Most dog owners would be delighted if they were able to help their dog master the simple commands such as sit and stay down. They also want their dogs to not pull on the leash and come when called. The process of asking dogs to return when off-leash, or recall, is particularly challenging. Leaving an off-leash park is often a difficult process for humans and their dogs.
Successful recall of dogs is more like an art-form rather than a clinical sequence of events. While there are general practices and guidelines that are effective, it really comes down to the human knowing themselves and their dog. Dogs, like people, have different personalities. Each has different levels of attentiveness and distractibility. The human needs to get to know who their dog is and the intricacies of their personalities.
Reliable recall is a skill that takes time to develop. It requires progression, practice and ample patience to master. Start recall training with zero distractions, then build in or create distractions and progress gradually. Take your time. When you are working with your dog and things are not going as you planned, frustration may occur. Let this feeling go. Instead, think about what you need to do to unlock your dog? You need to figure out your dog and get to know them.
Why Won’t You Come To Me?
The struggle to get one’s dog to come when called happens every day in dog parks across North America. There are several reasons for this. Almost all of them are related to lack of human knowledge and understanding of dogs. “The Other End of the Leash” by Patricia McConnell provides insight into the problems of recall. In summary, McConnell explains how humans grow up learning to communicate with other humans. But when we encounter a dog, we expect it to quickly understand what we say in our human language. This would not happen if we met a human who spoke another language than we do. We would acknowledge the language gap and do our best to accommodate and facilitate communication by minimizing and hiding any frustrations we may have because we are out of our comfort zone. We would smile and search for a way to share a fun learning experience with the other person and do our best to keep our communication positive. The unintended expectation of having instant communication success with dogs can lead to high levels of frustration on the part of both the animal and its owner.
What Are You Lookin’ At?
McConnell references how eye contact and pitch and frequency of human voice are critical to successful recall. We need to learn how to speak dog to help the dog understand what we want. It is not the other way around. When communicating with another human we are taught to maintain eye contact to show that you are engaged, interested, and attentive. However, in the dog world, prolonged direct eye contact often means aggression. Also, variances in the pitch of the human voice are not ideal for dogs. To increase chances of recall success, avoid direct eye-contact when your dog moves toward you, do not stare at them.
During all phases of training keep your voice volume low, calm, and relaxed like you were having a chat after a yoga class. McConnell also covers how dogs perceive the sounds and frequency of the human voice. Dogs respond well to a “kissy” sound, the classic exaggerated doublesmooch noise. Also, dogs respond well to the “click-click” sound a rider makes to get a horse moving.
Avoiding Recall Problems
Humans create other conditions that often create problems for successful recall of off-leash dogs. Sometimes the human calls the dog in a loud voice while approaching quickly in a direct line which may be perceived as hostile. Others may approach their dog with their eyes popping while holding the leash with such a grip they have white knuckles. These approaches generally do not work for dogs.
Poor recall techniques can be very problematic for dogs. They get excited about going to the park and getting to play and run free. But when it is time to leave and they want to keep playing, the human seems to get angry and the fun stops. And the dog has no idea why. A frustrated human often results in a frustrated or confused dog. Some people use bribes of treats or threats of punishment to entice a dog to leave the park. Others resort to name calling the dog, with little success. Never call your dog using a bribe or threat of discipline. Recall should always be positive. You need to use a calm and enthusiastic approach when training dogs for recall.
When it comes time to put the leash on, do not run after, lunge for, or grab your puppy. Reach for your dog’s collar and praise them as they approach. This will create a positive association with their human’s outstretched hand and encourage them to approach. Then ensure that your grip on the collar is not too firm or aggressive. You want to make gentle contact with the dog during recall so they remain calm and trusting during the process.
Practice at Home – Gradual Progressions
It is a good idea to start practicing recall at home where there are no distractions for the dog. If you try to start the training at a park it can be difficult. Your dog may be overstimulated by the new environment, the other animals, and people.
