"Perfect Recall" - Training a Reliable Command
Updated: Jul 19, 2020
There are many ways to train a dog to reliably come back when called. It is perhaps more challenging to do this for hunting breeds that are both hardwired from birth for tracking wild animals and locating sources of scent. Drahthaar in particular are a truly versatile breed with equal penchant for pointing birds as for chasing fur, so controlling their experiences can prove of key importance for those seeking to hone certain skills over another.
For these reasons it is important to begin recall training early, long before puppies develop into more confident adolescents that are venturing faster and farther from you. Adolescence is a development stage in which handlers often lose a lot of their previous status as the most interesting thing their puppy could fathom. In the end, whether or not recall training is successful depends on which behavior(s) have received more reinforcement in the dog's brain - coming to you, or foregoing that in favor of what they have been permitted to learn may be more enticing pursuits. For hunting dogs in particular, we find it is helpful to avoid the dog having a strong history of reinforcement for hunting independently of you, as they may come to experience that ignoring your recall can work out better for them than coming. We find it particularly powerful to design puppy training scenarios such that hunting opportunities come through you. Hunting must be leveraged as a reward in training for behaviors you need the dog to do in order to hunt safely and effectively. If it is not, dogs still get good at hunting - just with little role for us in the matter.
We find it easiest to remember the keys to a strong recall as ENFORCE & REINFORCE. Below we describe the conceptual guidelines we follow for recall training under those headers, although do not get into specific methods. Methods are adaptable, and owners can and should be creative to meet their unique needs and react in the moment - we have always felt it is most helpful to learn how to fish, not just get a fish (i.e., get one method that may or may not work for you and your dog in all circumstances). While this is of course not the only way to think about recall training, we do find that in general the closer a dog's actual experience approximates the below ideals, the better and more reliable their recall.
Especially for dogs that are often with non-handlers (particularly children), or are frequently out and about in their capacity as companion dogs, we find it can be helpful to teach two separate recall commands. (To our knowledge, this technique was popularized by Dr. Ian Dunbar, veterinary behaviorist and trainer.) The first may be for casual use, and can be freely used by the kids or anyone who is not committed to your dog's training. "Come" is most likely to be used and abused, so we often just let it be a suggestion to the dog. In that case, "come" means you'd like the dog to come to you (and that you may even reward the dog for doing so), but you are not going to enforce it like a command. It gives nice flexibility to the hunting handler, too - say when you're laying on the couch and are not really bothered if your dog rejects your overtures. In contrast, the second cue is for training use and should only be used when coming is not optional. Be upfront with the dog about your expectations so that the dog can meet them. If you only have one recall cue and you only enforce it half the time, it's going to be that much harder for your dog to calculate that this time you "really mean it" (and not terribly fair to the dog, particularly if someone's enforcement involves punishment haphazardly applied). It seems to us that this is also they dynamic operating when a dog is not reliable unless an e-collar is on, or until the collar beep or vibrate is used: the dog has learned that these are the conditions under which the handler "really means it". Without the collar, there is no credible indication the behavior can or will be enforced and reinforced. In picking an alternative to "come" in terms of the verbal to use, one source could be the language of a foreign breed's country of origin (but any word said consistently will do). Simone uses a particular whistle and/or "here" in the field to communicate precisely to the dog that this is a non-optional recall command, and it will be enforced and reinforced. Long whistles are used to communicate a direction change, typically parallel with the handler (although the dog should remain at a distance):
Ferro della Ca' Rigada
Nonatula Pan II
Do not use the recall cue when you cannot or will not "enforce"; that is, follow through to see that the behavior happens. If you use the recall cue, you are now obligated to insist upon it, or risk teaching your dog that coming is optional. (By "enforce" and "follow through", we do not mean punish or escalate immediately to painful or intimidating tactics - especially not for a puppy. We mean you will insist on the dog returning to your person, and see that this does in fact occur.)
When training your recall, use the recall cue only when you know the dog will perform it exactly as you would like. Minimize how much you need to actually use the long line, leash, collar, or confinement to enforce the command because it failed. Ideally, all trials should look like perfect recalls. The more repetitions of perfect recalls you get in varying circumstances, the more likely they become. To help achieve this, gradually work up from shorter distances and less-distracting environments (such as the home and yard), to longer distances and more distracting environments (such as the field).
Do not train the recall cue in situations in which you cannot enforce the outcome. If you are at the dog park and you know that your dog is not yet able to recall off of playing, it's probably not the best idea to use your real recall command. When training in the field, you might consider keeping a long line on the dog in all circumstances in which you are not certain the dog will complete the command. Only once a dog performs recalls quite reliably in a given scenario without the handler having to actually resort to the long line do we hazard discarding them.
Although the dog should never be given the opportunity to ignore the recall cue (i.e., do not deliberately create failure conditions), if this ever does happen, it may be best if the dog repeats the exact scenario on a long line to the handler’s satisfaction before they receive any reward or re-access freedom. This is called a response cost.
Avoid getting in the habit of accepting less-than stellar performances that are unreasonable for the scenario your dog is in. If a dog comes back too slowly or only after they effectively ignored you for some time - AND you have in fact trained them enough to reasonably expect they could and should have come - this requires modification in technique. However, NEVER punish a dog that has come back to you just because they are now at hand. The very last thing they did was return to you; do not punish that. Simply change your technique to build speed and drive into the behavior, and repeat that scenario until you are satisfied. This can usually be accomplished with changing up your rewards and/or or reward delivery.
Never repeat the recall cue unnecessarily. If your dog may not have heard you, you can of course repeat. But the cue is a command, not a threat or a plea. Avoid being like the parent who threatens to "count to five," so their children learn they mom or dad does not really mean it, and they have remaining time to enjoy misbehaving.
Do not use the regular reinforcement that you use in basic training for your recall; instead, always select from among your top reinforcers (e.g., meat, access to freedom and play, and access to animals and hunting opportunities). This extremely valuable reinforcement is only available for performance of the recall (and other critical behaviors), and is always available once it is performed. (Note: The dog decides what is the most reinforcing reward. Confirm what your dog likes most to maximize results; do not just assume the dog prefers play to cheese, or cheese to meat.) The dog should be happy when it hears the recall cue, as this is their opportunity to access valuable reinforcement. This helps the recall develop with speed and enthusiasm. We often direct young puppies to their first hunting opportunities after they have come to us, and this can generate good "buy in" from the dog. With many trials, the act of the recall itself becomes self-reinforcing irrespective of external reinforcement, as the brain has hard-wired itself to associate recall with reward. This is just a benefit of good old classical conditioning.
Do not allow the dog to access reinforcement from the environment for ignoring the recall cue, and curtail reinforcement for disobeying it (e.g., running away from the handler or “chase”, smelling, playing with other dogs instead of coming, hunting despite you rather than in concert with you, etc.). For example, if you own a hunting dog, your breed finds pursuit and capture of game highly reinforcing. It's probably not ideal for most dogs to access this reinforcement for ignoring you.
Never inadvertently punish the recall. Picture a puppy that successfully recalls off of playing with other dogs, and the handler rewards with "good boy". Despite having intended to reward the recall, the handler has in fact punished it from the perspective of the dog. Why should the puppy give up such a fun and reinforcing opportunity to come back next time? Always make sure your rewards are proportional to the sacrifice your dog is making when training behaviors that are costly to them. Recalling off of game just because the handler does not want it is not easy or pleasant for many dogs. And if a dog feels conflicted or that they are doing that hard work for nothing, it can be inconducive to an instantaneous and enthusiastic recall that is fast and flashy. Some behaviors are expensive, especially initially when there is no prior reinforcement history yet established to build on. Only once our dogs are very good at and enjoying recalling to us do we use the recall in scenarios where ignoring it is likely to pay off well.
Helde della Ca' Rigada learning the Armbruster Halt
"Perfect", 100% recall is an ideal, not a reality. While there are a range of opinions on recall and how attainable reliability is or is not, it is simply undeniable that dogs' behavior can be effected by physiological, physical, and genetic factors that may not respond to training. To use an extreme (if rare) example for the sake of demonstration, brain tumors have been known to cause sudden changes in behavior, including well-trained dogs ignoring owners' instructions in order to carry out a variety of undesirable behaviors. In all things guns, dogs, and hunting, we are big on safety first: leashes, long lines, fences, and other prevention strategies remain indefinitely in our tool box for use with any dog. When it comes to saving their dog from a car, a stray shot, or another animal, most handlers don't care too much in the end what saved them - but there is a lot of grief and regret in the alternative scenario, especially if ego or carelessness were involved. It's just not worth it; we strongly advise maximizing safety first in all of your training.