Thursday, June 23, 2011

Command Clinic: Recall

Why won't my dog come when I call her?  Probably because I haven't worked hard enough to tell her that every time she come, she'll get rewarded.  Sometimes the reward will be an immediate return to what she was so interested in to begin with.  Sometimes the reward will be a coveted, high value food item, like a french fry or some bacon.  Elka is learning this, though I should have been working with her on it all along.

One recall pitfall is simply calling your dog's name.  Elka hears her name a lot in the course of the day, I'm sure, and it doesn't mean "come here to me" every time.  Also, we've used "come" enough times without her fully knowing what the word is that we've changed the word.  "Come" means something might be going on, but Elka has learned to ignore it through unrewarding repetition.  "Here", however, means "get over here right now".  It means "what treat will I give you this time?" or "how about we play?"

But, how did I change her mind?

Dogs don't deliberately blow off recall because they don't like you.  They'll blow off recall because they're not sure of what you're asking, or because whatever they're doing is far more interesting than what they think that they can expect from you.  So, to teach recall, and a solid recall, you need to outsmart your dog?  Think you're up for it?  I sometimes wonder.

A couple of rules for us humans to keep in mind: first, don't call your dog if you don't think she'll actually come; go get her.  Second, don't let your dog loose in a place where you can't go get her.  Playing keep away and running in big crazy circles is very fun for dogs, and very frustrating for the humans trying to catch them.  It doesn't make recall a positive memory if you're royally ticked when you finally catch your dog.  If you call, and your dog has somehow escaped your grasp and disregards you, make sure you have her attention anyway, and go for "Sit", or "Stay", or "Down", and then go get her.

Then, if possible, continue the fun for a little longer.  Do not make Recall = No More Fun.  

Having your dog on a long leash is a good way to train recall.  That way, you can gather up the leash as you reach your dog (should your dog not come when you call), and praise her for the command anyway.  But wait.  The dog didn't do it, why the praise?  You want positivity, without fail, to be associated with your recall.  You want yourself to be the dispenser of this positivity, and really, if you're a little bit unpredictable, maybe your dog will pay closer attention to you.  You just never know what a crazy person is going to do. 

To clicker train a recall is actually a bit easier than other methods.  The sequence of events:  You've chosen your recall cue.  You're pretty sure your dog knows her name.  You say "Elka, here".  Elka thinks "well, I know my name, but not that other word, but she's got my attention", and looks at you, and  takes a step towards you.  Click her for those actions.  Click means treat, so Elka comes to you for a treat.  Sound like a recall?  It's in it's nascent stages, certainly.
Another alternative you can use to a recall word is a recall whistle.  This can be a physical whistle, like the plastic kind coaches use, the metal kind police use (or used to use, anyway), or the metal kind marketed as a "Dog Whistle".  Or, you could pucker up and whistle yourself, which is what I do.  I reasoned that, much how a clicker is a unique sound, that the dog only hears when something has performed correctly and a reward is forthcoming, I can whistle in a specific way for Elka.  It won't be her name, which she can ignore, and it will be a noise different from background noises on our walks and in the neighborhood.  It's different from a person whistling a tune or just kind of whistling for whistling's sake.  

When I give "Elka's Whistle", she gets herself turned around and runs at me as hard as she can (well maybe not as hard as she can, but at a good clip).  I crouch down to receive her (we're miles away from doing any kind of "sit" or "down" on recall), we connect, I pet her and praise her and rough her up a little, and then whip the treat bag around and give her something at random.  Sometimes, yawn, it's just hot dog, and other times it's a piece of mozzarella, or a liver flavored treat, or burger.  And then, because she's on the long leash in the park, I send her out again.  The long leash has been a fantastic training tool.  Elka can roam and run about and see things, but she's still attached to me and I still have control.  She startled a squirrel out of a garbage can at the park, and took three running steps after it.  I whistled her off, and she listened and returned to me immediately.  The leash never went taught.

Am I ready to trust her off leash?  Nope.  Is she better (for me, anyway), in our small fenced backyard?  Yes, and I do let her off leash there.  I don't know if I'll ever do it at the park.  I really don't want to get a ticket for it, and though there lots (LOTS) of other dogs there off leash all the time, they aren't Dobermans, and I feel a responsibility in that regard, for Elka to be reasonably well behaved and definitely under control in public, for her sake and mine.  

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