjoy this type of training!

Step 1: My first criterion for beginning the shaping process is “dog with me”.

Every time Quincy or Jack appears in my space, they get marked (or clicked if I have one handy) and treated – every single time. Easy, easy, easy!

Tips:

With Quincy, I didn’t always have a treat in my pocket so I would run and get her one after I marked her and she would run with me to the treat drawer.
Sometimes, instead of a treat, I would throw a toy or give her a chest rub or a butt scratch which she really enjoys.

With Jack, I decided that if I was going to make the most of his imprinting period, I needed to be more prepared and very deliberate in my training.
I now carry some form of treat on my person at all times – I am literally ready to train at any moment!
Every single time I notice Jack in my presence, he gets a verbal marker or a click (I carry a clicker most of the time too!) and then at least 5 to 10 treats.
I’m aiming to make a big impression so I use several treats, delivered one after another, along with excited and happy praise each and every time.
Puppies are excited to get praise in happy voices and they are also inclined to hang around you more than older dogs – so we are doing this A LOT!

Step 2: My next criterion in the shaping process is “dog coming toward me”.

Every single time I see either Quincy or Jack coming toward me, I verbally Mark or Click and hold out a treat for them to get when they arrive in my space. After they arrive, I happily praise them while I continue to feed them several more treats.

Tips:

Now that we have added Jack to the mix, I generally end up with both dogs in my space at some point during the reinforcement process. Perfect!
Whoever shows up second still gets just as many treats and just as much praise – still shaping – ending up in my presence is highly rewarding.
My dogs may or may not actually be intending to come to me, but if I see them heading in my general direction, I mark it. That’s shaping – it resembles coming to me so it gets clicked.
The dog then alters his course, if necessary, to collect his reward and lingers because the reward is so valuable and so much fun.
The bonus for me is that when you are working with 2 dogs, one certainly doesn’t want to miss out on what the other is getting!

Training – The Recall Cue.

I use unique words as a Recall cue for my dogs. I like to think that if mine is different than yours, it will be that much more obvious to my dog and he is that much more likely to notice and respond – it certainly can’t hurt.

I prefer to pick a word that has 2 syllables with hard consonants in there so it carries well and can be yelled out easily. Obviously, you need to choose something you’re comfortable yelling in public! For example, the word we used for our retriever mix years ago was “Bingo”. When you use a word with 2 syllables, you can draw it out: “Bing….….go” or you can say it quickly. You can use a sing-song voice or just yell it out. It doesn’t really matter how you do it as long as you practice it using all the differences you can think of so you can make it as solid as possible.

With the Recall cue, my goal is to build a hugely positive association with that word.

Step 1:
The initial training for it couldn’t be easier! One of the most highly motivating periods in the day for most dogs is mealtime – so use it to your best advantage.

As soon as you are ready to put your dog’s meal on the floor, yell out your Recall cue, then plunk dinner down. That’s it! (The Cue needs to precede the presentation of dinner).

Training Tips:

My dogs are ecstatic about their dinnertime and I want to channel that enthusiasm toward their final Recall behaviour.
At this early stage in training, I don’t ask or wait for a Sit any other behaviour.
I am using that time to build a very positive association to their cue. When they hear that word, I want them to envision dinner and all the anticipation that goes along with it.
I won’t start until they quit barking, or jumping on me or anything else truly obnoxious but I won’t try and stop any enthusiasm or excitement expressed in any other way. Anticipation is a powerful training tool!

Step 2:

This step is just as easy as the first. I’m doing the exact same thing – using dinner to continue to build that positive association – but I’m adding in some distance and beginning to put the two foundation behaviours together.

If I have a helper present, I simply ask that they hold the dogs back until I’ve yelled out their cue so they are now coming to me when they hear the cue vs. simply dancing around waiting for their cue.

If I have no helper, I can ask them to wait on their beds and then call the cue; I can make dinner as quietly as possible and catch them by surprise (hard to do!); or I can get dinner ready but delay presenting it until they’ve left the area.

Once the Foundation is solid, the rest is all practice – as much as possible in as many different contexts as possible to really make the behaviour solid. Take into account Distance (he is from you), Duration (between calling), and Distractions. Build the skill as gradually as you can – adding difficulty in very small increments. During all training the outcome should be guaranteed which means you are able to go and get your dog easily if he does not come to you. Use long lines and body harnesses or contained areas when you’re practicing.

Final Note:
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Even once my Recall is “finished”, I will still continue to practice the foundation behaviours separately, at random times just to keep up that positive association. I plan to do this with Quincy and Jack for a very long time – it can only help make things that much more solid. Jack has been with us for 2 months now and is 4 months old. So far, it’s working wonderfully – I can even call him out of play with Quincy and vice versa, which is a pretty big distraction for both of them!

Happy Recalling – remember to always keep it positive and fun!