Last weekend we were at a sheepdog trial, where I could walk the dogs off leash in a field full of campers and other dogs. The area was surrounded by a knock-you-to-your-knees electric fence. What a joy to know that I could trust my dogs to stop when I said, stay close when asked, and come when I called. Were they obedience competition perfect? No; I had to use my “outside voice” a couple of times, once when Maggie discovered a treasure trove of kibble someone had left in the grass after driving away. I made a mental note to do a couple of sessions of “coming away from food on the ground” with some kick ass reinforcements. (Maggie requests chicken please.) I was not an idiot and never let them get within 10 yards of the fence, and like all good dog owners, was always looking 50 yards and 5 seconds ahead. But what a joy to be able to let the dogs be free to explore with their eyes, ears and noses.
I was not alone; my dogs were little different than most of the other dogs at the sheepdog trial. There’s nothing like training a dog to listen to you from hundreds of yards away when running high speed around prey to inspire confidence closer in. (Not to mention doing this with dogs bred specifically to work with you as a team; I didn’t see any Beagles running around loose.)
On our last night there I walked the dogs at the end of a brutally hot day, the air as hot and heavy as soup, while the electric whine of cicadas played back up to the rhythmic chirping of field crickets. It was nasty weather, but I still reveled in letting my dogs soak up the scents of a late midwestern summer. I found myself wishing that every dog could experience the kind of freedom my dogs had that evening, knowing full well that it’s simply not possible in many cases. But the more control you have over your dog, the more freedom they can have. I thought it might be a good time to review not just teaching your dog a recall, but also maintaining it, to make sure their response is what you want it to be.
Here’s a summary of the steps I use to teach a recall, and to maintain it.
First, before anything else, decide what cues you are going to use. Use verbal clues that are sharp and clear, like PUP PUP PUP or clapping your hands. I like to use a visual clue too–turning a little sideways and patting your thigh is a good one. This step seems trivial to many, but it’s hugely important. Most of us use too many cues for coming when called. Why confuse your dog or pollute the cue? Less is more here, and that takes training ourselves to be consistent. If you’re in the maintenance phase, pay attention to what you’re saying and doing. Are you still being crystal clear?
Decide what reinforcement you are going to use, and be sure to have it handy. You might consider having different levels of reinforcement, like kibble for an easy recall and chicken for a hard one. Mix up what a dog gets too–food sometimes for sure (especially when starting or training through a high level distraction), but letting your dog chase you while you clap and laugh, throwing a toy, and getting out the dinner bowl are great options. You know your dog; ask yourself what your dog wants to do herself. My dogs always want to run to the barn to start our woods walk, so calling them back and then saying “Okay!” is a great reinforcement. Never forget the power of using a problem (dog wants to do X and it wasn’t what you had in mind) as a reinforcement, as long as it’s safe.
Be sure to reinforce at the right time, especially in the beginning. I like to say Good!, clap and run away from the dog as soon as they turn their heads toward me. It’s always good to break any behavior down into steps, and the first step we want is for a dog to take her attention off of X, and turn it to us.
Start easy and gradually work up to hard. This is another point that sounds simple but is violated all the time. We ask our dogs to come when nothing is going on, and then ask the same when people are at the door and the other dogs are barking their heads off. Ask yourself, what makes it “easy” for your dog? What makes it hard? What is the probability that your dog will come when called? Start by reinforcing anything when it’s almost 100%, even if it’s only three feet away. Start small isn’t a waste of time, rather, it builds the foundation you need.
Try writing down a hierarchy of difficulty, from easy to hard and harder. Don’t begin to ask for a recall when you’re not well over 80 or 85% compliance at a lower level. This takes being thoughtful and observant, so spend some time on it. Of course, it’s different for every dog; that’s why knowing your dog is so important. Every dog has a harder time when aroused and distracted by something he loves; it’s your job to know what those distractions are, and either find something he loves more, or give him access to it, if you can, after responding to your cue.
This is also an important thing to do when you’re doing maintenance. As I said earlier, Maggie and I will do a few sessions about coming away from kibble in the grass. It’s not critical, she came when I used my “outdoor” voice and I knew she would. But why not clean it up? It’s both more fun for both of us when it works immediately, and safer besides.
