Recall is (mostly) based on relationship and trust

I saw this post yesterday (also at the end of this post) and it resonated because I see so many questions on dog groups all the time about recall. People think it’s a training issue and in some ways it is, but mostly… it’s about relationship and trust, but nobody (especially new dog owners) don’t want to hear it because people want to think they have a good relationship with their dog. Yes, you might really love them but… if your dog is not choosing you, chances are the feeling isn’t mutual. It’s uncomfortable to think about, but if you have issues with recall, your dog is literally voting with their feet against your company and the sooner we accept that reality, the sooner we can do something about it.

Been there, done that

Six years ago when Nell came into my life, coming back was hit and miss. I hadn’t planned to get a dog, she just turned up in my life in a bundle deal with a man I fell in love with. I knew next to nothing about dog training and it wasn’t a priority back then so I pretty much winged it. I spent time connecting with her – sometimes just lying on the bed quietly together, being together instead of doing together. We did some practice too but it was very basic – I made sure coming back to me was always super exciting and it worked out relatively quickly.

However, she still didn’t reliably come back to my husband – the person she grew up with. One of the reasons was that their relationship was fragile and frayed when I met them – he loved her very much, but she also frustrated him and there was a lot of baggage in their relationship thanks to her challenging behaviour as a teenager. There was very little trust from either side and as a result he was constantly calling her back when she was off-leash, worried she’d take off.

When she came back, there were no treats and nothing exciting happened so she concluded he was “crying wolf” and was best ignored. She did come back to me because I did fun things with her and most importantly I only called her when I really needed to. He took a long time to trust Nell but it eventually paid off – the biggest hurdle was accepting the state of their relationship and then taking the steps to work on it, slowly and gradually.

Of course, it (probably) wasn’t that easy but I knew very little back then so there was no real structure or plan to our training recall – and my memories of any specific exercises are incredibly vague. For that, consult an actual dog professional! I’m telling this story as an illustration of the same dog living with two people who had a different relationship with her and different level of recall.

Why should I come when you call?

What we have defined as “recall” is your dog weighing up what’s more valuable at a given point in time: you… or literally everything else the world has to offer. It’s a tough one to win because our dogs have us around all the time yet only have limited time in the wonderful outdoors. Especially with hunting dogs, a walk in nature is like a child visiting Disneyland! We have to be the best game in town, a slot machine that always gives a win.

On top of that transactional stuff, we need to be great company in general and that means showing up in our relationship with our dog every single day. They have nothing else to do except watch us and keep track of what we’re like, so if your dog doesn’t think you’re super duper amazing it’s time to take a close look why that might be – as uncomfortable as it undoubtedly feels.

Building a strong relationship takes time – you don’t decide to move in or marry someone immediately either! You get to know them and trust naturally builds through many positive interactions and being true to your word. If someone tricked you or made promises they didn’t keep, would you trust them? Yet we do this to dogs all the time, sometimes inadvertently. Imagine you got shouted at when you came home – even if it wasn’t every time, you’d wonder if it’ll happen today and as a result you might be less keen to go home in the first place.

But hardly any dog owner wants to hear that they need to work on the relationship because that takes time and effort, and it’s an open ended process that has no clear end – we want results, now! People want obedience, compliance, preferably for free, just because “I said so” – after all, I’m the HUMAN and my dog should respect me.

The problem is that none of us are entitled to respect from our dogs. In fact, recall isn’t about that at all – dogs don’t give a poop about respect. Your dog not coming when called is not a personal slight to you as a human – it’s just a simple value equation for the dog. If it doesn’t work out in your favour or as you’d expect, it’s not your dog’s fault.

There is a lot more to building a good relationship with your dog: it’s such a complex topic there’s no way to cover in a blog post, especially by me as a non-professional – and a professional won’t give away their experience and expertise for free, so for a for a how-to from an experienced professional, I recommend these books:

Developing engagement & relationship | Motivation | Train the Dog in Front of You

For a quick taster:

In short, we need to learn how to be good leaders for our dogs by knowing when to give them choice or structure, understand both our own emotions and theirs, and create engagement through play (and other things). However, these are all things I’ve learned much later, which is why I’ve used Nell’s story to illustrate the idea in a simpler way.

And here’s a video on trust accounts from Dr. Susan Friedman:

Taking my own advice

Recall isn’t much of an issue for us because the ladies usually stay close, especially Grace. I consider them very trustworthy in most situations and I know their weak spots. Nell’s midlife folly is pheasants but thankfully they’re present only in certain locations, and I sometimes lose out to a delicious puddle but I consider it less of a problem because she is not running off and in danger, just insisting on not leaving the fun and usually comes when prompted.

I did realise recently that I didn’t have a good emergency recall cue, so I’ve started training one: the cue is a squeaky tennis ball which basically works like an icecream truck sound announcing the availability of a jackpot of delicious treats. That’s it. I’m not using a word that has been related to recall previously, just reframing the options for my dogs: do you want a lot of tasty treats, or whatever it is you’re focused on?

So far, the combination works well because the squeak is already a positively conditioned response for them as ball lovers, so it’s easier to use it to my advantage. The key thing is that they never get the ball in these situations, just treats – otherwise it transforms into something else. I also have a tennis ball in the fridge because I can condition the response even at home by randomly announcing good stuff in the kitchen with the same sound.

Bottom line: if your dog doesn’t come back when you call them, put your ego to one side and accept that something isn’t right in the value equation because the sooner you accept that, the sooner you can work on it.

CAVEAT: It’s less easy if you have a strong prey drive dog and especially difficult if you haven’t had the opportunity to work with them from puppyhood and they’ve had a chance to indulge in the delights of the outside world to their heart’s content. In the next post, I will address this nuance and provide a framework for troubleshooting recall issues.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: