Breaking the Recall Behavior Chain Into Small Pieces
Updated: Nov 30, 2020
Recall is one of the most important life skills to teach your dog. Recall means safety for you, your dog, and your dog’s surroundings. We preach recall early in the dog’s life and build on the initial dependency of a young puppy to an absolutely reliable recall under severe distractions as they get older.
When we train behaviors to proficiency, we rarely ever train a behavior chain the way the end product looks like. We train small sections of the behavior chain, often out of context, we lower our criteria, or we back chain. Once the pieces are proficient, we build the final behavior chain which then more and more looks like the real result we expect to see on an open field – the real deal.
I find in my experience that especially for Recall, owners ask for the entire chain, without any buildup in its pieces, when the dog may not understand the task fully yet. While this may not pose any immediate, observable problems, there are usually longer term consequences.
Let’s look at some pieces an owner can work on when teaching Recall to their dog: 1. The act of coming to you at all (via leash or long line) 2. Speed for coming to you (via using a motivator such as a toy, or mega awesome drool-worthy treats) 3. Promptness in coming to you (via leash) 4. Sitting in front of you when dog arrives (via sit practice) 5. Happiness to come to you (via motivators and voice and a giant cheerleading yahoo)
How many of us recall our dog, i.e. use the word “Come” or “Here” etc, fairly early in the learning process, assume the dog knows what the word means, and make him routinely sit in front of us when he comes? And no matter the quality of the recall, i.e. fast or slow, prompt or leisurely, sitting crooked, or far away from us, we are secretly just so happy our dog came at all that we always reward them for this?
Realize that you get what you pay for (behavior which gets reinforced will occur more likely in the future) and understand that your dog may or may not be very clear on what you want. To maintain integrity of the final chain, you must occasionally reward the small pieces within the chain, else it will fall apart. It is just a matter of time. When we look at the pieces above, you must sometimes reward just the promptness, or the speed, or the fact that your dog instantly whips around to return to you as soon as you call them, or that he comes happily. This means you must have the willingness to disengage from the behavior chain when they successfully did what you asked. For example, if you like their speed for coming to you, reward just that and be done with that repetition (stop then). If you love their speed but make them go through the approach and sit front before you pay, you lost the golden moment. You paid the sit (the last part in the chain). And if the sit front was not by your liking, you now are stuck not paying at all (which is not fair because he recalled like a leopard) or paying a bad sit front, neither of which is optimal.
When we look at the above pieces, everyone has a different standard for what’s acceptable. And that’s totally fine. Stay within your standard, however, and don’t deviate from your tolerances when you work on those pieces. Keep yourself honest and your dog accountable. Be willing not to pay if your dog deviates too much from your tolerances. Don‘t settle.
One particularly troubling area for recall is the Sit Front business. I understand that you don’t want to fear knee surgery every time you recall your dog and he blasts happily at you. Asking for a Sit front all the time, however, makes the dog anticipate and it automatically slows down to be able to sit in front of you. Now, you may say that you don’t mind your dog coming slowly, or that it slows down for the Sit. In fact, you see value in your dog not plowing into your legs. Yes, I agree. But it does not work in vacuum like that. Speed will continue to deteriorate through the entire recall until the dog does not come at all anymore. Owners do not realize this. Stopping in front of you needs to be taught, yes. It is manners and impulse control. Settling for the slow speed, though, especially in a dog who is still learning the life skill of recall, will set your dog up for failure. This may be 6 months down the road, and your reaction is one of surprise. “He used to come to me all the time, now he does not want to come to me anymore. I don’t know what happened. I’ve practiced this so much with him”….Unless you reinforce the individual components of recall every once in a while, the chain will deteriorate to complete failure.
When you practice recall or any behavior, ask yourself how you can add fun and a little of the unexpected into your training. Think about and work on the small pieces. Think about what you like to reward specifically and focus on that, nothing else. I hope this makes sense. Happy Training!