Q: I have a puppy who will be 5 months old soon. He is doing well but for his safety I want TOTAL RECALL.
A: You are right to want to ensure that your puppy recalls for many reasons, including his safety and of course that of the public. There are many distractions in life, and we need to train our dogs to recall quickly and without hesitation. It’s no wonder recall training is such a standard aspect of dog training.
With that said, let me start by sharing a story with you. I attended once a recall class with my dog Kizzy, offered by a school that prided itself on being science-based and using positive reinforcement methods. As the class progressed, we discussed the variety of tasty treats that could be offered to reward a dog for coming to us – from dry low-value treats to human-grade cheese strings, chicken breast cubes, meatballs, and recipes for various homemade treats. It was beginning to sound like a culinary arts class more than dog training.
In the practice part of the class, we would stage “losing” our dog, being separated from it, or letting it get distracted, and then calling it. Kizzy and I couldn’t quite do these exercises, as she wasn’t all that interested in leaving my side. When we did restrained recalls whereby the instructor holds the dog, the handler walks away, and then calls the dog, Kizzy came quickly and confidently. Yet, much as she was happy to get the tasty food, it was clear that wasn’t her primary motivation.
Which brings me to your desire for total recall. Without relationship, there is no recall, much less total recall. We need to ask why we’re working so hard teaching a dog that supposedly loves us to come back to us. Why would we need endless recall training with an elaborate menu of treats if our dogs cared to stick around?
My memory from that class is that we barely touched on relationship and bond. The overemphasis on tasty treats was justified by the notion that “dogs don’t work for free.” This is to some extent true but if I’ve done my work correctly with my dog, my dog cares to be with me, and we enjoy each other’s company, does he still need to be paid? Would it still be “work” staying attentive and close? If I’ve done my foundation work with my dog, correctly managing fundamental way of life elements such as the dog’s schedule, activities, and socialization and relating to it in a psychologically healthy way, then I have a dog that cares to stick around. Teaching recall is a breeze because we never have a dog that doesn’t want to come back.
You’ll hear people say that you never know what could happen to distract the dog and therefore you need to relentlessly train the dog on recall. Recall involves some training, but it is fundamentally about the relationship with the person doing the recall, and what they represent to the dog.
You’ll also hear that dogs should never be allowed off leash, as we just never know what could get them distracted. That’s a topic for another issue but suffice to say for now that part of good foundation work is raising a dog that is calm and thoughtful, one that could get startled and a little distracted but retains the capacity to think and pay attention to us. Training alone can’t accomplish this. Look no further than relationship because only a healthy bond ensures that total recall.