How often should you do recall training? I’m a big fan of interspersing family dog training into your daily life with a dog. I might ask a dog to come when called 15 times in a day when training, but rarely do I ask over and over again. You can repeat the recall two or three times, but it’s even better to make it part of life. Call once during the first walk of the day, and be ready to reinforce it. Wait to start your dog’s breakfast until she’s in another room, call and then reinforce by getting out her bowl. Call for a play session, etc., you get the idea. Just don’t call for anything she doesn’t like, especially not early in training. But if you want it to work anytime, then train it any time, not just during “training sessions.”
What if she doesn’t come when you call? Well, that’s going to happen. Here’s my advice: If you call and nothing happens–not even an ear twitch, go closer to your dog and call again. Boost up the energy in your cues. Then reinforce anything, including the slightest head turn. When you get it, praise, clap and run away to make it look fun. Then give your dog the treat when she gets to where you had been in the first place. Don’t hesitate to put a treat right beside your dog’s nose if you have to when in the early stages of training. Try to avoid repeating the cue so that your dog doesn’t learn what my first working Border Collie learned, a million years ago, when being taught to lie down on sheep: Lie down LIE Down LIE DOWN! I’m sure he thought that was the cue, all six words of it.
That’s just a start; there are lots more details in The Puppy Primer and Family Friendly Family Dog Training, and on my website in the Learning Center. I also have a DVD on getting started on a great recall, Lassie Come! You could also check out the videos on Kikopup; Emily Larlhan does a great job dividing training into understandable steps. The late and great Sophia Yin has some wonderful videos too, don’t hesitate to check them out. Please add your own favorite resources in the comments, the more the better.
I can’t conclude this without stressing safety first. Many dogs will never be safe off leash, some only in certain contexts. Know your dog and know the environment. It’s always good to work on a great recall, cuz, well, you never know. Remember too that most people stop training too soon; they get good responses at moderate levels of distractions, but never train through the harder ones, while still expecting them to work.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: We are just back from the Deadhill Stockdog Trial, where good scores go to die.
The name aside, it was a great trial, well run by lots of volunteers and gracious hosts Linda and Doug Uzelac outside of Lakeview, MI. I ran Skip in the “Open Ranch” class. Think of it as the Intermediate class, but the sheep were so challenging that there were more letters than numbers on the scoreboard. (Letters mean that the handler retired (i.e., the sheep won) or the judge called you off.) I’m proud of Skip, he did some exceptional work for a dog of his age and experience. He ran a little wide leaving my side at the beginning of the Outrun, but lost no points for it (20/20), did a lovely quiet, controlled Lift (9/10) and a pretty straight Fetch to me. We lost 7 points though, (13/20) because the Fetch isn’t over until the sheep are wrapped around the handler to begin the drive and ours wasn’t tight enough.
The part I’m really proud of though is his work on the ewe who repeatedly turned to face him (see 2:25 and 3:03). He kept his cool (and uncharacteristically, so did I). We had to finesse her away from where she was determined to go. It was beautiful work, made it look easy (it wasn’t), but it used up a lot of our time. We had a really nice cross drive (at about 5:15) and then ran out of time 8-10 yards from the pen. The Drive is worth 30 points, but you don’t get even one of them until you’ve finished it by getting close to the last exercise, the pen. A few more yards and we would’ve had our drive points and a good score. It was hard for Jim to get it all on video, but there’s enough that you can see Skip working well. Good boy.
Skips’s second run also included some beautiful work; he listened and paced well and read his sheep like a pro. I made a handling error at the second set of gates, so we ran out of time again on the drive. But overall, we both learned a lot and I was truly pleased with how he did. Maggie, on the other hand, was over her head, so I pulled her from her second run. These kind of sheep are her worst nightmare, and there was no point in setting her up to fail. We all cuddled on the camper bed that night, hair and slobber be damned.
The weather was volatile. Unbearably hot most of the time, interspersed with lots of lighting and occasional rain. But it made for gorgeous skies.
The farm includes some beautiful horses. These horses changed position every few minutes–I’ll sweep the flies off your face with my tail, and then we’ll switch up. Who could get tired of watching horses?
This is Linda Tesdahl’s dog Mona, perhaps the happiest dog I’ve ever met. She just came off the course working impossible ewes, and seemed to think it was the most fun she’d ever had in her life. It sounds as though she thinks that every day, every minute of it. Linda is a top handler; what a joy this dog has someone who knows how special she is.
That’s it for this week. Tell us your successes and challenges with recalls, we’re all ears. Then go kiss your dog for me. Lucky, lucky us.