Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Raccons vs. recalls

Okay, time for a training post. Today’s topic: recalls. I'm always a little hesitant to start writing about training because there are so many other folks out there who have way more experience than I do but what the heck. I've had some successes and some disasters with my dogs and I'm happy to share what I've learned from both.

Building a reliable recall has been one of Phoenix’s and my biggest training issues. Everyone has a stumbling block and for us, it’s the recall. It seems like all my other dogs came with recalls imprinted in their little brains. Not Phoenix. He was just too busy. All through puppyhood and adolescence, I battled the, “Hey, yeah, I hear ya but I’m kinda busy right now so I’ll get back to you on that” attitude.

I’m not talking about his formal obedience ring recall. That’s been fine. I’m talking about the “Come back in the house because it’s time for bed and I don’t want to chase you around the yard in my pajamas!” kind of recall. In other words, the recall when there are more interesting options.

I started Phoenix’s recall training when he was a baby. We did all the silly puppy games. I gave him treats when he came to me. I ran and let him chase me. I let him catch me. I had the bloodied limbs and ripped clothes to prove it. I worked hard and — I thought — successfully to build a recall that was happy and reliable.

So it was doubly frustrating when I thought we’d come to an agreement on how this worked (I call, you come), only to have him change the rules this summer.

It started with the critters in the garage. I use the word “garage” loosely. It is a garage/machine shed, home to C3PO, the big grain truck and an incredible collection of farm junk. Until recently, it was home to at least one raccoon. Maybe there were more. I don’t know. They all look alike and quite frankly, the darned thing freaked me out when I happened to look up and there it was, hanging out in the rafters, staring back at me and thinking, “Is that the same human I saw earlier? They all look alike.” Phoenix made a point of going on raccoon patrol every time he could get out there. It wasn’t like he was ever going to catch the thing. He just liked to bark at it. The raccoon was not impressed.

The Farmer eventually dispatched the raccoon but Phoenix didn’t give up his critter patrol. In fact, he got so obsessed with it, I had to bodily haul him out of the machine shed when it was time for him to come back in the house. He just plain quit coming when he was called. This gradually bled over into the agility ring, which was a bad scene. Malinois amuck. (Actually, he had some great course design ideas.)

Okay, my bad for letting it get to that point. This didn’t happen over night. It was a progressive disintegration of a recall and I was firmly in denial about it until I realized while standing in the rain in the backyard one night at home, “That blankety-blank dog does NOT know how to come when he’s called.” Here’s what I’m doing to fix it.

No more standing on the patio, yelling at him to come “because he knows what I want.” Duh. And he knew how to ignore me, too. I’d been outranked by a raccoon that might or might not exist. Ouch.

No more getting mad when I had to go fetch him back to the house. That didn’t solve anything and probably made him even less likely to listen to me. (“Mom’s a scary freak.”)

No more using a cookie and trying to lure him to me.

Basically, what I did was go out to the machine shed and take hold of his collar. He wasn’t trying to run away, was just busy SNIFF SNIFF SNIFFING for the phantom critters. When he looked at me, I said “Come!” in happy, non-confrontational voice and ran out of the shed all the way back to the house. I had hold of his collar, so he HAD to come with me but I kept my hands gentle, no jerking or dragging, just insisting he come with. He loves to run and chase (and still occasionally nibble) so this was fun for him. When we were at the back door, he got a cookie and I turned him loose. If he stayed there, we went inside. If he went back to the machine shed, no big deal, I went after him and we did it again.

I think the key was that I took the big scary “correction” element out of the correction. It might not even be perceived as a correction by some but it’s making my point and neither one of us are angry, scared or demoralized by it. Some trainers will tell you your recall correction should “show your dog who’s boss,” but that’s just not my style. Don’t use a sledge hammer when a fly swatter will do.

We’ve been working on it for a couple of weeks now. Ninety percent of the time, I still go to him, take his collar, call him and run. He’s getting better. About 10 percent of the time I stand a few feet away and call him and he’ll pull off his critter pursuit. (I swear there is NOTHING out there but he insists otherwise.) He gets cookies for this and I’ll turn him loose again.

That was probably the biggest mistake I made with his recalls: I effectively taught him that coming when called meant the end of the fun. Too often, I called him and then took away his toy or put him in a crate or made him go back in the house. Somebody just shoot me. Even though he wasn’t being specifically punished for anything, he still viewed coming to me as the End Of The Fun. Lesson learned! So now I do a lot of “catch and release” recalls and let him go back to whatever he was doing before.

Will this method fix everybody’s recall problems? Maybe, maybe not. Every dog is an individual.

The journey continues.


  1. I love prey drive in my greyhounds, but it can definitely interfere with good recalls. I use a lot of long lines and do not use a recall if I cannot make it happen initially. I try to avoid "optional" from ever popping into their minds. Good luck!

  2. I am certain that my lack of recall on Jazz is legendary and is only marginally better at this point. Coach is amazing! I call him and he comes. I am stunned by this! I don't think I will ever take it for granted. It all depends on what has been broken in the past. The more trouble you had last time, the more you fix that particular thing this time.
    Many other issues to fix, but recall is working so far. Go on you for always finding a calm and reasonable solution to a problem.

  3. Meant to say GOOD on you...

  4. Just blame it on the raccoon!!! I's easier that way!! G

  5. Oh man...I don't even want to imagine the possibility of a garage/shed that held a raccoon. Layla would never leave.

    She has the same issue - really good recall in an obedience setting; in the yard it's decent, but if there's something more interesting, there's no real chance of her listening. Especially if it's a critter.

    I like your plan though. If he thinks it's a game that potentially won't end when he comes to you, I'm sure he'll put it together quickly. Good thing that you thought of that idea now and have a lot of time to catch and release.