The Reliable Recall is a Life or Death ‘command’ for any dog that will be allowed to run off leash. In fact, if you were to wash away all of the extraneous things we will teach a dog there are literally only three things a dog must know: to go away from the handler, to stay put, and to return to the handler. House training is right up there, as is having a dog who knows how to turn it off, aka Impulse Control. But let's get back to topic.
Why have I not written about The Reliable Recall skill yet? Afterall, I think it is so important we begin working the recall into our puppies as soon as we begin to wean them from their mother! Well, to be honest, I just haven’t thought of it until recently. In recent months I’ve had two internet friends lose their dogs due to being hit by a car because their dog wouldn’t come when called. In one instance during the chaos of trying to get his dog back, the gentleman slipped on some ice and hit his head so hard he awoke in the Emergency Room, which is when he learned of his dog’s fate. Again, just yesterday in Belgium a young female Drent was lost due to the lack of an effective recall, their other dog is still at large. For the record, I also lost a dog in 2014 a few months after rescuing her to similar circumstances. I, for one, hope you never have to use your GPS collar to locate a mangled or dead dog, as I have had to do, to appreciate how important a rock-solid recall is.
As mentioned, here at Two Gun, we start teaching the recall when we are weaning pups from mom at feeding time. We use their insatiable appetite to our advantage, and even use some good old-fashioned Pavlovian conditioning with a whistle while they are eating. But let’s assume your breeder didn’t do this, or you have an older dog you need to ‘get right’. For that older dog I’d recommend tossing the ‘command’ you have used, after all Fido only knows to blow that cue off. The verbal cue I prefer to use is ‘here’, but you could use ‘hot dog’; it really doesn’t matter so as long as you are consistent with the cue you choose.
Mindset & Learning
Before we roll our sleeves up and get to the meat and potatoes of teaching a reliable recall, I need to segue for a moment to discuss the mindset of the dog. This is important in all training, but with the recall mindset can really work against you, since the dog is, or will soon be, off-leash, and your ability to physically control him goes to zero. These generalized mindsets are more or less like a heater with a rheostat that gently moves from one end of the spectrum to the other without clearly defined detents. ‘Calm’ is where a dog can really soak up a well communicated message. A calm dog is a dog that can really learn. Next is ‘Alert’, which can also be a useful training state, however it is better the dog be at the calm end of alert so that they are not being reactive to their environment. ‘Alarm’ is when the dog has become reactive and this can apply to virtually anything - a kicked pinecone, a squirrel, etc. an alert dog is not paying attention to you it is paying attention to whatever has its attention. This is not an effective state of training and why impulse control is so important. The last state is ‘Fear’, and this state is also useless to you as a trainer/handler. A dog in fear will withdraw, not meet your eye-contact, etc. Old School obedience methods can get you there (E.g. generous use of choke collars and heavy handed handling techniques), worse yet Old School field training methods (E.g. high-stim e-collar use, toe-hitches, and ear pinches) are almost guaranteed to put a dog in the ‘fear’ state. There is no place for this, and any methodology advocating for its use should be abandoned immediately. So now we have a deeper appreciation as to why the calm dog is pretty much in all ways a better dog.
The Recall Game
With a young pup all you need is a friend or family member and maybe even a hallway. Sit an arm’s length apart each with a small pouch of ‘high value’ treats nearby. One person starts with the pup, and the other a treat. If you have been working on impulse control, then you have been playing the name game. Pup knows his name being said and looking to you is a good thing. So, the person without the pup says his name, cues ‘yes’ once the pup’s attention has been gotten then takes the treat and instead of giving it to pup, uses it to lure the pup to their lap. Once pup begins to follow use the cue ‘here’. Use the cue once and only once. If pup isn’t wanting to follow your lure you need two things: One: a much better/more exciting lure, and two: put pup on a leash so you can gently encourage him to come into to you, never reel him in like a fish. But don’t go giving a ‘command’ and heaving on the line, you must let the dog decide (read more on this in the next step), besides this is only a game. Now, wash, rinse, repeat five to ten times every day, twice a day for at least a month. Pup will love this game and is very likely to just start running between you and your helper. When this occurs it’s time to only treat the pup once he has offered a more acceptable behavior such as sitting or standing still – your choice. No ‘command’ or cue needs to be given for this at this time.
We want this to be fun for pup and adding too much structure is a sure way to kill the fun! Now that we have this working well, begin by adding a little bit of distance each session. If there is any drop in performance just go back to when pup was last successful and start again from there. Once you are unable to use luring effectively or you have outgrown your hallway it’s time to move to the back yard – probably a place where pup listens very little. Our challenge now is to break some old associations for that location and generalize the association with ‘here’ we have made in the hallway. You should close the gap down, and have him on the longest lead you have, at least 12’. That may mean joining two or more shorter leads together. Please, never use a retractable lead. Once he gets this, you can really have fun with this game and try playing it in new and novel places. Once pup has it down really good you can start gradually upping the distractions. Just be careful to not go to fast and keep it fun. If you get frustrated, just stop.
The Higgins Recall
Wait, what!? Yes, that’s right, you aren’t done, you still have work to do, and the next step is the Higgins Recall. If you have an older dog that has a sloppy recall and is familiar with being on a lead, you could start here and use the Recall Game from time to time to help up the fun of being called in, but the game is a wonderful thing for young pups. Either way, this highly effective method is simple to learn and use. If your pup already has a grip on ‘here’ this is going to be a good tool to use for when you don’t have a helper or need to work ‘here’ in some new or novel situation so there is definitely merit in learning and using the Higgins Recall. First, you will have needed to familiarize pup with the Higgins Leader Walk. The Higgins recall relies upon having pup on a lightweight check-cord approximately twelve feet in length and having some patience. I’ll quickly explain the video. Pick a quiet distraction free place to walk pup using your check cord. Allow the dog to walk freely and once they are out a little way simply give the cue ‘here’ and only see what pup does. If you have been playing the Recall Game odds are, he’ll come right on in. When he does give him a ‘yes’ and once he is in be sure to offer praise and possibly a little reward. But if he doesn’t, that’s okay as we want the pup to make the decision to come in on his own – this is the critical step. So, pup didn’t come in. Depending on your dog, don’t be afraid to take your time before gently ‘nagging’ the line and calmly repeating the cue when pup turns to you. Also, don’t be afraid to vary the amount of time between cue and ‘nag’ if needed, the dog will come in, we want to be careful to avoid establishing an association where the 'nag' is the command to come in. The only part I like to add is ‘yes’ once pup is really moving in since we have built a strong praise association with that cue. This is one of the few times it is okay to repeat the ‘here’ cue, but soon enough the extra ‘here’ will be dropped – you may not even need it. Once pup is coming in reliably it’s time to take this act to a new location, then to another, and then begin to layer in distractions. This is why the Higgins Recall is so important. It offers you the ability to safely build the association with ‘here’ without the need for help, and more importantly in multiple new locations. No matter what, keep this exercise short - maybe five minutes is all you may want to go with in particular with young and/or softer tempered dogs and ten minutes if you can keep the session moving and upbeat. The recall must ALWAYS be a taught when you are not in a rush, having a bad day, whatever. Coming in to you needs to be much like winning the lottery for the dog. If you can’t be in that place, you will be better served to skip or cut the exercise short. Okay, so now pup is recalling like a champ, here, there, and everywhere, and you feel it’s time to ‘go off leash’. Think again.
You are now ready to move on to the optional level of the recall and it’s the one thing we will use an e-collar for, but only at very low levels. Simply put, your dog needs to be used to wearing an e-collar before employing it. You will want to put it on a fair bit before you plan to use it and take it off an hour or so after using it. Vary times some, we do not want to create an association here where the dog will only recall with the e-collar in place. Find the lowest setting on the collar where the dog acknowledges the momentary button being pressed, it is likely to be well below what you can feel. Now go back to a quiet place where the dog has been successful before, carefully lower the check cord and allow the dog to drag it. Give the cue ‘here’ and if he doesn’t come in, instead of giving the gentle nag, simply press the button and if necessary, repeat the cue. Your dog may realize that he is free. At this point your job is to kneel down, smile and wait. If he comes in, give a ‘yes’ and praise once he is in. If pup just stands there, offer the ‘here’ cue again, and if nothing happens, a moment later tap the button again. Whatever you do, don’t panic, rush, or run towards the dog or check cord – just be calm, and smile. Be very aware of your tone of voice, be inviting. Be patient. He will come in, and when he does praise him. Also, be sure you have line of sight on your dog when using the e-collar, you don’t want to tap the button if he has already started in or if something unusual is happening, you could make a association you really don’t want. Like before you will need to work this up over time, using new places and distractions. Once pup has that down, start over and leave off the check cord. Then once pup is iron clad you may consider not using the e-collar. Be prepared to “step back” a step or more, as setbacks can and do occur. Progress can come quickly, or it may hit a snag once you learn of a distraction pup really has trouble with. Take your time, be patient, be positive, be upbeat. Soon you will have a dog who will run in, straight in, every time.
A quick checklist
I'm just a guy suffering with an infatuation with gundogs since childhood. Forty some years later this is what you get.