Initial training at home is ideal because the dog will be calmer in an environment which is safe and familiar. You could start indoors and then progress to the family backyard as the dog begins experiencing success. When you experience consistent success with recall at home, you may then add low-level distractions. The smells and noises of outdoors are enough to get started in terms of distractions.
Build reliable recall in this setting, experience consistent success and again, start to add distractions. While training the dog for recall, make sure to utilize rewards, especially verbal praise. Verbal rewards offer several benefits. Your dog gets to hear you warm voice lavish them with praise, peace, and love which establishes connection and bonding. Verbal treats are also void of calories.
Moving the Training to the Park
Once the dog seems to understand the recall process, it is time to move to the dog park for the real test. There are a multitude of high-level distractions at any park. In addition to the other animals and people, you as the owner can be a distraction. Sometimes you end up visiting with other dog owners and lose track of your animal. This is not good.
You need to stay engaged with your dog, playing with them and watching them. Paying attention to your dog will help them manage the distractions of the park. When they chase that errant squirrel, you can redirect them. When it is time for recall they will be used to your interaction and attentiveness. It will not surprise them.
Like the dog, remember the calmness and predictability of the at-home training. Repeat the same strategies at the park. Stay calm. Avoid falling back into old habits of angst and frustration. This is where recall training falls completely on the owner.
When it comes time to leave, be patient. Wait for your opportunity to call your dog when they are in a lull of activity. Setting an expectation of leaving the park at a specific may lead to human frustration. Avoid that. Instead, think about what you want to accomplish and what would be the best way to get there. Recall your dog when you have identified a high percentage chance of success. This could be when the dog is taking a break.
If your dog does not come on the first call, calmly walk to them while smiling. Avoid any hint of anger or frustration. When you speak, speak softly. Put the leash on your dog calmly. The objective of being calm is to keep your dog calm.
During the recall process, eventually the dog complies and recognizes that it is time to leave the park. The departure must also happen in a calm and predictable manner. If the human is still frustrated by the recall, this frustration might present itself as they leave. Maybe the leash gets one or two yanks on the way to the car. When this happens, the dog is often uncertain for the reasoning because they feel they complied with the recall. Anger and frustration are not productive in a training program or conducive to the relationship. You should never punish your dog for coming to you. Even if you’re frustrated because your dog took their time before coming, you still should always praise a recall.
You’re the Best Human Ever and You’re Mine!
If you and your dog can figure out this recall thing it will likely help reinforce the bond between you. Succeeding at off-leash in park recall will be proof of the dog’s focus and loyalty and of its desire to do what you ask instead of what they want. This will leave many of the other dogs essentially scratching their heads.
It is an amazing relationship when your dog believes that their human is the most important being in their life. And you really are. Many humans do not recognize this important fact. You provide food, water, health care, love, and a warm place to sleep. You further aid your dog’s development by giving them rules follow and jobs to do. They don’t know how to do this, we have to help them. It is the same with kids and parents. How many instances are out there where the child has no idea how lucky they are to have parents with resources that allow them to go to university or go on a nice vacation, or be involved with sports? That stuff doesn’t happen without parental leadership and commitment. If you raise your dog in similar fashion, you can expect a good pup to grow up to be a good dog. Help your dog realize how great you are for them.
Recall at the Park
To help illustrate the value of recall training, I ask you to imagine a scenario in which two dogs are having fun at a park. The two dogs, let’s call them Luna and Ruby, have been playing chase and wrestling for the last twenty minutes. There are about twelve dogs in total at the park engaged in various forms of play…all is good.
At some point, Luna’s human sees that she is taking a break from playing with Ruby. Both dogs are catching their breath and are laying down getting ready for the next wrestle session. Before that play gets started, Luna gets called with a “click-click” sound from her human. She reacts by looking in the direction of the call and then dashing with joy to her human. She then gets lots of verbal reward, gets leashed up, and leaves departs the park. Wrestling with a friend is very fun. Luna is called by her human before she gets wrapped up in more play.
It’s All About the Timing
Timing is critical in recall training with dogs. In the previous scenario, being called before play starts up again enabled the human to get Luna’s attention before she could approach a “snap-point”. A “snap-point” is where a dog is engaged in behaviour so engrossing that their human is unable to grab their attention in any way. They have crossed a point of no return, so to speak. From a human perspective, imagine having the time of your life and just when you think this is the most fun you have ever had. Then you get called by friends to leave. You protest, naturally. Your friends insist and eventually you relent and leave. When a dog’s energy and activity level drops below their “snap-point” they are much more responsive to commands.
Timing is critical to get positive results working with our dogs. We often miss the optimal time to reward positive dog behaviour because we do not know when to do so. A reward needs to come within two seconds of the successful behaviour. After two seconds it becomes a random reward. The same may be said for sanctions. If a human arrives home to shoes that have been destroyed, that is on the human. Scolding or correcting your dog in any way is wrong in this case. Scolding or correcting an action that happened minutes or hours ago will only cause your dog angst and confusion.
The Next Evening
Now we will get back to Luna and Ruby. As our story unfolds, Luna arrives at the park about the same time the next evening. Quickly, Luna and Ruby find each other and begin play as usual. Again, there are a few groups of a few dogs running and romping, barking, and wrestling. Dogs engaged in rigorous physical activity at some time, will need to stop for a break to catch their breath. Such is the case for Luna and Ruby. Let’s go one step further and imagine that the dogs at the park can talk. During the interlude from play, the dogs ask Luna some questions. Many are surprised at her answers. This exchange is outlined in the conversation that follows.
The Conversation….if Dogs Could Talk
The setting: an off-leash dog park for the evening run
Cast Members: Luna: Female, five years, Yellow Lab. She loves to play and run and romp and has an excellent relationship with her humans.
Her best dog friend: Ruby. Luna is a work in progress and is making excellent strides in becoming a good dog. Ruby: Female, 4 years, Cocker Spaniel/Border Collie mix. She is the best bud of Luna. Her main unwanted behaviour is jumping on humans. Ruby has a lot of energy.
Jack: Male, 1 year, Bernese Mountain dog. He likes to be on furniture and has a perceived need to protect his house from other dogs and unknown humans such as the mailman and the delivery guy. Jack usually patrols his property from the top of the back of the sofa that allows him an excellent vantage point from a security perspective.
Alex: Male, 3 year old Great Dane, intact. He does not play fetch and loves to sleep on human beds.
Jack: Hey Luna, I couldn’t help but notice you ran to your human last night. In fact, you run to your human every night. As soon as he makes that cool sound, you drop us and are gone. You respond to the girl human the same way. Why do you do that?
Ruby: Yeah, he’s right, I’ve been wondering that myself. We are best mates here for a long time and we have amazing runs. Please explain Luna. Why the love for the humans? I love my humans too, but you seem to be really close.
Luna: I love my humans for sure. Wherever they are is where I want to be. When they leave, I want to go with them. When they ask me to do stuff, I am happy to do it, most times (I’m just a normal dog). You guys are great, but my humans are special, like super special!
Luna: Yes, really!
Jack: How did that happen?
Luna: When I wake up in the morning I know exactly how my day is going to go because my humans have a list of stuff for me to do, and not do. They call it work and rules and boundaries and structure. When I do work, I get paid. To get stuff, I need to do stuff.
Ruby & Jack give the classic doggy-head tilt while wondering what the heck Luna is talking about.
Jack: What are rules and boundaries?
Luna: Things I am supposed to do or not do, depends how ya’ look at it I guess.
Ruby and Jack, bewildered further. Luna sees their confusion and elaborates.
Luna: You guys don’t know what rules or boundaries are?
In unison, Jack and Ruby: No.
Luna: No rules?
Ruby: No, not one. The concept is foreign to me.
Jack: Same here.
