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Training and Troubleshooting the Recall Command with Dogs
Learn about the recall command and how to troubleshoot any issues that may arise with training your dog
The ghost of the woods appeared for but a moment as my friend’s gun mount found its place nearly simultaneously to the shot through the thick stand of firs. Moments later, the sound of drumming leaves let us know his shot had hit its mark. With disbelief, partly from making the shot and partly from the fact his dog remained steady, my friend excitedly released his 3-year-old Brittany for the retrieve. In a flash, the dog dove into the thicket and disappeared behind the grove of furs. As time passed, concern began to find its way to our faces. Soon we realized that the dog had found the bird and decided it wasn’t going to share its prize with us.
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We hurried through the trees to find an extremely happy pup de-feathering the bird with what appeared to be an ear-to-ear smile of blood and feathers. When commanded to come, thankfully, the dog grabbed the bird and started towards us. However, the sound of crunching bones could be heard as the dog sauntered past for one last munch. The dog begrudgingly delivered the bird after having its way with it. My friend, in disgust, looked up from his mangled bird and said, “Now what am I going to do about that?”
“Fix that terrible recall,” I replied snarkily.
What is the recall command?
The recall is an extremely important ritual we have with our dogs. When called, the dog quickly and directly finds its position either in front or to our side. It happily and thoughtlessly finds its position, returning as excitedly as it went out and finishing with robotic consistency; something that has been groomed into it since the day it came home.
READ: Understanding Timing in Dog Training
When properly developed, a dog can’t wait to get to its owner’s side. Even after capturing its most prized possession, a dog with a good recall is laser-focused on getting back to its spot. It does so out of habit and anticipation of the party that will ensue on its return. The cooperative attitude developed from a good recall is everything for developing a consistent retrieve and having good field manners. A dog that is thinking about coming to you doesn’t crunch birds, parade about, or pass you by; it religiously finishes the same way every time.
Training the recall command
The best way to get a pup excited about its recall is to provide it with many mini-sessions of opportune training moments here and there throughout the day. It should never be too long or arduous, as the attention span of a young pup is that of a gnat. I like to first imprint the recall by rewarding them anytime they return. Shaking a water bottle with food in it is a great way to imprint the recall, as the noise melded with happy praise is extremely stimulating to the pup, making you the most valued person on the planet.
Once the pup is turning up dust to get to me, I slowly shape the recall towards a specific position. It’s at this point an important decision must be made. Where will you have your pup finish? There are a few options. First, the puppy can maneuver itself around your back and sit at your side. Second, the pup can come and sit at your front, and, when commanded, maneuver itself into the heel position. Lastly, it can come directly to your side. The side the puppy finishes on is dependent on your gun carry—the dog should recall to your non-gun side so that it keeps out of the way of the gun barrel during the hunt.
In training recall, perfection is the goal. I can’t stress enough the importance of being consistent and insistent that the pup finishes perfectly every time you ask it to return. Note that, early on, the only pressure the pup receives is the denial of its reward—the human Pez dispenser only doles out its reward after the recall position is properly acquired. Hand feeding our pups their daily food provides us with an opportunity to maintain our training regimen with them. It also helps establish us as the leader and provider. Hungry puppies are eager to learn, paving the way for rapid and lifelong learning. Though life gets busy, we always make time to feed our pups, which means we can take advantage of those opportunities to train.
In troubleshooting the recall, several issues may arise. Let’s address a few and provide some solutions.
Recall problem: The flyby
The flyby is the act of recalling past the handler. The pup does this to spend a little extra time exploring the area or have extra time with the bird before recalling into the heel position.
Flybys can be created by snatching away prized possessions on the retrieve without giving the dog ample ownership. Snatching retrieves can create many issues. The dog will look for ways to maintain possession. It’s important to not always take the bird or bumper. Take opportunities to heel your dog with the bird or practice your recall with it a few times before asking it to relinquish its prize. Drive your dog to you excitedly, keeping them connected and eager to return on the way in.
During its development, use your body to show the dog where you want it to finish before it arrives. Initially meet the pup with a treat and guide it into position. As the pup figures out where to go, progressively stand taller. Eventually, just a hand drop to the correct side will suffice. In the end, simply standing tall will be the cue for the dog to finish into its position. Be methodical and consistent on how you look visually during the recall. You want to paint the same picture so the dog knows what you’re telling it simply from the position you’re standing in.
Recall problem: The pick-up
The pick-up is often where a dog’s poor decision is made. As Nancy Anisfield of Ugly Dog Hunting explains, “Tone and volume in the recall commands are important.”
“That’s a biggie that Blaine Carter of Merrymeeting Kennels taught me,” Ainsfield added. “Some dogs need an eager, strong command; some dogs do better with one that will calm them down. Scratch was always hyper, so Blaine had me give the ‘Fetch‘ command in a soft, low, steady voice, then increase the volume on the pick-up ‘Come.’ Prairie, on the other hand, is often distracted and a fairly sharp ‘Fetch,’ followed by a higher-pitched ‘Good Girl!’ keeps her focused on me.”
