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Hitting A Nerve . . .

Posted on 06/22/10 63 Comments

Recently, after teaching for three weeks on the road, I wrote this statement on my facebook status . . . “There is nothing more important that teaching your dog a reliable recall, nothing . . . it is the foundation of all brilliance and it reflects the relationship you have with your dog.”

I had over 100 people share their feelings on this statement, almost all where positive. However last night I was referred to a FB post where someone scorned my darning to attach the suggestion of an emotional investment into something that is science.

It is not the first time I have been criticized for suggesting that our dog’s recall or lack thereof reflect the relationship we have with that dog.

The line strikes a nerve in people who have a weak recall or perhaps those feeling the need to defend such people. People get upset, perhaps even cry, because they think I am saying “your dog hates you.”

This morning I looked the word “relationship” up in the dictionary.

1. The condition or fact of being related; connection or association.
2. Connection by blood or marriage; kinship.
3. A particular type of connection existing between people related to or having dealings with each other: has a close relationship with his siblings.
4. A romantic or sexual involvement.

So I am really being “unscientific” when I suggest that the recall reflects the relationship between dog and owner? Take the first definition and rephrase what I have been saying for the last twenty years; “Your recall reflects the connection or association your dog has with you.” Does that make it sting any less?

Perhaps you have a stunning, speedy recall in your house–that shows me your dog sees value in coming when called in a secure, distraction free environment where he is comfortable. I can’t tell you the number of high level obedience dogs I have seen that  have a brilliant fast & accurate recall on one cue in the obedience ring but will not come when they are called if they are chasing a squirrel, cat, another dog etc in a park.

The truth is I am hoping to kindle (okay without the crying, I don’t purposely want to make anyone cry) an emotional response from people when I challenge the relationship that exists between dog and owner. Recalls save dog’s lives. Candy coating the science behind how you create that recall rarely inspires people to do something about a problem because up until that point, they haven’t seen it as a problem! I have said it many times before “Irritation is motivation.” You must view your weak recall as a problem before you will ever be inspired to fix it.

I can happily walk around carrying 15 extra pounds on my body. I wish I could be more irritated by that, if I were, I would get rid of these last ten pounds and be at my goal weight.

The fact that your dog runs away to chase birds, visit people, checks out other people’s training bags or just get the zoomies in the agility ring is the cumulative result of your dog ignoring you in more subtle ways over his lifetime.

I look at it as God (or the universe whatever works for you) using the dog as a vehicle to let you know your dog training is weak in that particular area. Clearly the more subtle cues (of the dog leaving work to go get a drink, or take a swim or even the dog not coming the first time you ask in your backyard) you have been given, has not had  enough impact, on you or you would have been irritated to fix those things when you they first appeared. The weakening of cues such as contacts or a recall doesn’t happen over night, it gradually sneaks up on you if you let it.

It is human nature “manage” behaviour that is irritating to us so we don’t have to go to all that work to train. I am no different. We don’t have a doorbell in our new house because I was irritated by all the barking that went with the door bell ringing. I could have trained my dogs not to do it, but instead I managed the behaviour so I don’t have to see it again (now when someone hits the doorbell button at our front door the phone rings 3 short bursts).

More that a few months ago when Encore and Feature where running in the field I called Encore and she barely took notice. Does that mean our relationship is crap? Nope, it just means she sees more value in Feature than in me in that environment. It reflected my relationship with her when Feature was running. It needed to be repaired, so I fixed it.

I was spurred to write that comment on my Facebook page when I saw soooo many people who where so keen for instruction in handling their agility dog but where helpless if that dog decided to ignore them and to do their own thing.  The sad truth is if instead of offering a handling clinic I had offered a “recall clinic” few of those people would have shown up– not sexy enough to take a day off of work to learn how to teach a recall.

In my opinion a dog that sees value in their owner and has a great recall makes handling much easier and,  it if done correctly, has the added benefit of tightening turns.

Today I am grateful for a sleeping in my own bed for the first time this month.


  1. physician assistant says:
    Friday, August 27, 2010 at 7:38pm

    This is such a great resource that you are providing and you give it away for free. I enjoy seeing websites that understand the value of providing a prime resource for free. I truly loved reading your post. Thanks!


  2. Diane Garrod says:
    Friday, July 2, 2010 at 10:07am

    This is perhaps one of the best pieces I’ve seen on this topic EVER! This is so true and in fact, I am working with a couple who have three dogs. Three dogs with no skills and now working on recalls the bond, relationship is increasing and the dogs becoming attentive, quick to respond and it is a great process to watch as human and canines grow and learn from each other.

    Recall is really a part of leadership, isn’t it? The good kind of leadership where the follower wants to follow and voice control reaches out from the dog being behind you to being anywhere, in any environment. There is no greater joy than seeing your dog race to you on a trail in the woods choosing to be with hose they respect and love.

    In teaching recall classes it is more than just calling your dog, it is about building a relationship, playing games, getting attention, teaching several different cues such as “check in” or an emergency cue different from regular “COME” word, a “here” and touch for close calls. The emergency recalls have saved many a dog from the tires of a car or racing after a bunny in a field.

    People who lose weight say there is no food better than what it feels like to lose weight. In dog training, there is no distraction better than what it feels like to put in the work to build a bond and relationship with your dog that creates a trust so strong you just know a recall has meaning and substance. This is true freedom.


  3. Denise says:
    Friday, July 2, 2010 at 6:42am

    Man, I would LOVE a recall clinic!! and I would require everyone in our club to participate!!
    Thanks for a great blog article!!