Luna: What are you talking about? No rules? No boundaries?
Luna: How do you get through the day with no rules?
Ruby: I just do
Alex: Yeah. Life is fine with no rules.
Jack is now curious about why Luna appears to be so happy with having rules.
Jack: OK, give me an example of a rule you have Luna.
Luna: OK. For one, I’m not allowed on any furniture. Ruby, Jack and Alex are shocked, stunned, slack-jawed by Luna’s response and share a collective gasp of disbelief
Ruby: What? Not on the sofa, not on the bed or chairs?
Luna: Are those things furniture?
Luna: Then no. However, I am allowed on those things when my humans invite me up. I get down when they ask me to.
Ruby, Jack, and Alex, still reeling from the concept of not being allowed on the furniture, are further bewildered at the idea of getting off the furniture when asked. They ask for an example of another rule. Luna obliges.
Luna: My human goes first, all the time, everytime. They lead, I follow.
Alex is puzzled by the concept.
Alex: Please explain.
Luna is puzzled now. She thinks to herself: I don’t understand why my friends don’t understand what rules are and why rules are good to have. Rules are the key in having a harmonious, stress-free life with humans. Luna is also confounded as to why the humans of her friends have not shared this information about rules. Rules help dogs and humans have balanced harmonious relationships.
Luna: Humans go first, all the time.
Ruby, Jack, Alex look perplexed, Luna continues to explain.
Luna: When we leave the house, my human goes through the door first. When the car door opens, I don’t get in until my human invites me in. When we go to the park, I do not get out of the car, even when the car door is wide open, even if there are lots attractive distractions around like squirrels, squealing kids, bikes, strollers even food cooking, until my human says it is OK. When we walk to the park entrance, I walk right beside my human, despite how excited I am, despite knowing I am going to see all of you, despite knowing how much fun I am going to have, I keep a slack leash. When we get to the entrance of the park, my human leads me though the gate then calmly releases me to hang out with you guys. That’s when we have our great time.
Jack: My word that is a lot of rules!
Luna: There’s more.
Jack: More? Luna continues explaining rules….
Luna: Yes. At home my humans are first up the stairs and first down the stairs, first to get to the door when the food or Amazon arrives. First in and first out of elevators, first on the bus or street car, first off as well. My humans also have taught me to be calm at feeding times too. When the food comes, I stay and wait until my human says it is OK to dig in.
Jack: Are you saying that because of rules, here at the park, when your human wants to go, no matter what, no matter how much fun you are having with us, or how close you get to a squirrel, you leave and go to your human?
Jack is completely lost, confused, and bewildered.
Jack: It is because of these rules that you follow that those good things happen? Luna: Yes.
Alex: Like what? What good things happen?
Luna: Good things like rewards?
Luna: I get lots and lots of rewards and scratches and pets and even some treats! Ruby and Jack are head-tilting again, dazed and confused again.
Jack: How do you get all that affection and reward and love again?
Luna: By following rules.
Ruby and Jack: Again with the rules?
Luna: For sure guys. Without rules I would be lost. My life would be full of chaos. I would be confused and wonder what I should be doing. I might think I should do an important job like being the leader. Everyone, every group needs a leader, right? If I lead, I protect because leaders protect. I will protect my humans, protect our house and keep other dogs and people away from us on walks. I would feel unsure of myself and unsure about what I am supposed to do without rules. t would be so weird for me.
Jack: That’s how I feel: lost, unsure and confused. Ruby and Alex nod their heads in agreement.
