I'll start this off with a small brag: Hunter (Belgian Tervuren) is now 15 weeks old. I took all four of my dogs for a walk in the big field (which is finally fenced! YAAAAAAAY! even though the cost was one of the contributors to my financial crisis). Hunter dearly loves playing with the three big Belgians; they are quite tolerant of him even though he does rather act like a demented mosquito (buzzes around and bites). I discovered that Hunter will leave the other three dogs when they are playing clear across the field when I call him. He does this fast whirl and dashes back to me and flings his little puppy body on me. It's so cute that it's worth the Hunter-height bruises on my thighs. <lol> He only weighs about 25 pounds at this point, but it's all muscle.
So, how did we get to this state of grace? In short, lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of repetition. Plus a little repetition. Did I mention repetition?
The basis for the recall I teach my dogs is actually classical conditioning. When I call them, I want their bodies to be moving towards me before they have a chance to think about what it is that they are doing.
It sounds like this would take a lot of time, but it truly doesn't. It only takes five minutes to do 150 repetitions in the beginning. So if you do three sessions of five minutes each a day, you can get over 3000 repetitions in a week. In other words, in very little time you're talking about lots of reps.
Step One: choose a consistent stimulus to use as your recall command. For most dogs, a sound is best because they can hear it even when they're not looking at you.
For dogs that are deaf, there are two possibilities: a visual cue like a light flash or a touch cue like a remote controlled vibrating collar. The visual cue works well--but only if the dog sees it. The remote controlled vibrating collar is more difficult to acquire (basically, you have to make your own) but it's incredibly effective--even more effective, IME, than a shout or a whistle is for a dog with normal hearing. If you know that your dog is a unilateral deaf (deaf in one ear only), it may be more effective to use the vibrating collar. Being deaf in one ear means not being able to localize sounds very well and, especially at a distance, sounds seem to get bent somehow so that they don't sound the same.
Most handlers who have dogs with normal hearing will probably choose a sound. The great advantage to having a word is that it's always with you; the disadvantage is that it's difficult to keep the word sounding the same, which tends to slightly blunt its effectiveness. A whistle or other mechanical noisemaker has to be carried with you but it always sounds the same.
I call this the Secret Stimulus or Secret Sound (SS). The reason it is a secret is that it must be something you use only when you are sure the dog will respond. It shouldn't be something you use in every day conversation or when you don't know the dog will respond. You will be setting out to deliberately create a reflex in your dog's body; it will be much easier to get that reflex and keep it honed sharp if you are careful about the cue that stimulates the reflex.
Step Two: figure out a list of twenty things that your dog wants. Hunter's list would look like this:
- desiccated liver
- strained baby food meat (if refrigerated it makes a nice stiff paste)
- peanut butter
- homemade crispy treats
- Froot Loops
- bits of steak
- cream cheese
- squeaky rat toy
- Fuzz-bee (fake fur disc)
- fake fur snakie
- tennis ball
- canvas bumper
- raw beef bone
- Holly [the kitten]
- chest scritches
- butt scritches
- picked up and hugged by Mommy
Some of these things are more portable than others--but they can all be used in at least one situation. To get in the most training, make most of the desired things as small as possible. My dogs will work for individual Cheerios or Rice Krispies (but hey, they think they're starving). An occasional jackpot might be a large hunk of food or several throws of the tennis ball or a prolonged game of tug with the fake fur snakie--but jackpots are, IMHO, of less effect in training than many tiny reinforcements. For example, imagine what you could get trained with one hot dog cut into sixty pieces versus the same hotdog cut in half.
With my dogs (and many other dogs) there doesn't seem to be much difference between one piece of food and five pieces of food given all at once. However, my dogs are much more impressed with those five pieces of food if I hand them out one at a time. The same thing may be true of humans as well.
If your dog is free fed, food may be less interesting to them. I strongly recommend feeding in meals for many reasons. If for some reason this just doesn't seem practical for your particular dog, you may have to use better value treats or rely on nonfood treats.
Each of the following steps takes about a week:
Step Three: go to the most boring room in the house. For most of us, this is the bathroom. For those of us who are female, this means that we probably have several training opportunities a day.
Close out any other animals but the one you are training.
Give the SS (Secret Stimulus/Sound), click and hand the dog a treat. You're in a boring room with very limited options and you have something your dog wants -- of course your dog is going to respond correctly! Do this over and over. You can do 150 repetitions easily in five minutes. The sequence goes: SSclicktreatSSclicktreatSSclicktreatSSclicktreatSSclicktreat, etc.
If you are using a word, say the word in a "calling" tone of voice-a bit louder than your normal conversational tone. You don't want to blast the dog through the wall with your voice but do make it louder than usual (this seems to make it closer to what it sounds like outside at a distance).
Repeat this step as often as you can--ideally, at least three or more times per day for a week.
Step Four: go to the next to the most boring place in the house and repeat Step Three. Over the next week, go around to all the rooms in the house and repeat Step Three. Try to do at least three sessions of five minutes each day and try to go to every room in the house to do them.
Step Five: put the dog on a six foot lead and go to the most boring outside place you can find. Keep hold of the leash, so that the dog can never go more than six feet away from you. Repeat Step Three (SS/click/treat). During this week, try to do at least one session of SS/click/treat in the house (off lead) and two sessions outside each day.
Step Six: put the dog on a six foot lead and go to a new place each day to practice Step Three (SS/click/treat). This may call for some patience if you have a dog who is highly distracted in new situations. You can make it easier by practicing a few other things first (like sits, downs, stays, heeling, etc) and then starting your SS/click/treat session in each new place. If at all possible, I do not recommend letting the dog investigate the area on their own before you get their attention--that's backwards for effective training! More effective is the attitude "first we do what =I= want, then you get a chance to explore/sniff/greet other dogs, etc."
If your dog is very distracted in new places, you may want to improve the value of your treats. For extreme cases, I use gooshy treats that I can literally squish right into the dog's mouth.
Continue to practice Step Three (SS/click/treat) inside the home as well. Start calling the dog from slightly greater distances - well, at least, initiate the session with the dog at a slightly greater distance! After you call the dog the first time, s/he'll probably be pretty glued to you for the next few minutes.
Put the dog on a six foot lead. Set up a distraction inside the house. Start at a distance far enough away from the distraction that the dog is aware of the distraction but not overwhelmed by it. Give the SS, wait until the dog has turned to look at you and is moving towards you, click, and treat.
One such example might be a bowl of treats on the floor. You've got the dog on the six-foot lead, so you can easily keep the dog away from the bowl. Put the bowl on the floor in one room and go as far away from that bowl as you can and still have it within sight. If your dog is EXTREMELY distracted by the thought of food on the floor, let the dog see you put a single boring treat in a bowl on the floor, then go into another room out of sight of the boring treat. Have much better treats!
Gradually work closer and closer to the distraction. When your dog is handling distractions well inside the house, start again outside with your dog on a six foot lead with the very same distractions.
If the dog gets so distracted by something that they aren't responding to you, you have several options. One option is to just wait it out. You have the dog on lead, so s/he isn't going anywhere. If the dog turns to you within a reasonable amount of time, click and treat. If the dog doesn't turn to you, use your lead to gently turn the dog away from the distraction--dogs aren't born knowing how to stop staring at a distraction and some dogs learn it fastest by being physically turned away from it. Another strategy to try is to gently tickle or tug on a part of the dog's body--ear, flank, tip of tail, tailfeathers, etc. Use a different touch each time! If the dog is insistent on staring at the distraction even if you're trying to turn the dog away, back away from the distraction.
Another strategy is to use the clicker to shape the dog into paying attention (stop working on recalls and work on attention instead). Start by clicking any part of the dog that is moving in your direction-even if it's just a hair on the dog's right ear being blown towards you! Gradually up your criteria for a move in your direction until the dog's whole body is turned towards you.
