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Coming When Called - Everything You Need For Dog Walking Off Leash

dog training, dog walking, best dog walking in San Francisco

The ability to come when called, or “recall,” is infinitely the most important behavior for our pups to be able to perform at our off leash dog walking company. Each new puppy we take in goes through rigorous training with us which lasts for multiple months. If we start puppies young enough, initial training is a breeze. Puppies are naturally very easy to train to come when called. Read why in this piece I wrote previously.

Upon entering adolescence at approximately 6-8 months of age, dogs undergo a notable shift in behavior, making them considerably more challenging to handle. Even if their training began at an early age, regression is typical during this developmental stage. It is not uncommon for dog walking staff and owners to approach me with an array of inquiries or complaints at this juncture. While our team diligently invests time and effort in the daily training of these young pups, it is crucial that the owners we serve also fulfill their responsibility in upholding the training regimen. Failure to do so may result in the dog becoming too unruly for group off-leash outings. So, for your reading pleasure, here is a comprehensive explanation for how to teach your dog very effective recall from the ground up.

Background on off leash recall regression

Why do dogs experience regression during adolescence regardless of previous training efforts? The adolescent phase brings about increased energy levels, confidence, exploratory behavior, curiosity, and the need for constant stimulation. However, many urban dogs often lack the necessary physical and mental outlets throughout their day, resulting in limited opportunities for adequate stimulation. When finally released from the confines of the crate or home, these city dogs may exhibit a surge of exuberance, engaging in high-energy activities such as running and wrestling with other dogs. This short lived, heightened stimulation can trigger a release of dopamine, which can be likened to the "happy hormone." In contrast, serotonin is the calming and balanced hormone associated with overall well-being. Some dogs may find their enjoyment and satisfaction in the rush of dopamine. In a sense, they're dope addicts. It’s hard to lead these play addicts to train. And, if you’re not careful, training ends up meaning the absence of play; the exact opposite of what the dogs would like to be doing. Errantly many owners try to force their dog to train, but if the dog chooses otherwise and is able to reinforce that choice it can become more likely they’ll make the same choice in the future; a choice to avoid training.

It is crucial for dog owners to provide their canine companions with ample opportunities for less exuberant yet mentally engaging stimulation throughout the day, even during crate time. For more information on enriching your dog's daily routine and fostering a well-balanced canine companion, consider researching "dog enrichment," which plays an integral role in raising a harmonious and contented dog.

Protecting your cue - a fundamental principle of teaching dogs good recall for off leash dog walking

Understanding the concepts of cue protection, poisoned cues, and learned irrelevance is crucial in successfully training and communicating with your dog. Cue protection refers to the practice of ensuring a strong and positive correlation between the cue given and the desired behavior in your dog's mind. By consistently associating the cue with a positive outcome or reward, you reinforce the connection and enhance your dog's understanding and response to the cue.

On the other hand, poisoned cues occur when unintentional negative associations are formed with a particular cue. This can happen if the cue is repeatedly paired with unpleasant experiences or punishment, leading the dog to develop aversion or reluctance to respond to that specific cue.

Learned irrelevance, as the name suggests, describes a situation where a cue loses its significance and becomes perceived by the dog as just another meaningless noise or signal from the owner. This happens when the cue is used frequently without any consistent consequences or reinforcement, causing the dog to disregard or ignore the cue.

To ensure effective communication and training, it is essential to protect your cues by consistently linking them with positive outcomes, avoiding the poisoning of cues through unintended negative associations, and maintaining the relevance and value of cues by ensuring associated behaviors are reinforced with appropriate consequences. By doing so, you can establish clear and reliable communication with your dog, enhancing their responsiveness and overall training success.

Learned irrelevance - overusing a dog's name can hurt recall

Certainly one of the biggest pieces of advice I can give on this subject is to stop using the dog's name all the damn time.

It’s unbelievable how often new dog owners overuse their dog’s name, not protecting their cue. Hopefully you’re about to start catching yourself now that I’ve said something.

The frequency with which new dog owners tend to overuse their dog's name is truly remarkable to a trained ear, often resulting in a failure to protect the cue. Hey Rover! Awww Rover you’re so cute. Rover don’t eat that. Rover, no. No. Oops watch out Rover. Hello Rover my boy! Rover, Rover, sit, Rover sit. Sit. Sit, Rover sit, Rooooveeeer…. you get the picture. It is my hope that by bringing this matter to your attention, you will begin to recognize and correct this behavior in your interactions with your dog.

