Reinforcing the recall command? Any tips?
November 19, 2017 4:49 PM   Subscribe

When I first got my rescue dog, Huggy, mefi was very helpful in assisting me as a newbie dog owner. Thanks! I've had her now for almost two years, and it's been wonderful. Until yesterday, I would have said the one thing I was sure of in her training was that she was responsive to the recall command. And she always has been, until she wasn't and the consequences could have been dire. Is there anything further I can do to strengthen it, or is she simply doomed to life on a leash?

One of the pieces of advice I got when I adopted her was to start with and reinforce her recall command. I hired a trainer who worked with us both for the first year (positive training methods), and until yesterday she has never failed to respond. It took me six months to be sure enough to take her regularly to the dog park, and for the last six months we take twice a week off-leash walks on a country trail (dogs allowed off-leash) with a friend of mine and her pack of three dogs.

Both at the dog park and along the trail, she has always come to me when I called.

Unfortunately, yesterday some older women were feeding the wild boar along the trail (Hong Kong wildlife) and Huggy took off after two full grown boar with babies and charged up the mountain after them. She not only didn't respond to her recall command, she acted as though she couldn't hear me at all.

Luckily for everyone, she got trapped in the vines before she "caught" them and got herself killed. (She's a big dog, but the smaller of the two boar was at least double her size.) I had to haul her back down the mountain and both of us are a little bit stiff today, but it could have been so much worse.

My instinct is to leave her on leash for the rest of her natural life, and now I'm wondering if she's really safe at the dog park either. I'm planning to start working on it intensively again, but I'm wondering if anyone has any tips they could share which could help avoid a similar situation.

(When I was first training her in recall, I started in low-stimulation environments and moved on to working with her where there were more and more distractions around. Once she understood the point of the game, she has never failed or even really delayed in returning to me. She's generally a very good dog.)

Thoughts from more experienced dog owners?

obligatory picture
posted by frumiousb to Pets & Animals (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
My first question is, what high value reward are you occasionally offering her on successful recall?

My second question is, you mention distraction, but you don't mention recalling her from something that she perceives to be high value. What sorts of work have you done recalling her from, say, a plate of her very favorite tasty treats?

Those are the two things I would suggest. Unpredictable, high value rewards for recall, and recalling her when it is genuinely hard for her to do it. Not just distracting, but get her back to your side from something she loves more than anything in the world. More, perhaps, than baby boar.

Almost as an afterthought, I just looked at the picture. Your dog is at least part Rottweiler. She is a herding dog (I know, it's hard for a lot of people to believe, but that's the distant history of the breed). Her instinct to follow and control Are you exercising that instinct? Is she getting lots of puzzles to solve? Is she getting to search/follow? Cause if not....this problem is going to continue. I can totally understand how happy she must have been on the heels of those boar. Her dog brain was humming along that this was what she was made for, and having a job feels so good to a dog. A trio of animals! She could decide where they should go! Oh man. Ya. Deeper recall training, but also, definitely hone that herding instinct into something useful for you and her. She's beautiful.
posted by bilabial at 5:20 PM on November 19, 2017 [14 favorites]

Huggy is my favorite MeFiDog.

I have never known a dog that had 100% recall reliability without the use of shock collars or other punitive techniques that I disapprove of, and the hallmark of a good dog owner is one that knows when the consequences of a failed recall require leashing and when they don't. I think that reinforcing your training is a great idea, and the distracted vs. undistracted environment is the proper way to go about it. Make sure that Huggy gets a bonanza of high-value rewards on occasion when responding correctly to training. This is very reinforcing.
posted by xyzzy at 5:22 PM on November 19, 2017 [10 favorites]

Random jackpot treats are a great way to reinforce recall.

You might find the look at me command a useful one to work on, as it's purpose is specifically to call a dogs focus to you. I found the "let's go" command super useful with my dog, in that we are leaving thing x that has you so super fascinated & moving on to do something else, he finds that more attractive as recall often means stopping doing fun things. It also reinforces we are a pack & we're going this way, away from the thing.

"Let's go" basically translates as follow me. Start working on it while your dog is on a leash, it's easy to do while out walking, then you work it in when your dog is off leash & near by. It sounds like the trainer you saw set you up with some solid basic training methods so build on those. The trick is to use it & then to start walking away. If your dogs chasing something running after it or yelling their name frantically tends to only reinforce the whole chase/hunt drive. Calm serious I'm going now voice is the best if you can pull it off while worried they're going to take on a boar.

If getting their attention is a problem, the old can full of pennies that you shake to make a loud noise or a loud whistle/dog whistle can really help break that prey drive focus. Then give the recall or let's go command.
posted by wwax at 5:58 PM on November 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

Agree on reinforcing and reemphasizing recall w extra special treats but to be honest, there is going to be some wildlife that is just irresistible to certain dogs.

I remember Huggy from your earlier posts! She is beautiful! Thanks for posting an updated photo.
posted by mulcahy at 6:51 PM on November 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

Here’s another concur about recall not working reliably with wildlife. I’ll probably have a dissenting opinion because I live in an area with a lot of wildlife, lots of it harmful, but there’s exactly one place I’d leave my dog off leash (and she has pretty good recall) - a fenced dog park. Walking a dog off leash in any area that will have any other dogs/wildlife is a disaster waiting to happen. I’ll admit, sometimes I drop our 15’ nylon leash when we’re hiking in the woods - but my dog stays on heel and I can step on the lead if I have to stop her. It only takes one other person with an aggressive dog or some large wildlife to send us to the emergency vet. (Again, I probably feel differently about it because I live somewhere with dangerous urban wildlife.)

If you do want to try, my trainer suggested having a separate word for emergency recall. When you begin using it, it should come with a HUGE jackpot, like the BEST treat imaginable and TONS of it. You could even use a loud whistle to create a very intense, startling noise to break into prey drive. Don’t use it for every day returns. But consider keeping pup on leash, even if you drop it, to retain some control in emergency situations.
posted by Nyx at 7:13 PM on November 19, 2017 [9 favorites]

Our next-door neighbors and friends are professional dog trainers. They do a program called stay and train where a dog spends the days with them for 7-10 days learning a variety of skills. One they teach is called the "emergency down." It's a down-stay, at a distance, precisely for situations like the one you're describing. They start teaching it in a controlled environment without distractions (here is a Facebook video link) but continue training in increasingly chaotic environments. In their own facility, the distractions can include wheelchairs, strollers, joggers, and other dogs, but they then go out into the community to practice around other people, and in unpredictable places like trails that are also used by joggers, a downtown plaza, and so on. So part of the trick is to make working on this a priority, and to do it not only in areas where distractions are minimized, but to expose the dog to greater and greater distractions.

Our friends do use remote training collars. It may be helpful to know that these are not necessarily "shock" collars. There are collars that can be set to use a vibration, a sound, or another attention-getting reminder instead of the static electric charge that most people think of when they think of remote training collars. A vibration or tone can remind the dog to pay attention to its trainer/owner in a chaotic environment, or when there's a high-value distraction like baby boars.

Huggy is an extremely excellent dog name.
posted by Orlop at 2:33 AM on November 20, 2017 [3 favorites]

She's beautiful and you must have been terrified. First, even at the dog park, carry a leash. I would take her out and train quite a bit on recall with 0 - 3 treats for every success, and literally calling her for no reason 10 or more times. Recall does need a lot of reinforcement. I would also go where the boar are, on a strong leash, and practice sitting and stand calmly with the boar in view (and scent). Also, I suspect that if she'd gotten close enough for them to harm her, she'd have turned and run away. My Jack Russell Terrier fully believes he is a large and fearsome beast, but when confronted by a larger dog who doesn't get the joke, he knows to turn and run and not confront.
posted by theora55 at 9:32 AM on November 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm giving her super premium fish filet in oil as her jackpot treat. Reinforcing her training sounds like a path I need to go down anyhow. Cannot hurt. Also a refresher of "let's go" is probably a good idea.

But it also sounds to me like I need to leave her on leash near the boar territory. (and yes, it was terrifying. and unfortunately, she was right in mamma boar's face at a certain moment and showed no signs at all of sanity.)

There have been some really helpful tips here, thank you!
posted by frumiousb at 4:44 AM on November 21, 2017

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