Last night I went outside to feed the cats and called “NELLIE! NELLIE! POLLY! POLLY!” and both cats came running like circus cats from behind the barn. Later I took the dogs out to potty; Willie wheeled around in a microsecond when I called his name, and after I called “Tootsie, Come!,” she turned away from sniffing the ground and came running to me, ears flapping, eyes shining.
Full disclosure: I just love it when my animals come when I call. My heart swells up when I see them come running, as if there was nothing else in the world they would rather do. Of course, I know perfectly well that the cats come because it’s dinner time, and Tootsie comes because she knows that I often have a treat in my pocket, and Willie comes, well, because he’d come no matter what if I just asked him in a whisper. Don’t get me wrong: Each one of my pets do not come running instantly the microsecond that I call them every single time, no matter what. Polly comes if she is not busy hunting and she’d like her dinner. Nellie comes if she is not busy hunting and she’d like petting and cooing and/or dinner along with it. Tootsie comes 95% of the time when I call her once, 4% of the time to a repeated “Tootsie, COME!” and 1% of the time after I say, in a low voice, “Tootsie! Whoa!” and then ask her to come again. Willie turns his body into a pretzel if I merely suggest he move toward me, even if a deer leaps up in front of his face. The only exception is if we are in a new environment and there is dog urine to smell. I’ve learned to give him a few minutes and let him sniff before asking him to respond to me. (More on this later.)
Whether the dogs and cats are coming simply because they hang on my every word and motion (Willie), because I probably have a treat in my pocket (Tootsie), or they know that I am about to pet or feed them (cats), I still adore it when I see them running to me. I can’t help it. I suppose it is egocentric of me, but no matter, that’s just what it is.
As I was watching, all wuzzy and affectionate as the dogs came when I called, I thought about what I have done to teach a really, really good recall. I thought it might be a good conversation to have among all of us: How do YOU teach a reliable recall? What are you expectations of your dog regarding a recall? We’ve discussed this some of this before on another blog, When is a Dog Safe Off Leash?, and I illustrate training methods in a DVD titled Lassie Come!, but I’d like to ask you how you train recalls so that we can all have a conversation about it. Here are some thoughts of my own, about what is important when thinking about training techniques and expectations:
1. KNOW THE INDIVIDUAL. Although it seems almost too obvious to mention, the fact is that most of my clients don’t seem to be aware of how much a dog’s personality and background affects its behavior and its need for training. Example: I’ve had Willie since he was a puppy, his genetics as a Border collie makes him more likely to come when called than dogs of some other breeds, and he is an especially responsive and people-oriented dog. That’s why I paid serious attention to his recall when he was young, but far less than I needed to with some other dogs. My expectations are also different: I don’t hesitate to take him into many situations off leash (not all of course, he’d never be off leash at a vet clinic for example). However, his concern about unfamiliar dogs, as I mentioned above, overwhelms him when we go to a new area in which there is the scent of a lot of other dogs. I those cases I simply leave the leash on until he begins to look relaxed, usually two to three minutes, and then he can be counting on to turn on a dime the second he hears my voice, bless him. However, that doesn’t mean I didn’t work hard when he was young on his recall. Recalls are hugely important to me, so I did indeed focus my on energy on ensuring that he would come when called. That included linking the cue (“Willie, Willie!”) with a variety of reinforcements (from chase and tug games to treats), and not asking him when it was over his head during early training sessions. But the sessions were short and easily accomplished because he loves so many things, from chasing (after me in this case) to playing with a toy or getting a treat. If I had to guess I’d say that he loved the chase most of all. I’ve never known dogs who seemed to love to run, just for the sake of running, as much as Wilie and his Uncle Cool Hand Luke. In short: easy breezy to train Willie’s recall.
Compare Willie to Tootsie: I got Tootsie when she was seven years old. She had no training until she was rescued, having lived for seven years in a tiny prison pumping out puppies. She is a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, a breed known for their sweet dispositions and love of laps, but not for being dogs who necessarily hang on your every word. When I got Tootsie I worked obsessively on two things: house training and coming when called. I also restricted (still do) her activity to areas as far away from the road as possible, even when on leash. I simply don’t want her to have any connection or interest in the world anywhere near the road. I linked “Tootsie Come!” with me running away from her, and lots of treats when she caught up. (You can see this method illustrated in the DVD Lassie Come!) Early on I learned that, to Tootsie, running itself is merely a way to get to the food sooner, and not inherently reinforcing to her as it is to Willie. Neither does she have any interest in any kind of toy, no matter what kind. Luckily she adores food (if she could type, she’d write SHE ADORES FOOD! PLEASE SEND SOME). Thus, she was easy to motivate, but she also is a spaniel with seven years behind her of not responding to a human voice, so I worked really, really hard (and still do) to maintain her recall. I also am aware that she links the phrase “Tootsie, Come!” to running to me, but not just “Tootsie.” Drop the “Come!” and nothing happens. I have had to work to train others (of the two-legged variety) to be sure to say the full phrase to get her to come, because otherwise it doesn’t work.
Even though Tootsie’s response is impressive for a mill dog, it is context specific. With very few exceptions, I would simply never let her off leash anywhere off the farm. Late last winter I let her off leash in an isolated patch of woods (ie, away from a road) for a few minutes, but only after we had been on walks on those trails several times and I had tested her recall with a long line. Even then, I never took my eyes off of her, even for a second. Willie was off leash the entire time, and I thought little of it, because he never goes more than 20-30 yards away without stopping and checking in. “Are you coming?” (Okay, truth in blogging here: I did fuss a little; because on occasion Willie was out of sight because the woods were pretty thick. When that happened I’d call him back, and asked Jim if he’d keep his eye on Willie while I watched over Tootsie.)
