Addressing the game of ‘keep-away’
I frequently receive calls from frustrated clients, asking for help with their pet dog’s off-leash recall. “MY DOG WON’T COME WHEN I CALL HIM!” they holler…”How do I fix this problem!?” they plead.
Unfortunately there is no ‘magic’ cure for poor recall, especially if your dog has learned ‘the game’ of ‘keep-away’ and has been able to play ‘the game’ over and over again. Training reliable off-leash recall is one of the most difficult tasks that a dog owner can teach their dog. Dogs, by nature, have a roaming instinct and they learn at a very early age to ‘follow their nose’. Even young puppies can quickly learn to ignore a ‘come’ command because the handler cannot re-enforce the command and insist on proper recall response. Compounding the problem, dogs absolutely LOVE the game of chase. Even wolves in the wild chase each other with joyful enthusiasm. Every time you try to catch your errant dog, you are playing the ‘chase’ game and perpetuating the problem. I offer here some tools to help prevent recall issues and address chronic poor recall habits.
Prevention: It is best to establish good recall behavior early, during puppy-hood. This is done primarily through preventive techniques and positive reinforcement when the puppy comes to the handler. Puppies must earn off leash privileges and the handler should be slow and systematic about when they begin offering off leash opportunities. This is a good strategy, as we all know it’s more challenging to break bad habits than it is to prevent bad habits from developing. Off leash opportunities should begin in small, confined areas, with minimal distractions. The handler should play daily recall games with the puppy---teaching him that coming to the handler earns big rewards---toys or food. The puppy should gradually be introduced to larger, enclosed areas, with more distractions that may tempt the puppy to avoid coming when called. The puppy continues to be reinforced for coming, each time he’s called. He should never be punished for not coming. This only encourages the puppy to avoid coming at all.
If you’ve recently adopted an older pet dog, and aren’t sure of his recall behavior, don’t make the common mistake of offering off-leash freedom until you know how your dog responds reliably to the come command! Keep the dog on leash or tie-down until you are certain that the dog has established consistent relieving habits and has demonstrated responsive recall and good house manners. When you start to allow some freedom, have your dog drag around a long leash for a while or offer freedom in a very small room and then gradually allow more freedom as your dog earns it. Always keep kibble handy and offer your dog a kibble EVERY TIME he comes to you, whether you call him or not, so he associates coming to you as VERY positive. Practice the recall command during Obedience and move further away from dog during the recall command. Do obedience just before you allow the dog off leash so your dog is in an ‘obedient’ state of mind when he’s let off leash. Never correct your dog if he doesn’t come to you. This will only teach him that coming to you is bad. Coming should ALWAYS be rewarded, whether he came of his own volition or not. Use of a Flexi-leash (retractable long line) is an excellent tool to use to re-enforce good recall and to allow dogs more room to run and play. Do not be deceived, however! Just because your dog comes promptly on the Flexi does NOT guarantee he will come off leash. He feels the taunt line and knows he is on a leash so he won’t play the game.
I would like to offer a strong word of caution about letting dogs off leash in un-fenced areas. Even if you believe your dog has a solid recall response, it only takes one incident of the dog being attracted to an environmental stimuli (i.e. squirrel or another dog), and taking off after it. I can tell you horror stories of clients who ‘thought’ their dog was reliable off leash, and then one day, the dog took off after a critter and was hit by a car. I strongly believe it is not worth the risk. It is worth the time to identify safe, fenced or secured areas for your dog to run and play.
Fixing the problem: So what do you do if you’ve made the mistake of allowing off leash freedom to a dog that has strong ‘keep away’ tendencies? As I stated earlier, it’s not an easy problem to fix and unfortunately, some dogs are so habitual with playing the keep-away game, they may never be reliable off leash. I often use the analogy of ‘heroin addiction’ to emphasize just how strong some dogs enjoy the game of keep-away. Even if a dog is not allowed off leash for years and is trained to improve recall, the same dog will immediately revert to keep-away behavior (or taking that hit of heroin) if given the opportunity.
The most humane way to address poor recall is through use of a long line and food reward. These two tools do the following: The long line allows the handler to always be able to catch the dog and re-enforce the ‘come’ command and the food reward is used to improve the dog’s willingness toward coming to the handler. A ‘long line’ is a long cotton lead with a snap on one end that is often used to lunge horses. It can be purchased in different lengths: 15-25 feet long and can be found in most pet stores. The dog wears the long line at all times, indoors and out. The handler gives the recall command only once. If the dog comes, the dog is rewarded with food. If the dog does not come, the handler picks up the end of the long line and pulls the dog toward him. Once the dog is in front of the handler, the handler rewards dog with praise and food reward. Remember, even though the dog didn’t come, we want to be consistent with rewarding the dog whenever he comes up to the handler, willingly or not. Over time and consistent use of long line and food reward, the dog should show improved responses to the recall command.
At this point, many handlers make the mistake of ‘assuming’ the dog’s recall is ‘fixed’ and they let the dog off the long line. BIG MISTAKE! For the habitual keep-away dog, you are feeding the ‘heroin addiction’! By offering off leash opportunity without a way to capture your dog, he’ll quickly revert back to playing the keep-away game. The dog is weaned off of the long line by gradually shortening the length of the long line over many months. In this situation we are ‘tricking’ the dog into believing he is still attached to a long line, even if he is just dragging around a 1-2 foot line. If the dog thinks he can’t play keep-away, he won’t try. The psychological aspect of feeling weight on the collar (the long line) is enough to prevent some dogs from playing keep-away. There may be some dogs who must wear a short weighted ‘tag’ (shortened long line) on their collars at all times for the remainder of their lives as a psychological tool to continue consistent recall.
A note about remote electric collars. Some professional pet trainers advocate use of a remote electric or shock collar to resolve off leash recall issues. I do not advise using this type of collar for recall issues. If the collar is used incorrectly or the dog is not trained to understand what the ‘shock’ means, the consequences can be very detrimental and even dangerous to your dog.
As always, if you feel overwhelmed or frustrated, please consult a professional dog trainer. The most important thing to remember is that prevention is far more effective than feeding the addiction!!