May means it’s Walk in the Woods month and the Tree Council has lots of great walks in beautiful woodlands around the UK for you and your canine companion to enjoy. But, with all the distractions of the countryside, how confident are you that if you let your dog off the lead, they’ll come back? Remember Fenton, the deer-chasing Labrador?
Fenton’s adventures highlight why a reliable recall is the most important behaviour you can teach your waggy-tailed friend – but, as many a dog owner can testify, it’s also one of the most challenging. The lure of the great outdoors with its enticing sights, sounds and smells can be just too much for even the best trained dog, who suddenly becomes deaf to your increasingly desperate pleas to ‘come’.
Teaching recall is fairly easy in the back garden where there are few distractions. Most dogs quickly cotton on to the fact that if they come when they’re called they’ll get a treat. However, getting them to repeat this behaviour when out and about is a whole different ball game.
The key to success is to see it from your dog’s perspective. Quite simply, dogs weigh up whether the benefits of coming back are worth it. Usually, the interesting stuff they’re investigating outweighs their motivation to return to you. So how do you persuade them that it’s a great idea to come back?
Practice makes perfect
For consistent recalls, it’s not enough to simply teach them what the command means. Once your dog has learned the basics in the garden, it’s essential to regularly practice it. Pick safe situations where there are low key distractions. Gradually build up the distance you’re able to call your dog and they respond.
When they come trotting back, always give them lots of praise and, if they’re engaged in a harmless activity – such as pursuing a scent trail in the bushes or playing with a doggy friend – let them go back to it. This proactive, rather than reactive, approach means you’re not punishing them by taking them away from the good stuff, which, understandably, will make them reluctant to return. Instead, it’s teaching them that coming back to you is a rewarding detour to interesting things rather than an end to the fun. And, by practicing this and making recall part of everyday life, it could make all the difference when you’re in a situation where it’s essential for your dog to return to you.
Use high-value treats
For most dogs, food is a great reward and the tastier and smellier the better. Use small but special treats (whether that’s slivers of cooked chicken or a chopped-up sausage, whatever tempts their nose and taste buds) just for walks where there are likely to be some serious distractions. For some dogs, a favourite ball or game with a tuggy toy can work just as well to lure them back. The aim is for your dog to learn that the benefits of coming back to you outweighs the cost of whatever else is on offer.
Try hiding small food treats in one hand behind your back when you recall your dog, and surprise them with it once they return. Holding your hand behind your back whether or not you have a reward will mean your dog will be motivated to come back every time, just to see whether or not a treat will be forthcoming.
Stop using the word ‘come!’
For most dogs, this word has developed a negative connotation – essentially ‘stop your fun now!’ Start with a new recall cue, such as an unusual word – such as ‘sausages’ or ‘treats’ – or try introducing a high-pitched dog whistle that your four-legged friend can learn to associate with something really good to eat or play with.
Don’t show how irritated you are
A dog that ignores you can be a frustrating experience, but your obvious irritation will only serve to keep them away. Always keep recall a positive experience and don’t tell your dog off when they eventually come back as this simply teaches them that returning is a bad idea.
Think about where you are
If you’re out in the countryside, think hard about when to let your dog off-lead. If you can’t see all the boundaries of the field you’re in, what could appear over the horizon? Carefully choose when and where to let your dog off, according to his or her level of reliability.
Plan your route
Knowing how reliable your dog’s recall is, as well as what his or her reaction will be to things you may encounter – whether that’s livestock, other dogs, walkers, horses or tractors – will allow you to plan routes that are more likely to be successful. Avoiding potential trouble spots – such as fields with livestock, or woods with deer and rabbits – may be a good idea until you are confident.
DOGS AND LIVESTOCK
Slowly acclimatise puppies to farm animals so they learn to ignore, rather than chase them or bark at them and ALWAYS keep your dog on a lead around livestock. Avoid areas where cows have calves and keep your distance from energetic young bullocks. If they run towards you, walk confidently and don’t run away. If you feel threatened, let your dog off the lead to find his own escape. Sheep usually stay well away from dogs, but some may follow you as you cross their field, making it more difficult to control an excitable dog not used to them.
When out enjoying the countryside, dog owners have a responsibility to ensure their dog does not cause a nuisance. Keep to public routes and footpaths and avoid areas with ground-nesting birds at breeding time, as well as places with pregnant or young livestock. Keep off crops and avoid field margins recently sprayed with pesticide that could affect your dog. If your dog is noise-phobic, avoid shooting areas. And, of course, planning a stop at a dog-friendly pub could round off a countryside walk very nicely indeed!
Dogs Trust 6 tips for recall success
- ALWAYS praise and reward your dog for coming to you.
- NEVER punish your dog when he comes back to you – no matter how long it has taken him.
- TRAIN and practice as much as possible. Build up the distractions very gradually.
- ALLOW your dog some time to greet and play with other dogs before calling him or her back to you.
- Make it FUN!
For more advice, the charity Dogs Trust has a great factsheet on training recall >>
Find more tips on staying safe in the woods, including a wood walkers’ checklist and the Forest Dog Code here >>