In summary, both dogs received a lot of training, although Tootsie probably had ten times as many training repetitions than Willie did in the same amount of time. I was able to be much sloppier with Willie than Tootsie, in that he will come to “Willie, Willie,” or “That’ll Do” or a butterfly landing on a flower in China, whilst Tootsie comes to “Tootsie Come!” and nothing else. Willie’s reliability is stellar and truly brilliant in all but one predictable context, while Tootsie is only reliable in a certain context in a certain area, and so they are managed very, very differently.
2. NEVER STOP TRAINING. Not long ago someone expressed surprised that I still gave Tootsie a treat for coming when called after having had her for two years. Yup, and she’ll be getting them–not always, but often–until the day she dies. Willie gets reinforced for coming in a variety of ways, but I often don’t even think about it. His desire to be with me is so strong that I simply don’t need to use another kind of reinforcement very often, but… and here’s the important point: I still do. Not often, in that the “intermittent” has some pretty long periods between a conscious reinforcement, but I’ll still give him a treat or whip out a tug toy and turn and walk to the barn (the best!) to be sure that I am keeping him reliable. Because recalls are so important to me, I never, ever take them for granted.
3. CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING. This is one of the hardest concepts to convey to regular dog owners while training recalls–that coming when called in the living room is not predictive of reliably coming when called anywhere else. At least, not until the cue has been proofed in a variety of contexts and levels of distraction. Once you understand the concept that behavior learned in one context doesn’t automatically translate to a different context, it is hard to imagine not understanding it. I suspect that is why so many training books and advice sites pay little attention to its importance, but if I was teaching classes now it is one of the first things I’d discuss and illustrate. I always compared it to forgetting your lines during dress rehearsal, when all that is different is the clothes you have on, or forgetting how to solve a math problem during an exam, because you are nervous. Once you can give people real life examples of how dogs are just like us in this regard, they seem to get it immediately.
4. TRAIN THROUGH DISTRACTIONS. I always assume that I’m going to lose the competition at some point with the environment, and have a dog who ignored my cue. It is essential, I would argue, to anticipate this and train through it. I use the same method that so many use: I’ll put something of interest down on the ground (starting with something of moderate interest, eventually working up to something truly great, at least to the dog), back away a few feet and call the dog to come. I’ll expect it not to, and assuming it doesn’t, walk toward it and show it something better (to the dog) that I’m holding my hand. Then I’ll back up, call again and give it the treat or other reinforcement if it takes a few steps toward me (or perhaps, in extremity, just turns its head). After many sessions of that, once the dog will reliably come away when it’s seen the treat or toy, I’ll call come when he or she is distracted. If I get no response, I’ll go closer but this time not give them the treat. This time I’ll make a big show of eating the treat, or even better, giving it to another dog. (That absolutely drove Tootsie crazy, and was a significant factor in her learning a reliable recall.) Then we’ll take a short break and try again. Most dogs respond beautifully; the next time you call come while they are sniffing the pigeon poop or the calling card left by the dog next door, your dog will come running. Of course, you notice I said “most dogs,” so you need to know your dog really well to set this up correctly.
5. TRAIN FOR TROUBLE. I would never let a dog loose anywhere without having both a reliable recall AND a great stop. In my experience it is much more effective to stop a dog from running away from you to “Whoa” or another signal than calling it to come to you as it is running in the other direction. After all, “Come” is one single cue for what is functionally 4 actions: 1) Switch focus and attention from whatever you were doing to the caller. This is not a small thing to ask. Ever said “Just a minute” to someone who called your name when you were about to finish an email, or maybe adding a comment to a blog? 2) Put on the brakes, which takes a lot of energy. 3) Turn around, and 4) Run to your human. That’s why I teach Stop once I’ve gotten the fundamentals of a recall well started. I teach Stop when I am close to the dog and it is beginning, just beginning, to move away from me. I’ll blurt out my cue (I usually say “Whoa!” but sometimes “No!” comes out of my mouth. They sound very much the same to dogs, so I don’t worry about it too much) and then instantly reinforce by moving backwards (chase) and/or giving a treat or throwing a toy. Gradually try it when the dog is farther away from you, or distracted by something, but only work on one of those at a time. If you want to work on distance, be sure the dog is not distracted. If you want to work on distractions, work with the dog closer to you than usual. Make sense?
I’d love to hear from you about all this: How do you train a recall? Any methods you especially like? (I learned so much from Leslie Nelson and her Really Reliable Recall.) How do your methods differ depending on what dog you are training? I could go on and on, but I’d like to hear from you from your perspective. . .
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Lots to do before we leave for Europe (three weeks? eeeps!). So much food to process for the winter, gardens to put to bed, preparations for the sitter so he doesn’t run out of food for dogs, cats and sheep. We’ll leave when it is relatively warm, and well could come back to the depth of winter. Last time we went to Germany around the same time we left when it was in the 40’s and 50’s (F) and came back to temperatures in the 10’s and 20’s and about 15 inches of snow on the ground. Hard to imagine that now, the weather is unseasonably warm and just gorgeous. We finally got some good rain so the sheep are happy to be back grazing on grass and foraging for wild apples. The kitties are happy too, and the cool evenings find them beginning to curl up again together. Here they are, posing for an Escher painting in an empty planter:
And Nellie posing in a chair, looking very Modern Arty…