It can be no easy feat getting just one dog to come back, but getting four to return all at once can be close to a miracle.
Just standing still and yelling my dogs’ names in tandem with the word “come” and crossing my fingers wasn’t cutting it. Sometimes I’d get one dog, sometimes three, but never all of them at once. Sometimes I’d get someone else’s dog. Then I’d be left standing there wondering if one of my dogs was missing.
You’ve likely been to a dog park or at least in an area where your dogs can have some safe, well-deserved off-leash time. If you’re like I once was, when that leash comes off, your dogs’ listening skills seem to completely disappear. It’s like those furry ears turn to stone. As a completely blind person with four dogs as beloved members of my household, recall is something that is even more so of a necessity for me.
So, how do you get multiple dogs to reliably come back all at once, even with distractions? Here are steps to take based on experience training my pack.
If you have any experience training your dogs, you know that the first thing to figure out is what they consider a highly desired reward. For most dogs, a nice, smelly treat broken into bite-sized pieces is perfect. For my dogs, I use dehydrated beef liver. You are also going to need a whistle. It really doesn’t matter what kind of whistle, but make sure it’s small enough to fit in a pocket or on a key ring and that it can be heard from a distance.
Next, set aside some time to train with your dogs in a non-distracting environment, like your living room. Two to five minutes is plenty of time. You will want to work with each dog individually at first. Add dogs into the mix as the concept of “whistle equals treat” starts to sink in.
With your treats, whistle, and dog all ready, the training can begin. If you have read about or done any clicker training, this will be easy for you. Even if you haven’t done any clicker training, don’t worry — this will still be easy. The idea is to “load” the whistle. In plain English, that means you want the dog to associate the sound of the whistle with getting a treat from you. Instead of clicking and treating, you are going to toot the whistle and treat. Repeat this whistle tooting and treat feeding until you are out of treats. It’s that simple. Each dog will learn at a different pace, so be patient. My black Lab, Roscoe, who is my retired guide dog, for example, only needed one loading session, whereas, Otis, my French Bulldog, needed about five.
The key to this exercise is to gradually up the distraction level of the environment. A fun and easy way to practice inside is at feeding time. Put your dog in a sit-stay and walk away with the food. Place the bowl in front of you and blow the whistle. Watch your dog tear toward you, and dinner, the exact thing you want to have happen when you are at a dog park. Once your dog comes back to you in the house off-leash, move the training outside on a regular-length leash. Eventually the dog will learn that “toot” means treat, and the situational deafness will subside.
Now you know that your dog will come back to you in the house, and you’ve loaded the whistle outside. Now it’s time to really test your dog. As I’m sure you’ve heard from dog trainers, you want to set your dog up for success. If you think returning to the whistle outside when completely free might be too much of a challenge at first, put your dog on a lunge line, a much longer leash, and practice from various distances. Start with a couple of feet and slowly give your dog more room. If you are consistent and put in the time, this technique should work.
Some trainers say that eventually you can stop treating your dog, but I prefer the interval approach instead. This means that when the dogs are returning reliably, only give them a treat every second or third return. This will keep the dogs guessing as to when a treat will be delivered. For me, recall is so important that giving out an extra few treats to ensure the game stays fun is okay with me. Gone are the days of “Nala, Roscoe, Otis, Hermione … come” and having no response.
Also gone are the days of standing there helplessly, feeling like an idiot while my dogs did whatever it was they were doing. Now when I take my dogs out for off-leash fun, I feel confident that I can keep track of them even though I can’t see them. The whistle recall has brought back a yellow Lab-Golden Retriever who was determined to jump into a muddy pond. It has pulled a French Bulldog out of play with other dogs, and it has even brought back a black Lab from a pile of bread he was about to eat. There’s no other feeling like blowing your whistle and having four dogs, large and small, stop on a dime and come thundering back toward you, ears flapping and tongues lolling. It’s not just about pride, though. It’s about safety as well.
Do your dogs have good recall? How did you accomplish it? Tell us your techniques in the comments!
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About the author: Jessica Hodges, a full time Masters of Social Work student, lives with her husband, four dogs, and two rescue cats. Her first puppy, a yellow Labrador given to her at age six, sparked her love of dogs. Not only does she have the joy of sharing her home with four unique and loving pups, but she also has the privilege of traveling through life with a Golden Retriever Lab mix named Nala as her constant companion and eyes. Upon graduation, Jessica hopes to incorporate Animal Assisted Therapy into her practice and make the world a better place, one tail wag at a time.