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National Dog Training Month featuring Good Dogz KC

January is National Train Your Dog Month, and there is no better way to celebrate the bond between you and your furry companion than introducing an exciting new activity into your daily routine! We partnered with Andrew from Good Dogz KC to teach us how to incorporate play with training, especially when practicing recalls. The recall is an important behavior – one that can mean the difference between your dog staying on-leash during a hike or taking a leash-free romp through the woods. It is also a life-saving skill. If your dog decides to run toward a busy road or chase a squirrel, you need them to respond to your cue to return to you, QUICKLY!

How do we get our dogs to recall reliably?

Teaching the recall behavior to your dog can be a bit challenging – and sometimes a little overwhelming. We want to take off some pressure by turning your recall practice into fun and games. This will help you and your dog enjoy the training and take it to the next level. To achieve a strong, reliable recall we must be more cognizant of building positive associations with the cue and eliminating negative ones. So, if we can convince them that coming back to you is a game instead of a chore, they will be all in!
Let’s get started.

Conditioning the Recall – Phase One

Supplies needed:
Two of the same toy

Visit your local pet store and buy two of your dog’s favorite toys and make sure they are identical. In this video example, Arlo’s chosen toy is a frisbee. Our goal in the beginning, is to build engagement. Start playing this game in a safe space with low distractions, like your backyard or even inside if you have the space. Begin with a quick round of keep-away with the toys – this increases your dog’s desire for the toy through frustration. Once they are showing signs of frustration – leaping, biting, & jumping for the toy – throw one toy out, and hide the other behind your back. As your dog retrieves the toy and is heading back to you, use your chosen recall word. Once they return to you, present the hidden toy and engage them with another quick round of keep away, this should cause them to naturally drop the toy they returned with. Repeat this process 2-3x keeping your sessions short and consistent. This starts the process of classical conditioning.

Tips: Be exciting & enticing!

What is Classical Conditioning?

Classical conditioning trains a dog to unconsciously react a certain way to a certain unconditioned stimulus. Because a dog’s emotional reactions often drive their behavior, the power of classical conditioning comes from its ability to help shift those emotional reactions. In this instance, the neutral stimulus (your recall word/cue) is paired with an unconditioned stimulus (something that has meaning for the dog such as a frisbee, ball, tug toy, or food) on a 1:1 ratio. Through reliable pairing, the conditioned stimulus (“Come”) attains the same emotional response initially brought forth by the unconditioned stimulus (frisbee, ball, tug toy, or food). The key word here is reliable. You want to “pay” your dog for coming when they hear the recall signal. By continually rewarding your dog for acknowledging your recall signal, you are conditioning your dog to give up the other object (squirrel, bike, car) and return to you because they will receive “payment” in the form of their favorite toy or treat.

Tip: Be consistent. Practice is what turns this activity into a conditioned response. The more frequently you practice, the more likely your dog will override their natural desire to chase and instead decide to return to you. Building engagement makes you the center of your dog’s universe and is the promise to your dog that if they trust and listen to you, they will be rewarded.

Increased Distraction – Phase Two

Supplies needed:
Two of the same toy
Long line leash

Once you’ve gotten the hang of a consistent recall in your backyard – it’s time to increase the level of outside distractions. This is a big step in your dog’s recall training so take it slow and evaluate your distance to other distractions. It’s critical to find a balance between where you practice and how far the distractions are from you. The spacing is determined by your dog, when you find a distance where they are curious about the distractions but still willing to play with you then you know you have found the correct starting distance. The harness and long line are used in this portion of the exercise for safety – just in case your dog decides not to return to you on your recall.

Take out both toys. In this video example, Shadow’s chosen toy is a ball. Throw one toy out, let your dog retrieve the toy and cue them to return to you with your recall. Once they successfully recall, present the second toy and ask your dog to “drop it” once they do – throw out the other ball as a reward. This is going to condition them to understand that dropping an item is a positive action. Your dog will see this as a trade instead of thinking it means you are taking their favorite toy away from them.
As you and your dog both gain confidence practicing your recall in a public space, begin to push their boundary of how close they can be to distractions while still being willing to play the recall game with you. Just like before, go slow and be patient. You are both learning and working together. You want to continue to push their limits although it might be necessary to add distance if the distractions become too much.

Tip: Safety for both you and your furry friend always comes first, set them up for success and make sure your dog is microchipped and is wearing ID Tags.

Call Off: Phase Three

Supplies needed:
Two of the same toy
Long line leash

For phase three of this recall game, we imprint the “call off.” At this point it is a great time to take a step back and return to your backyard or low distraction space. By returning to this space, we can restart the original game of classical conditioning repetitions under low distraction. Start the process off by throwing out their favorite toy – the toy should be thrown a short distance, and when your dog lunges for their toy (which they will) you will insert your verbal cue for call off. Your call off word should be unfamiliar to your dog and guttural, something that sounds unpleasant increasing the likelihood that they will look at you like “what the heck did you just say?” (the example call off verbal cue from this video is “AHH!”).

This part might take some patience. The dog may be confused in translation and still go after the first toy. If that happens, engage them with the second toy so they will drop the original toy and restart the game. When your dog shows the willingness to not grab the toy, we reward them. The excitement you show combined with an exhilarating second throw indicate that stopping their desire to grab the original toy was the correct response.
Just like your dog, sometimes you will get lost in translation and miss the timing of when to reward your dog. The key is consistency. If you continue to practice, you and your dog will learn each other’s timing. As your confidence grows, you will return to phase two and begin working on the call off while under low distractions. Once confident with low distractions, begin pushing the boundaries of what distraction level they are willing to perform the call off.

Your dog wants to please you because you are the energy that fulfills their foundational needs as an animal on this earth. By looking at the primal needs our dogs are seeking to fulfill: chasing, capturing, possessing and killing their prey, and acknowledge that we must help fulfill these needs, our dogs will not seek to fulfill them on their own. They will look to us for guidance, or at minimum, change their behavior when asked.
In order to relay to your dog what we consider to be distractions, you have to clarify what you expect their behavior to be. By being physically active with them, and encouraging them to find safe ways to satisfy their primal needs, we can do just that. The recall cue should always be a consistent signal of impending doggy hedonism or self-indulgence. Remember, recall reps make the recall real.

Let’s review what we’ve learned:

  • Consistency is key to making this new game turn from a dream into reality when you take them into a public space.
  • It will take time for you and your dog to learn the rules and goals of this Recall Game.
  • Once you both understand and enjoy it, you can get creative, adding challenges to the games, switching rewards, and building up by incorporating more distractions.
  • Practicing with games can help motivate both you and your dog to be active creating quality engagement time, building your bond, and playing your way to an impressive recall.

If you have mastered this skill, want to learn more or need some extra help training your dog, reach out to Brookside Barkery or Andrew at Good Dogz KC.
Be safe, feed clean and go play with your dog!