Recall problem: The parade
The Parade is when the dog shows off in front of the other dogs and handlers before returning to the heel position.
Parading comes about from the dog making selfish choices to avoid its handler and recalling when or if it desires. The compulsion to meet new people, hold on to its bird, and explore new grounds is stronger than the desire to recall to you. The dog has become self-serving in its work; not enough time has been spent teaching it how rewarding recalls can be. If observant, you will see the dog making those decisions around 10 yards or more out. Its eye diverts from you and you’ll notice it slightly straying from your trajectory. It’s in this thought process that the correction is made with a firm “come.” The instant the dog starts to redirect towards you again, praise like crazy to drive the dog back.
Recall problem: ‘My bird’
“My bird” describes when, during a retrieve, the dog spends extra time de-feathering, chewing, playing with, or consuming the bird.
Symptoms of an underdeveloped recall can vary from crunching to playing with or even possessing the game for itself. All can be frustrating, even more so if it leaves the game unfit for the table. Fixing these issues requires flipping the switch within the dog from, “My bird,” or, “Me time,” to, “I need to get back.”
Ideally, we want to teach the recall in the “want to,” though, for some dogs with possession issues, we’ll need to compel them to believe they “have to,” making it a “come” issue. More often than not, once the choice is taken from them, the dog quickly reverts to the “want to” when retrieving. Through the trained retrieve process, many of the possessive tendencies are trained out of the dog, and the dog actively seeks to finish the job as quickly as it can. The handler is established as a leader and dominant behaviors such as bird possession are removed from its mindset.
Playing the game of “two toys” teaches a dog that you are the provider of its favorite things. You show the dog on its way in that you have its next retrieve at the ready, pumping the dog up and only providing it when the recall is perfect.
Recall problem: The slowdown
The slowdown refers to when the dog dramatically slows on its recall and creeps into the heel position.
When pressuring a dog to recall we need to be cautious not to create fear and anxiety. A dog that fears its return to you may exhibit nervous tendencies such as slowing down, lowering its head, and tucking its tail. If the pressure persists, it could lead to crunching and avoidance behaviors. Often these behaviors are identified as self-serving and further pressure compounds the issue.
To avoid the slowdown, be sure to keep your sessions short, leaving the dog always wanting more.
READ: A Tired Dog is a Good Dog: Managing the Seemingly Boundless Energy of a Bird Dog
“It’s important to know when to push through corrections and when to end on a good note,” said Josh Flowers, trainer with the Southern New England Chapter of NAVHDA. “Shorter and consistent sessions are much more valuable than longer sessions at times.”
Keep lessons simple and successful. Slowly grow your recall and retrieving based on the dog’s accuracy and positive attitude. When you can get your pup to attentively drive back to its recall position correctly, only then move towards more complex drills—confusion and concern are your enemies. Allow the dog to be successful, as success builds upon success and circumvents the slowdown.
Recall problem: The self-release
Concerning the self-release, professional trainer Mike O’Donnell at Quail Ridge Kennel in Connecticut noted, “The recall is a command that should require a release, and that a good recall means that the dog stops at us without us having to intercept it and grab it when it gets close.”
“The dog that recalls and then decides for itself when it is free to leave will usually decide when to release from other commands as well, i.e. ‘Whoa‘ (and) ‘Stay,'” he added.
Often we neglect to remember to permit our dogs to release from the recall. The dog does everything perfectly, we high-five a friend, and chat about the world while the dog stands there trying to noodle out what’s next. The dog will eventually test the waters and release itself. By the time we realize what happened, it’s too late and the dog has learned it can self-release without consequence now and again—something that will get tested more and more if allowed. Likely, your dog is already doing it. Next time you are running your dog with a friend, ask your dog to recall. After it finishes, turn and have a conversation. Don’t be surprised to see your dog self-release the moment you start talking.
Make recall a training priority
If time is limited, put the recall near the top of your to-do list for training. A strong recall gets the bird to the bag, the dog out of trouble, and is a joy to watch in the field and have at home.
Owning a dog that not only recalls well but also loves to do it puts a smile on any dog lover’s face. It means you have built a cooperative relationship, an invisible connection between you and your dog, and a teammate for life that will provide years of stress-free enjoyment.
Jason Carter is a NAVHDA judge, NADKC member, director of youth development, secretary of NAVHDA’s youth committee, clinic leader and trainer at Merrymeeting Kennels. He has been around versatile hunting dogs his entire life, literally! Born into the Carter family and Merrymeeting Kennels, he attended his first NAVHDA test in Bowdoinham, Maine, when he was just a year of age. Jason successfully trains, tests and breeds Deutsch Kurzhaars in both the NAVHDA and NADKC testing systems. Through his work at the kennel, Jason has had the opportunity to develop pointers, flushers and retrievers over the years. When October arrives he can be found with family and friends hunting throughout New England.