  4. Trudie says:
    Thursday, July 1, 2010 at 2:58pm

    Thanks Sarah for the great video link, some great recall games if I were a dog I’d love to learn to play !!


  5. Patricia Marland says:
    Thursday, July 1, 2010 at 10:27am

    Susan, do you ever train a “panicky” recall? I learned that in my very first training class, and it saved my dog’s life, I believe.

    We were walking off-leash in a fenced city cemetery we went to daily when a woman (who we knew only slightly) joined us with her MUZZLED recently-rescued German Shepherd. After only a minute or two, she allowed the shepherd off-leash, and he took off instantly (and aggressively) after my shy 30# dog who was only about 1 year old. Annie ran like the wind trying to get away from him, spotted a depression under the fence, and ducked under it onto a sidewalk along a very busy street! Thanks to my trainer, Annie returned to me INSTANTLY despite her fear of the other dog. But I’m sure my voice was about as panicky as it can get.

    The teacher made the point that our voices may be different in a situation of danger, so the dog may not come because of the fear in the handler’s voice.

    I still practice it once in a while 9 years later, and it works for me!

    (Love your blog, BTW!)


  6. Sarah Owings says:
    Thursday, July 1, 2010 at 3:36am

    I totally agree that your dog’s recall speaks volumes about his/her relationship with you. I also really believe in the science of behavior, as I know you do, Susan. Most recalls are ruined, not by lack of respect, but by subtle–or not so subtle–aversive consequences. Punishment suppresses behavior. How easy is it to call your dog to you and scold him, or call your dog away from something really fun, or call your dog in for a bath or a nail trim? My younger dog is rock solid. She flies to me in just about any situation. I’ve conditioned the heck out of her recall and have kept her cue *precious*. Only good things happen for her when she hears that cue. Often mind-blowing things. My mom, on the other hand, used to yell at our older dog for not coming when called and we used to go out and grab her when she didn’t respond. She has taken months of work to rebuild trust–and she’s still not 100%. But she is improving. And I am doing something about it. One thing I do often is I let her go back to the fun thing she was doing after she comes to me. Works like a charm. Have you seen this great youtube video on recall games? http://www.youtube.com/user/MultiAnimalcrackers

    Thanks for the great blog! And as always, the inspiration.


  7. Jackie says:
    Wednesday, June 30, 2010 at 11:57pm

    I agree with you completely Susan. Funny, have been a professional dog trainer since 1986. Had always refused to offer a recall class because I felt so strongly that if a recall was weak, the relationship needed work. Finally in late 1990’s, i think it was, Mardi Richmond and Bonnie Vogt in Santa Cruz convinced me to offer a recall class, explaining to me that through such a class I could help people enhance that relationship. HA! It works! As we go through 6 weeks of 1 hour classes with different exercises every week, starting with, what do you get when you say your dog’s name? Anything? An ear flick? We test in a very safe, 8’x16′ dog run, off leash. Hard for the handlers to miss anything. They fill out a questionnaire about what their dogs like, ranked in order, etc. Gradually the teams become more connected. Wonderful. At the same time, the Name Game and other exercises help develop the habit of appropriate responses. Science and relationship hand in hand. I fail to see anything to question.


  8. Patricia says:
    Wednesday, June 30, 2010 at 8:22pm

    Aaargh … I am going to be have a somewhat contrary comment – perhaps whom I am agreeing with most is Jenny.

    My current dog has a lovely recall. Amazing. He stops whatever he is doing and runs to me. He does this over a great distance. People are always asking me how I achieved that.

    But I can’t say the same for recalls with my former dogs. And it seems like I’d been doing the same things. For instance, I only called them for pleasant things. (If, say, they hated a bath, I would never call them and plunk them in the bath, but rather go and get them in that instance.) I ALWAYS take a moment to let the dog know he is a WONDROUS animal for coming to me so quickly.

    Obviously, there is something here I’m not seeing – why one dog runs to me so brilliantly, and the others – well, if they felt like it. I guess an expert trainer is one who can achieve it with nearly every dog.


  9. Margaret says:
    Wednesday, June 30, 2010 at 7:26pm

    I really appreciate the comments in this blog and Susan for making us reflect on and define our relationship with our dogs. I think putting training into this context adds another layer to ‘proofing’ a desired

    The absolute importance of having a reliable recall was brought home very tragically to me when years ago I lost a dog after being run over. I can’t say that a recall would have saved her life but not having a good recall didn’t give us the chance we might have had otherwise. We now train and never stop training recalls with our dogs. Are they perfect? No but that’s why we keep at it.

    I would also like to endorse having several ways of recalling a dog. A verbal recall is excellent but when we are in the back country my voice may not carry well. I have trained the dogs to recall with a voice whistle and mechanical whistle that I attach to the chest strap of my pack. We have also taught the dogs to recall when they hear the horn on my ATV. The horn recall brought them back to me one time and avoided a grizzly bear encounter. I was very thankful for their instant response that time!

    I would love to attend a recall seminar!


  10. Jerry Burns says:
    Wednesday, June 30, 2010 at 5:22pm

    Thank you Susan!!! It is not so much an emotional investment as it is a reality investment. I have a weak recall with a new dog. He would much rather spin or run around the ring. Yes it is frustrating. I have learned patience and have worked with him to improve his recall. It really is about focus for him, other dogs may be different. I have to be more important at that moment that I call him than anything else. It is also about safety. I do not want him to be in a situation that I see as harmful and not have a way out.



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