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Emergency Cues

Many people view the recall as the single most important lesson that your dog will ever learn… and I agree on this point, just because it could well save your dog's life at some point.  In fact, I had one of those once-in-a-lifetime traumatic experiences in my home, involving my 5 dogs, where the importance of this particular safety net was put to the test, and if I think about I, I can still feel remnants of the fear that I felt then, over 20 years ago.

I was talking to my sister on the phone as I did every morning... mindlessly starting the day, picking up around the house as I moved through on my way to let the dogs into the FENCED back yard for their first potty break of the day.  

As I talked to my sister, I was picking up food bowls, filling them, filling the water bowls, and I started to hear something different... over a period of just a few minutes, I started to realize that the 'barking dogs' sounds were coming from IN FRONT of the house (where the busy highway was), instead of out back (which was safely fenced).

I glanced out the front window I was closest to, and, still talking to my sister, stepped onto the front porch... I could see all of my dogs in the middle of the road, heading away from our house and toward town.  They turned their heads toward me when they heard the door open, and I just said 'who wants a cookie?' and held the front door open... that was all it took, and they filed into the house.

Turns out, a storm the night before had brought down a tree limb that took out a section of the fencing.  Luckily, my dogs all knew what 'cookie' meant, so I was able to use it as an emergency recall cue.  Also, please understand that in my house, the word 'cookie' means anything they might want to eat... and, understanding how my dogs value some rewards over others, when something BIG happens, 'cookie' might mean we'll empty the refrigerator.  It definitely was not a MilkBone day.

So, here's the 'take away lesson'... the word 'cookie' became our emergency recall word... from that point on, I actively taught it, and Rewarded The Hell out of it.  I'd just step out the door, yell "COOKIE", and the ones who got there got the goodies.  Fast or slow didn't matter, so long as they all started moving in my direction when I yelled.  They did, because I made it worth it.  Over time, I'd walk out into the yard, yell the magic word, gather everyone into a group, and we'd all traipse into the house to raid the fridge.  Then, they'd go back outside to play.

I've had several people tell me that they've had the same type of situation occur when they've gone after a dog in the car... when they open the door of the car, the dog jumps in like it's the best thing in the world!  This is what I'd call an 'emergency recall'.  The only part left is to Actively Teach it, so that nothing is left to Chance...  You want to be able to say the word ('car in this instance), and the dog runs for the car.  Of course, at that point, they go for a ride.

In this article, my goal is to relate to the reader how to go about teaching the recall, using positive reinforcement (with an emphasis on clicker training) technique, describing the inherent pitfalls in the exercise, and understanding the command’s limitations.


So, first, the inherent pitfalls in the command:


In order for a dog to come to you reliably – no matter the distraction, possible reinforcement in going in the opposite direction, or length of time and effort spent in teaching – you must NEVER EVER call the dog to you, and then do something that the dog considers to be a punishment!!  This means that you never call the dog to you, then trim his nails.  You never call him to you, then give him a bath.  You never call him to you, then scold him when he gets there.  You never call him to you during a play session with another dog, then put his lead on and LEAVE the play session.  You MUST make a TOTAL commitment – at this very second – to make coming to you the absolute BEST thing on the planet, right now, and forever.  Always, and under ALL circumstances.  Really.


Now that you’ve made that commitment:


I use a dog/puppy's name as the individual 'recall' cue... I start when I meet the dog, and choose a name (my rule of thumb is to always change the dog's name when they get to me... because their 'old' name has associations with it that I likely would rather not have brought into our relationship).  From this point on, their name is their cue to look to me, and it's rewarded as such.  Over time, steps in my direction on this cue (because they have to come to me to collect) are rewarded more than just turning the head to look to me.  Then, again over time, the faster they get to me, the greater the reward (and of course, if they're really hungry, they'll move faster still).


Even if you have more than 1 dog, you can teach your dogs that their names act as recalls... and you can still have an 'emergency recall' word that will have ALL of your 87 dogs (and cats) rushing to you.  I didn't realize how this worked, until I called out one day "here kitty kitty"... and all 3 cats AND 2 DOGS came running.  And they all got rewarded.  I liked it, it made me laugh.  The cats don't come when I call out 'cookies', so I guess our REAL emergency recall is 'here kitty kitty'. lol

The sooner you begin teaching "Come" (or 'cookie', or 'car', or whatever), the better chance you have for a lifetime of reliable recalls. But even old dogs can learn new tricks! Older dogs, strays, and shy dogs that do not understand or are fearful of the "Come" command can be reprogrammed for success through time, consistency, rewards and praise.  And, if you suspect that 'come' might have some negative associations, feel free to use another word.  I'm a big fan of teaching dogs to orient to me using their name... over time, this is easily built into a 'come' cue just by shaping it.