Step Seven: get or make a long line. It doesn't have to be particularly light but it should be strong. The length is dependent on the relative speeds of the dog and handler. Slow dog with fast handler: fifteen feet or so of long line. Fast dog with slow handler: 100 feet or more of long line! Plastic coated clothesline makes a nice long line but it can get heavy in lengths longer than 20 feet or so. Parachute cord can be good--but get the military specs parachute cord, if possible (much stronger and better construction). You can buy cotton or nylon webbing--again, it gets heavy in the longer lengths. On the other hand, I know a certain Belgian Princess who used to tow 175 feet of cotton webbing and it didn't appreciably slow her down. <mock glare>
Tie knots at intervals along the long line--maybe every 10 or 20 feet or so. Tie a bigger knot at the very end of the long line. If you have a dog that is exceptionally fast or strong, buy or devise some type of shock absorber. I use (and sell) Snap-backs. They are made out of bungee cord material with a ring at one end and a leash snap at the other end. You snap the Snap-back to the dog's collar and attach the leash to the ring on the Snap-back. I used to make my own shock absorbers out of bungee cords and duct tape--this is the same idea but lighter and better made. A shock absorber protects the dog's neck and also helps keep the long line from breaking (think about the difference between trying to pull a string apart by gradually increasing the tension on it and snapping the string by giving it a sudden sharp pull).
Snap-backs can also be found at: http://www.snapbacks.com
Take the dog outside to your familiar area and attach the long line (if you make your own long lines, you can also make a variety of lengths to suit different conditions). Drop the long line on the ground.
LEAVE THE LONG LINE ON THE GROUND!
For one thing, this protects your hands from rope burns. For another thing, most dogs keep half an eye on their handler, so you don't want to incorporate the sight of you with the long line in your hands in the overall recall picture for your dog (or the sight of you bending over to pick up the long line). The knots in the long line are there so that if you have to stop the dog, you can step on the long line and the knot(s) will catch under your shoe.
Let the dog get minorly distracted, give the SS, wait until the dog is approaching you, click and treat. Repeat! Repeat! Repeat! Did I mention you do lots of repetitions? <g>
Over the next few weeks, move to a variety of outside locations and repeat. The more locations you can repeat this in, the better the dog's recall will be. Start with locations that are familiar to the dog and work up to locations that are more distracting.
If you give the SS and the dog ignores it, step on the long line. If the dog is moving fast, try to step on the long line in such a way that you gradually increase the tension on it (or else use a shock absorber). Walk down the long line while trying to pretend you're doing nothing of the sort. As far as your dog is concerned, they've mysteriously become unable to move away. When you get close enough to the dog that you are certain your dog will respond, give the SS, wait until the dog is moving towards you, click and treat. If you can't possibly get close enough to the dog for them to pay attention to you, go back and build attention (see Step Six).
You can start leaving out the click (you probably already have!). If I have a clicker on me, I use it--it's like getting two treats out of every treat. First the dog hears the click, which gives them a little jolt of pleasure, then they actually get the treat, which gives them a little jolt of pleasure. If I don't have the clicker, I don't worry about it.
Step Eight: start deliberately setting up distracting situations. One common strong distraction for most dogs is seeing other dogs, particularly other dogs that are playing.
The ideal set up is with someone who has two dogs that are good with other dogs and have perfect recalls or drops. That way, if your dog doesn't leave the other dogs, the other handler can call the dogs or have them drop (which almost instantly makes them boring--plus, it's hilarious to watch the trainee's reaction to this "did I say something wrong? Is it my breath?"). Less than ideal but workable is the other dog on a leash or behind a secure fence.
Start out by doing a few recalls with your dog on a six-foot lead far away from the other dog(s). The other dog(s) should be calm at this point--maybe doing sit stays or just hanging out calmly with their handler. Gradually work closer to the other dog(s) until your dog can do the recall less than three feet away from the other dog(s). Then put your dog on the long line and move far away again. Gradually move in closer and closer.
Once your dog can do the recall on a long line with a calm dog or dogs, then add in a little movement of the other dog(s). Move back far away and if your dog is particularly attracted to other dogs, go back to the six foot lead. Gradually work closer, then switch to the long line and move far away again.
Gradually up the amount of motion on the part of the other dogs.
Set up as many different distractions as you can. Kids, kids playing, kids on bikes and/or skateboards are both easy to find in most places and easy to set up (most kids love to help you train your dog). Use as many different places as you can.