Jack: That is exactly my life Luna. I find myself wondering often who is in charge here? I am always first, for everything, never my human. I lunge ahead and they are fine with it. I am in front of my humans on walks, up and down stairs, and on the furniture. I demand and get free affection. I figure that makes me the leader, right? Feeding time at my house is fun. I jump and bark and paw at my human who is holding my food in a bowl. Almost every day I manage to get my human to spill some kibble on the floor because they are yelling stuff at me, which makes the game even more fun. This happens for most of my meals. Sometimes I try to sort things out when things get hairy by barking and showing my teeth, jut to let humans know that I don’t like what’s happening around me. My humans seem to enjoy my behaviour. They yell a lot and make lots of noise and say bad words, lots of bad words. They sometimes pull on my leash really hard while they are yelling. Although I am not sure what that’s about. I continue to do what I’m doing and then my human gets even louder. The stress levels between me and my humans are insane. Order and serenity would be wonderful. How do I get what you have Luna?
Luna: It is the job of your humans to help you with rules. Your humans need to take the time to help you understand what the rules are.
Jack: How do I get my humans to give me rules so I have less stress and confusion in my life?
Luna: You need to tell them
Jack: How do I do that?
Luna: You have been Jack. Your humans are not listening to you. The challenge you face is that they don’t speak dog and you don’t speak human.
Jack: I don’t understand Luna? Please, explain.
Luna: When you try to lead you feel confused and frustrated, yes?
Luna: That’s because you’re not supposed to be the leader. Your humans are supposed to lead you. To lead is to protect.
Ruby, Jack, Alex are astonished and with their collective level of inquiry piqued, they listen closely.
Luna: Your human is supposed to be your leader. Your human is supposed to be a responsible pet owner and make sure you are protected and feel safe. Your human also teaches you lifesaving things like just because a gate or front door is open, do not run into the street. They also should tech you not to jump on humans, and all the basic stuff like sit, stay, down – you know, the basic rules. Your human is also responsible for cementing a positive relationship with you to create trust and a bond. It’s a beautiful circle when you think about it. Having rules, having a solid relationship, having an environment of harmony, no confusion or chaos between dogs or humans, everyone on the same page: how divine!
Alex: My human tried to help me one time. I heard one of those sounds coming out of my humans face one time but it was more like: “Sit. Sit! Sit!! Sit! SIT! SIT! MY GOD WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU? STUPID DOG…SIT! Fine”. Then they walked away shaking their heads. What was that all about?
Luna: Your human tried. Your human lacks patience. They also don’t seem to be able to speak dog, not even a little.
Alex: What do I do to get the help and guidance I need from my humans LUNA?
Luna: Maybe do more of the same of what you have been doing and maybe and maybe your humans get frustrated enough they get the help they need to help you?
Ruby, Jack, Alex: Excellent idea Luna!
Jack: OK guys, let’s make it even more difficult to leave the park when our humans call us and at home increase the chaos factor. Bark more when there is commotion at the door, jump on humans more, pull really hard on the leash, chew up shoes, steal food, have zoomies in the house and all over the furniture. Then maybe out of sheer exasperation, my humans will get help to help me?
Luna: In theory.
Ruby, Jack, Alex: what do you mean Luna?
Luna: You might get rehomed and be in a situation even crazier than the one you are in now.
Luna: Many humans like doing things the easy way. For lots of dogs, if they push too much and their humans are unable to raise their tolerance levels, you could get the boot.
Jack: The boot?
Luna: As in out. You might go to a farm, get adopted by a family friend or relative, maybe off to a shelter for who know how long.
Alex: WHAT? WHY?
Luna: A common excuse humans make about dogs: this is way more work than I had anticipated. I need to get rid of this dog.
Jack: Really? That happens?
Luna: Sorry to tell you guys, it does, way too often.
The pups think about their conversation. They shrug and resume play.
Reliable recall is a command that takes time to develop. Advances in reliable recall will come in small progressions with practice and ample patience. Start recall training with zero distraction, build consistent success, build in/and/or create distractions and progress gradually. Take your time. Be patient. When you are working with your dog and things are not going as you planned, hoped or anticipated: to be frustrated is normal. Let the frustration go. Instead, think this: what do I need to do to unlock this dog? What is it that I am doing that my dog is not connecting with? You need to figure out your dog. You need to learn who your dog is. Get to know them. It will help immensely in your effort to get the dog you want.