Whatever word you choose, remember that This Power is wound up in it... and that This Power is both precious and powerful.  So, don't use it in casual conversation where your dog might overhear it, and don't use it with your dog at all unless you mean to Reward The Hell Out Of It.  (So, if you say it accidently, and the dog orients to you, Reward It.)  Decide right now if you want it to mean a Group of Dogs, or individual dogs.  Individually, you can call them by name... as a group, it works in the way described above.

It takes time to teach "Come." Most puppies will "come" to you whenever you decide to walk away because they instinctively follow you. A reliable response to "come," however, usually takes months of consistent and positive reinforcement... a couple of recalls doesn't mean that he's trained... it's a start, though. You want your dog to literally stop in her tracks, turn around on a dime, and happily come running to you whenever the "come" command is given. This is an end result, so do not expect too much of your puppy or dog too soon. (To start shaping this kind of response, Get Excited about it, and Reward that 'excited' response heavily... less enthusiastic responses get Lessor Rewards... got it?  Over time, you can lessen your excitement to the point where your *whispering* the word will get this Charging Stallion response, if that's what you want.)


Again, this is why it's so important to use the Really Good Treats... don't use the minimum you can get away with.  You want your dog to always look to you and RUN to you to see what cool thing you're giving out this time!  So, if your dog is hungry, like just before a meal, you can use a portion of his kibble to brush up on things that he already knows... but something as important as a cue that might mean the difference between life and death should be associated with Better Stuff.  Like peanut butter.  Or ice cream.  Not stuff that he gets all the time.

Here's the cincher:

Once a day, pretend that there's  an emergency that requires your dog to come to you.  Yell her name, assume the position (do you pat your leg?), do whatever you need to do to get your dog to run to you (I have seen people fall on the ground and roll around... if this is what it takes, do it).  Then give the best reward you can give her.  A piece of chicken left over from last night's supper (deboned, of course)... your husband's cookies... whatever.  Make it worth her effort to come out of a dead sleep to run to you.  And, you can practice this same set of exercises so that your dog recognizes the same word when it's NOT yelled...  maybe it's whispered, or said conversationally.

  1. I don't believe in 'not ever chasing my dog'.  It's fun, and they like it too.  Just put it on cue, so that they understand the difference between chasing and coming to you.

  2. NEVER, ever scold your dog when she comes to you.  (I never scold... I might 'bitch', but it's done in a jovial, teasing tone... it's more for me than them. lol  Instead of scolding, just say 'oops', and walk away... they'll get the difference, I promise.)

  3. Start teaching this, as always, in the house and away from distractions.  For the first week or 2, don't feed him from the food bowl... use every calorie he gets to practice this behavior.  After that, and for the next couple of weeks, work at 4-6 feet from your dog, so that he doesn't have to go far to get to you.  Then, go to 10 feet.  Then 13-15 feet.   Then, start leaving the room, and having him 'find' you.  When you start leaving the room, increase the reward for the first few repetitions, because this is harder to do.  Sometimes, wait for him to lay down, give him 2 or 3 minutes to get comfortable, then give the cue... Reward The HELL Out Of Him for responding -- at first, just opening his eyes to look to you counts as responding.

  4.   If at any point your dog balks at playing this game, consider the possible problems: have you moved too fast in the progression?  Is he full, or is the reward not something that he wants enough to work for it?  Is he stopping halfway to see something else that he might think is Cool?... hint, build this into the exercise!

  5. Note: when working on this in a group situation (more than 1 dog), wait for a few minutes at first, when your dog is USED TO the other dog being there... say the word, and reward for his orienting to (looking at) you.  Then let him go back to playing.  Over time, he'll stop playing and run to you, get his reward, do a little obedience, then run back to his friend to play.  See how powerful this is??

There is no state in the United States that legally allows your dog to be off-leash when you're off your own property.  So, using the recall should be an emergency situation, and your dog's response (even if it's a little slower than you'd like) should be rewarded with the best reward you can offer, and changed up so that he never knows what's coming.

Brenda Rushman, CCBC


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