Copyright by Cheryl May. May be reprinted without permission 1) if used in its entirety without editing; and 2) provided copyright notice remains in place.
Not to make this article seem too dramatic, but obedience training saved Rocky's life.
At the time my now-multi-titled sheltie, Rocky, was four years old. We were in Oklahoma to compete in Utility A. After the show a friend and I took our dogs to a local river for a run. Her dog got in the water and was swimming. Although Rocky has been around water before, he had never gone in. This time, he chose to follow her dog into the water. Suddenly, he was flailing, trying to get back to shore. There was an undertow and every motion sent him further into the river. I ran to a point directly in front of him and called, "Rocky, COME. Rocky, COME." His obedience training overcame his fear and he came directly to me.
Now if I didn't have a good recall, he might have drowned. At the very least, I would have gotten wet trying to save him. I think obedience training saved Rocky's life. My son says that if it weren't for obedience, we wouldn't have been at that Oklahoma river in the first place. Ah well ...
I start teaching the recall to puppies. And I use food to encourage them to come and as a lure to bring them into a neat sit in front following the recall. As a lazy trainer, I see no need to teach them a wild recall with no front that I'll have to fix later. Better to start as you intend to go on. And as someone once said, practice doesn't make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect.
After the dog knows the behavior, you can start to randomize when you give the food. My other goal is to make the training itself so fun and so reinforcing that the food is a pleasant extra, but not the reason for the behavior.
Here are some effective ways to train the recall. Gerianne Darnell, in her great book, "Competitive Obedience Training for the Small Dog," suggests starting recall training with "puppy recalls," whatever the age of the dog. Start with two or three people, each with a handful of treats. Call the puppy -- or dog -- back and forth between you. Dogs catch on to this game very quickly and enjoy it.
Some important points to keep in mind -- do not give the dog a treat unless he comes to you. In other words, don't reach out and grab the puppy as he flies past you -- or go to any trouble at all to get the treat to him. He must do the work. Also, give the command only once -- that way, in an emergency situation, if you give the command multiple times it will have more of an impact -- the dog will be less likely to ignore the command. If the dog comes for a quick visit and is off again, this is not acceptable and does not earn a treat.
Target recall. Teach your dog to target and touch your hand. Then you can show the dog your hand and the dog will come to touch the target and earn a treat. This is easily taught with a conditioned reinforcer like a clicker.
Restrained recall. This is a great way to teach fast, enthusiastic recalls. Have a helper hold your dog, restraining him with her hands on either side of his chest. (Do not have the helper use a leash.) Show the dog your wonderful treat. Encourage him verbally, tease him a bit by your enthusiastic, fun, tone of voice. When your helper feels the dog pushing to get loose, the helper should let the dog go -- and most charge quickly to their owners.
Proofing the recall. Call your dog from around a chair, from behind a door, etc. Think of fun ways to challenge your dog. Reward when he arrives. Put your dog on a long line (not a flexi) and practice calling him to you. If the dog doesn't respond to your command, give a pop on the long line and bring him to you. Your first attempt to call the dog off leash should occur only in a fenced-in, safe area. See the corrections item below for what to do if the dog doesn't come when called.
A great way to speed up recalls with toy-motivated dogs is by calling the dog and when the dog is close to you, tossing a toy between your legs. If you have a large dog and you are a tiny person you may not want to try this. But it works well for most handlers and their dogs.
A more aversive method: put the dog on a six-foot lead or a flexi (if you are adept at using a flexi). Wait until the dog is distracted. Then call, "Dog's name, come." Wait two seconds for the dog to respond. If he doesn't, pop the lead. Run backwards when the dog starts toward you. Keep the lead loose. Stop. If the dog passes you, pivot and repeat backstepping. The dog has successfully responded when he stops close enough in front of you that you can touch him.
DON'T -- ever -- call your dog if you are not willing to go get him if he does not come when you call. Ignore this advice and you will teach your dog that coming when called is optional. Similarly, only practice recalls in a safe area, fenced-in, like a tennis court.
Corrections for failure to come when called. Once you are certain that your dog understands the "come" command, it is time to correct for failure to come. When you call and the dog doesn't come, go to the dog, take his collar, and you back up to wherever you were when you called him. Tell him "good dog" because he is where he was supposed to be. Here's the hard part -- let him go. Call again. If he does not come, go get him again this time with a strong pop on the collar and back up to where you started. For more on this method, see Terri Arnold's obedience training books. She explains the concept brilliantly.
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