Before we dive into our recalls, I want you to be aware of my 7 step formula. By going through this 7 step process allows us to build a reliable recall.
1 RELATIONSHIP AND CONNECTION
We need to develop a good relationship with our puppies if we want them to listen to us and come running back when we call. Often many people see recall as calling a dog, them coming back and us rewarding that recall. Unfortunately it’s not that easy and many recalls fail because the background work hasn’t been done. A solid recall starts with our puppies learning that we are positive people to be around. Good things happen, their needs are advocated for and they always feel safe. On this foundation we can stack some habit cues. We can teach our puppies that recall cues have great outcomes, everywhere, at any time. It is almost impossible to set our puppies up and practice in all the circumstances we are going to need a good recall and therefore it’s important that this cue is habitual. BUT they must want to come back to us in the first place. Simply relying on rewards for this won’t work as there will always be something better than your reward. Rewards for recalls should be used as a bonus, not as the main reason for returning.
See The Bonus Games and play these lots in the first weeks with your puppies, indoors, gardens and while on walks. You can pick the ones suited to your puppy as every puppy may enjoy a slightly different play style. Just sitting and watching the world go by, physical contact and advocating for your puppy’s needs (for example, not forcing them into a situation when they are worried, always responding to their body language and help guide them when unsure, even if thats removing them from the situation) is also a great way to help build a secure relationship with your puppy. Also be sure to practice Check ins as a first step. These can hugely help with teaching your puppy about connection, something that is needed for all training to be successful.
2 CUES AND EQUIPMENT
Pick your verbal recall cue and try to keep it consistent. Ensure it’s something that comes naturally to you, that you’re happy to yell in the middle of the park when everyone’s watching. Exciting tones will work better but if this doesn’t come naturally to you, stick to what does as you’ll be more likely to be consistent.
Then think about visual cues, we want it to look like we’re enticing our puppy to come in our direction, moving backwards, arms signally to come, anything that again is natural to you but try to not stand dead still pointing to the floor (If you have mobility issues, or use a wheelchair, this isn’t a problem, try to find something that you can do as a visual signal for your puppy, this can simply be placing your arm out the side) . Ensure you don’t overuse this cue when you’re not training. We want good associations and consequences whenever this cue is used, this is often why I advise not to use solely your puppy’s name, unless you can change the way it sounds. So try to not make their recall cue white noise that they can begin to ignore.
Marker cues are useful to help teach your puppy the exact bit of the behaviour that is wanted. Try to ‘mark’ your puppy the moment they turn their head to come to you after being called, then as they’re running towards you too. This can encourage your puppy to keep coming towards you rather than getting distracted half way. Without marker cues in your recall, your puppy has to do lots of work before gaining any feedback from ourselves which is often another reason why recalls can fail. Marker cues can be anything from ‘yes’, ‘yay’, ‘good’, ‘nice’ and anything that comes naturally to you to help cheer your puppy on for getting it right.
While I advise you to let your puppies offlead in secure places during your very first walks (they are most likely to follow you, allowing you to reward these natural tendencies while they haven’t developed too much confidence to run away from you yet!), for those older puppies, overly confident puppies, or people that do not have access to safe places, long leads can come in handy when outside. This allows our puppies to explore and run around but prevents them from ignoring us. If we allow our puppy to continuously ignore our recall by setting them up to fail, it’s very unlikely that you’ll be able to train a reliable recall cue. We must prevent them from ignoring us if we want to train a good recall. Do be aware though that long lines need to be used with care. Using them irresponsibly can cause accidents. Please do not allow your puppies to run up to people or other dogs while at the full extent of the lead, this will only lead to tangling everyone up and potentially injuring them. If you cannot use a long line, there are lots of enclosed fields that can be used, either finding quiet ones locally to you or hiring ones that you can use privately. Do also be aware of when you call your puppy when using a long line. If you always call your puppy once they’ve hit the end of the lead, your recall cue will very quickly become a tight lead, not your cue. This will often result in no recall off the lead.
3 RECALL GAMES
Recall games help us teach our puppies the foundation to a recall and what is expected of them in a fun and engaging manner. These games can help teach your puppy the cue (both visual and verbal), help you ‘mark’ the moment they turn to move to towards you and helps you build a positive consequence with the routine. I’ve included Name Game and Hand Touch for you to play with your puppies in the house, garden and while on walks.
4 REWARD MIXUP
There are so many rewards you can use when rewarding a recall. Have a think about what is reinforcing to your puppy. You can use food, higher value food, thrown food to make it more exciting, you can use toys, play or by then allowing them access to stuff such as play with other dogs. Get creative and see what your puppy enjoys. You can also mix these up, sometimes they get food, sometimes they get toys, you can make it unpredictable. It’s not about formal ‘come, sit, wait’ at the moment, we want to ensure our puppy finds it super fun to come back to us first.
This is something we need to add in gradually but something that will be dependent on your individual puppy. Have a little think about their top distractions. This is something we need to add in gradually but something that will be dependent on your individual puppy. Start practising your recall when in the presence of the lowest distraction and then when ready, gradually move through your list of distractions ending with the biggest distraction. I’ve included two distraction games to help you out with this so be sure to check those out when ready.
Do remember though that this stage will be much easier if you are consistent with relationship building with your puppy. If you struggle with distractions, take a break from these, change the thought process to your walks and work on teaching your puppy that engaging with you outside is fun too.
6 ENVIRONMENTAL CHANGE UP
When you feel your puppy is getting this during your usual walks, you can begin to practice in different environments. Start in low distracting environments and then gradually build to more distracting ones such as the middle of your busy park.
7 REAL LIFE WALK STORY
Add games throughout your walk to encourage listening and helping your puppy learn that you are in fact still fun outside rather than their chaperone. By teaching them that we are fun to be around outside, they’ll be much more likely to come back running when we call them, and stick closer to us as we walk. We want to ensure we are up high on the list of reinforcers for our puppies when outside rather than all of their reinforcement coming from elsewhere such as playing with dogs, sniffing or chasing birds.
So if you follow this 7 step programme you’ll have a dog happy to bound back to you when you call them. This will take several weeks, so do build the stages gradually at a pace your puppy is happy with. Remember that success isn’t determined by what you do at the main event, its about all the preparation work you did leading up to it.