Many people have trouble training good recall in their dogs because they don’t know how to offer the rewards their dog wants off leash. Trying to compete with squirrels and geese and other dogs with dry dog treats isn’t going to work with even the most food-motivated dog, but lots of owners don’t know what to do instead. Let’s look at some ways to improve your reinforcers when you’re competing with every smell and chase-able animal in the woods.
Food might not be the highest value reward for your dog, but you can probably improve what you’re using if your dog is generally food-motivated. When dogs are out walking, they’re often hot and thirsty and many refuse the treats they love at home. This isn’t a problem with the treats; it’s a problem with our thinking. I love cake but if I’ve gotten hot and thirsty working hard outside I’d probably rather have a nice juicy piece of fruit. Dogs are the same and a moist treat will almost always be preferred over a drier one after a lot of exercise.
Water is also a very valuable reinforcer for a hot dog. I would never withhold water when my dog needs it, but I can definitely anticipate that need and set things up so that my dog comes to me and gets water before he needs it. In the summer, water is probably something you need to carry with you anyway and offering frequent small drinks from a travel bottle can serve as a reward and a healthy way to prevent your dog from drinking too much too fast at the end of the walk.
The biggest way to reinforce good recall is with variations on what your dog is already doing. An off-leash walk is play time for your dog. He’s not interested in eating a big meal or even in drinking a ton of water on a walk. He’s interested in PLAY. The good think is that he’s probably pretty happy to go along with whatever direction you’d like as long as it’s fun. Many dogs will find the excuse to run towards you and into another adventure reinforcing if you aren’t interrupting their play too much. Calling your dog and running in a different direction is exciting for him, so he’ll want to come to you. If your dog loves to play tug or fetch or catch a flirt pole then bringing toys and using short play sessions as rewards is very useful. The important thing is to remember that the majority of the times you call your dog should be for something fun. Even if you know you’re calling your dog away from a potential problem, if you turn it into a game where your dog is chasing you then it’s a fun game.
It’s also important to watch your dog and prevent him from getting too engaged with something else. If you pay attention, you’ll probably notice body language cues that indicate that your dog is about to go off on his own after something. Once he’s started chasing a rabbit, he probably can’t even hear you. Your job is to keep an eye on him and call him back before he’s so intent on something else that he can’t listen.
Rewarding a check-in is also very useful. Many owners only reward their dog for coming when they’ve called them but you should also reward a dog that comes to check in unprompted. Your dog is choosing to come back to you, paying attention to you on the walk and not wandering off too far, and that’s exactly what you want in an off-leash dog.
There are many different methods for teaching a dog to come when called but they all involve teaching your dog that you are better than whatever they were doing. To be successful, you really have to think like your dog and offer food and games and fun that he really wants.