Step Nine: repeat Steps Six, Seven and Eight off lead.
Now, by this time, your dog has probably done 30,000 or more recalls and been reinforced over and over. If you have done this right (have figured out what your dog wants as a reinforcer and have figured out how to set up distractions and use them so that your dog can handle them), you will have a dog that automatically turns and starts to head for you when you give the SS. For some dogs, this is all you have to do to have a reliable recall. Lukie the Boxer Puppy (anyone who was on the list a year ago will remember the Boxer puppy I was allowed to foster for a couple months) is now a big, gorgeous, intact male Boxer--who has yet to refuse a recall.
Howevah! There are some dogs who will turn and then go "naaaaaah, I don't think so" and deliberately go back to what they are doing. Dogs do have the capacity to weigh their options and make the decision I don't want them to make.
I am not a clicker fanatic. I am a fanatic about good recalls.
My first use of an aversive is to have the dog on a long line, step on the long line to restrict the dog's ability to move away, then I walk the dog down, take the dog's buckle collar in my hand and make them come with me as I walk backwards away from whatever was distracting them. I walk backwards because that's the side of my body they usually see when they're doing a recall (not the side of my body). When I've moved far enough away so that the dog has functioning brain cells again, I drop the collar while continuing to move backwards. If I've judged my distance correctly, the dog continues to follow me. I click and treat. Then we try that distraction again, but probably at a greater distance or a less distracting version (for instance, instead of all six dogs playing, have them all sitting or standing).
If the dog is still refusing the recall, then I escalate my aversive a bit--usually, to taking two big handfuls of ruff as I move backwards.
If I'm getting more refusals, I stop and think about the situation. What part doesn't the dog understand? I have to fix that part.
Some dogs do get "long line wise." That is, they never refuse a recall while on the long line but when the long line is gone, they are unreliable even if the handler started with close recalls off lead in a familiar (and safely fenced) area.
IF the dog never ever refuses a recall while on the long line, no matter what the distraction (and I am pretty good at devising distractions for this test!), then I move to a shock collar.
To keep the dog from becoming collar wise, I spend a couple weeks fiddling with putting both the dummy collar and the working collar on and off the dog. I put it on several times a day and leave it on for a couple hours at a time. Every time the dog goes outside, I put the collar on (even if I have to take it off first in order to do so). Basically, I make such a production out of putting the collar on and off that the dog starts to tune it out.
There are two ways to use a shock collar: one is as a positive punisher for any behaviour that isn't a recall (after the SS, of course!). The other way is as a negative reinforcer (the collar is set fairly low, handler gives SS, then starts shocking dog, stops shocking the dog when the dog is near them). I use the collar as a positive punisher.
To be effective as a positive punisher, I set the level of shock at a level high enough (in my best guesstimation) to be unpleasant to the dog. I want the dog to startle a bit and even yelp when they get shocked. No, this is not pleasant. After each shock, I call the dog again (because many dogs tend to panic when something mysteriously reaches out and stings them).
Done properly - first conditioning the dog, then training the dog to do the recall under many different conditions until the dog never ever refuses a recall when they are attached to a long line, and with the level of shock set high enough for the dog to actively want to avoid it - I have found that the shock collar is incredibly effective. It doesn't take many shocks (far less than ten) before the dog is equally reliable off line as they are on the long line.
After the dog has gotten to the point that they never refuse the recall, I start to phase out the shock collar by using the dummy collar again. Sometimes the dog has on the working collar, sometimes the dummy collar. I keep messing with and switching the collars several times a day, separate from any training situation.
And that's how I get a reliable recall. I would say that 90% of all the dogs I have personally taught a recall to either never had an aversive or only had the led-back-by-the collar aversive fewer than five times. The vast majority of dogs belonging to clients who came to me specifically in order to use my shock collar never wear the shock collar--when the owner goes back and re-teaches the recall as above, the recall disappears most of the time.
However, there are a few dogs who are not reliable--and that's where the skilled use of aversives can save their lives. I believe that at least part of what may be happening with such dogs is instinctive drift-they are being asked to stop doing something instinctual (coursing prey or courting bitches) and that instinct is stronger than the handler's available reinforcers.