This is the second of a two-part profile on Puppy, the rescue dog. If you haven’t yet, be sure to read part one before diving in here!
Sam called me in a panic. She had put Puppy out in the backyard for a bit and when Sam went to check on her, she was gone. Anyone who has had their pet disappear knows the panic that Sam was feeling in that moment. I told her to try not to panic and I would be there as soon as I could drive back.
My heart was thundering in my chest. Puppy had just started settling into Sam’s house. She was still shy and nervous of the world. My biggest fear was that something scary to her had driven her out of the yard, and that, panicked, she might flee for miles, potentially into traffic. With a shy, skittish dog, this is always a danger, and one that I have sadly seen play out with clients. It’s one of the many reasons to teach puppies early on that strangers are nice and that getting caught is good.
But Puppy had learned different lessons. She shied when people tried to get her attention, often slinking away as if she was sure something bad was coming. Too often, people call dogs to punish them. This is a bad idea for many reasons, but one of the most important is that recall should be something you have in your pocket for when your dog is in danger. It can save their lives. If this post does nothing else, please, please, please hear me on this: for your dog’s life, teach them that coming and being caught are good things ONLY.
In training, we call this recall. Do me a favor and try this exercise with your own dog real quick: Say their name and say the word “come” once. What did your dog do?
Your dog’s behavior in response to the cue gives you a lot of information about what to do next if you want to improve her recall (recall is what trainers think of as the behavior of coming to you when you call or signal). Puppy’s response to this exercise was to go and hide. That was a big part of why I was so afraid when Sam called.
If your dog came up and sat, you’re already on the right track and it’s probably time to take this behavior and add in distractions. If you found yourself repeating the word more than once, you need to back up and reteach. If your dog ran the other way to hide, like Puppy, or didn’t do anything, you probably need to rethink your own idea of what ‘come’ is and means to your dog.
It’s also important to assess if recall is actually your problem. If you’re thinking, “jeez, if my dog would just come when I call, he would bite a lot fewer children,” then recall really isn’t the issue. You need to leash your dog and teach them to love muzzles and then children.
Recall training can only do so much, and if your dog is feeling unsafe, afraid, extremely over- excited (we trainers call this over-aroused), or practicing predatory behaviors, even the best recall training is unlikely to work, especially without restraints. In these states, your dog may be physiologically incapable of hearing you, meaning what we typically imagine as the thinking part of their brain is not capable of making decisions and all decision-making is happening on an instinctual level.
A metaphor might be helpful here. If you’ve ever been so afraid you were in a state of panic, you might remember feeling like a whole different person. For example, if you have a phobia of spiders, you might find yourself doing things you normally would never do if someone put a spider on you, and you’d be highly unlikely to respond to complicated instructions, such as doing calculus, while that spider was on you. Similar mechanisms are occurring in your dog’s brain when they are in the mental states I mentioned. So, to improve your dog’s recall, you’ll need to focus on the underlying issues before you try and fail at working on recall. Here are some great resources to get you started if that’s the case. If you’re not sure, try STEP ONE below. If you can’t play the first step in any given situation, and you’ve already played it in a low-distraction place, it’s likely that your dog is feeling unsafe, afraid, extremely over-excited, or practicing predatory behaviors, and you need to work with a certified dog trainer on that before working on recall.
Sam had gone out of her way to try to change the picture of what people meant in Puppy’s brain. Before she got a dog, Sam and I had discussed training a lot, and one of the most powerful moments came when we watched this video from Kikopup that deals with many misconceptions about dogs in a fun, satirical way.
Like me, Sam had been raised to see and deal with dogs in many of the ways Emily Larlham, AKA Kikopup described in this video. For both of us, it was a powerful revelation that kindness could produce better and more predictable results. But especially with a dog like Puppy, who hadn’t been handled with that knowledge early on, I was afraid that the picture was still the same for her: that people remained frightening things to be avoided, and that could be her undoing.
It took me almost ten minutes to drive back to Sam’s house. As I pulled in, Sam was standing in the yard with that look people wear when the worst has been narrowly avoided. She told me that she had found Puppy a block away, tail between her legs. When Sam went to catch her, Puppy ran across the road, clearly having regressed back to a fearful state. Sam remembered something I had told her then, which was not to chase Puppy, but to run the other way. When she did, Puppy started to follow her. Though she wouldn’t come close, Sam had a brilliant thought and opened the door to her truck. Puppy ran and jumped in, and Sam was able to leash her.
Puppy had never had a bad association with getting in a car. It always meant good things for her, and so in that panicked moment, when she couldn’t find it in herself to trust a human, she was able to trust a car. Sam made sure not to yell at or punish Puppy, even though Sam herself was upset and afraid, because she knew it would only lead to problems down the road. She was smart, and avoided being a dummy like Homer:
Over the next several months, Sam continued to work with Puppy on her fear and shyness, exposing her to people in positive ways, using treats and tricks to show her that people are fun and kind, and practicing calm behaviors around things that might scare her. Because Sam really embraced looking for management and positive solutions and avoiding punishment, Puppy soon became a whole new dog.
For fearful, reactive, hard-to-control dogs, check out these resources. The first video from Kikopup demonstrates how to use classical conditioning to change a scary experience, and it can work similarly for anything your dog is nervous about (it doesn’t have to be a washing machine):
Over-arousal (these tips with humping work for most arousal, you need to practice calmer behaviors and try to allow them to practice unwanted behaviors by anticipating and preventing them):
Sam also kept working on her recall training, and now Puppy has become a great off-leash dog in most situations. Here’s Puppy relaxing off leash while we were climbing the other day:
The following is the information I gave Sam to help Puppy get there, and I want to share it with you all so that hopefully it helps save the life of your dog(s).
RECALL: what to do!
So, you want a great recall, eh? You want your dog to come when you call, eh? You want me to stop writing eh, eh? Fair enough.
Check out this somewhat slapdash video I made on the six steps I take to build a strong recall. It’s meant to go along with the information below and is by no means a great video, or a stand-alone guide, but I hope it helps to get the idea across!
Six Steps to Great Recall
- REORIENTING GAME
- ADD A RELEASE CUE
- ADD IN CATCHING
- ADD THE CUE
- ADD DISTRACTIONS
- GENERALIZE: RETEACH!
THINGS TO REMEMBER: Keep recall training short and fun! Always use distance and restraints to your benefit when teaching the behavior. Great recall starts with fences, leashes, and long lines where a dog can succeed! Use high-value rewards: recall means hot dog and all the best things in life 80-95 percent of the time! Remember, some of the best REWARDS are getting to go outside, see friends, etc. Try to call your dog to do fun things like sniff interesting stuff, meet nice, respectful people, get dinner, etc., far more often than from fun things like road kill, chasing deer, and rushing up on other dogs! If you find you’re using recall to get your dog away from things more often than to the things your pup wants, you need to change your own habits so that your recall works when it’s needed!