Ah, the lamenting wail of the dog owner, watching as their beloved hound becomes a mere speck in the distance, bounding on oblivious to all cries.
A good recall is a joy to behold, as the dog turns on a sixpence and comes tearing back to engage with his handler. For many of us, especially those with breeds who are designed to be involved with their environments, it can be a hard nut to crack. You may have a dog that often comes when called, but only if you’re waving his ball or treats around. Or who bolts off after other dogs, birds, squirrels… SQUIRREL!!
There is a brilliant book that contains a programme for working through these issues, or for starting from scratch with a new puppy, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s called Total Recall and, if you have a dog that never comes back, or only does sometimes, or only on his own terms, then grab yourself a copy, pronto.
The handy thing with most puppies is that they come with an innate instinct for self-preservation, meaning they want to stick close to you at all times. This is excellent for teaching them the first steps of recall because, if you can get some distance between you and the pup, she is going to run towards you to catch up, and you can capture that behaviour and associate it with your recall cue.
I choose to use a whistle as my main recall cue. The reason for this is that it carries farther, and is more consistent than using a verbal cue. At increasing volumes, and with rising panic, the pitch of our voice changes (as anyone who has watched the brilliant Fenton in Richmond Park YouTube clip will know) – and this can make it less likely that the dog will listen to us. As dogs don’t generalise well, “come” said in the voice you trained in may be understood, but shouted at a distance, or under stress, or when you have a cold, may not be. So, a few pips of the whistle is far easier to keep consistent.
I use an Acme 210.5 whistle. These whistles are great, because they’re tuned to a certain frequency, so when they need replacing, I can just buy another and I’ll know it’s going to sound exactly the same to the dogs.
I train a few different whistle patterns to mean different things, so it’s not just a case of blowing the whistle any which way; my recall whistle is a series of three short pips, to distinguish it from my other cues. In the wonderful “The Other End of the Leash“, Patricia McConnell talks about how, independent of language, different cultures use very similar tones to denote the same purpose, when communicating with animals. Short tones tend to be used to speed an animal up (think “hup! hup!”) and long tones to slow them down (think “woooooaaaah”). It makes instinctive sense when you think about it. That’s why the recall is usually a series of clipped notes, as you want the dog to come to you as fast as possible, but the cue for stopping (which I’ll cover another day) is a single long blast.
Anyway, I digress! This Little Doggy is still at the stage where I’m guiding her into what the cue means. I don’t want to test her at this stage. So I only blow my whistle cue when she’s already running towards me, so she starts to associate the movement with the sound. Then, it goes without saying, she gets heavily rewarded when she arrives. A strong recall could be a matter of life or death, so I always reward on the return. This may not always be with food; in fact, for the Two Bigger Doggies, a chase of a ball has higher value, so that’s what I use when I want to sharpen them up. I’ll cover the difference between rewards and bribes some other time!
In time, we’ll progress this to get a recall where she responds instantly to the whistle, whatever the circumstances. The Two Bigger Doggies have, after lots (and lots and lots!) of work, a pretty solid recall, away from some pretty big distractions. You can never rest on your laurels and I’ll be improving on and refreshing this training probably until the day I die, but that’s half the fun of dog training – you’re never “finished”.