Overusing your dog's name can dilute the significance of the cue and diminish its effectiveness. When a dog hears their name repeatedly without any specific consequence or purpose, they may start to perceive it as nothing more than background noise, rendering it less meaningful and less likely to elicit a desired response.

To protect your dog's name cue, it is important to use it purposefully and selectively. Reserve using your dog's name for situations that require their attention or when you intend to give them a specific command or direction. By associating their name with meaningful interactions, rewards, or important information, you can help maintain its value and ensure that your dog responds promptly and attentively when called.

Awareness of your own tendency to overuse a dog's name is the first step in correcting the behavior. With conscious effort and a focus on a consistent set of intentional noises, you can protect your dog's name as a valuable cue and enhance your communication and bond with your furry companion.

For example, protecting your cue means only using the name when you are going to make sure the behavior of listening to you is reinforced, creating the association you want to establish - that they should pay attention when you say it because you’re about to communicate something important, something good. Conversely, don’t poison the cue by using it in any situation where what comes next could be perceived as a negative, like when it’s time to leave the park. Never use it when they’re in trouble. Instead, I advise using something else, like, “Hey!” or a nickname. Work hard to set you and your dog up for success so that you wont find yourself in a situation where you feel the need to use it when you’re not at least 90% sure they’ll succeed to avoid learned irrelevance.

Tools for teaching your dog reliable recall for off leash play

A long line is the best tool for teaching dogs reliable off leash dog walking skills for professional dog walking play sessions.

A highly effective method for ensuring your dog's success in training, reaching a minimum of 90% reliability, is through the use of a long line. It still remains crucial to exercise discernment and judgment when calling your dog, aiming for a 90% confidence level that they would come on their own accord. However, in instances where your confidence is misplaced and your dog fails to respond independently, the presence of the long line allows you to intervene and guide them towards success. Although it may not be ideal, it allows for a constructive outcome in the training while preserving a positive relationship with your dog by avoiding failure. Generally, however, if a dog fails to recall, your use of the long line needs only to be very minimal, a reminder or guide, rather than you moving the dog's feet for them.

Amazon sells great long training lines. Look for biothane instead of cotton. Biothane absorbs no smell or substances, is easily cleaned, and does not cause rope burn nearly as easily.

Twenty feet is good for a dog on the smaller, or relatively slower side, and thirty for a big or more energetic dog. A long line gives you a time or reaction buffer to intervene on any decision making your dog has while they practice being off leash. If for instance they look up and see dogs playing in the distance and think they’d like to run away from you over to them, you’d ideally be able to step on or pick up the line to prevent this idea from being reinforced by them reaching those dogs and enjoying the experience. We don’t want the dog reinforced for forgetting about you and leaving you in their wake. (If you miss your opportunity to interject on that behavior and your dog does take off, do not call them. It’s not likely to work, so why use it? Move your feet, not your mouth, and try again next time. Train for tomorrow, not for today.)

The training line ensures the establishment of a positive association with the cue. When you say your dog's name, it becomes a signal for something rewarding, such as a treat, a toy, or engaging in play with you. By having the training line in your hand, you have the ultimate safeguard for the cue. However, it is crucial to avoid using the cue in conjunction with any form of reprimand or taking away something desirable from your dog's perspective during the recall, even if done with good intentions. This ensures that the cue remains free from negative associations or "poisoning." Additionally, using the cue sparingly and with care prevents diluting its effectiveness over time. Start small and doable when in the introductory phases

As I explain in this piece on building the proper foundations and then growing on them, it is essential to start the training process of recall by asking for very small levels of the behavior, and using the cue in a setting that is very manageable, ensuring that your dog is set up for success. The initial training can take place within the familiar environment of your home, where distractions are minimal. As your dog becomes proficient in responding to the recall cue without any distractions present, you can gradually introduce more challenging environments with increasing levels of distractions.

Progressing in difficulty should be done gradually and systematically. For instance, you can progress from practicing the recall cue in your house to your building's foyer or your backyard, where there may be slight distractions. Once your dog consistently responds in these settings, you can move on to more demanding environments, such as a quiet corner of a park. As your dog demonstrates proficiency in each level of difficulty, you can continue to raise the bar by gradually increasing the presence of distractions.

For example, you can gradually introduce the presence of other dogs at a distance of 100 yards, then reduce the distance to 50 yards, and further decrease it to 25 yards. Remember to always prioritize your dog's success at each stage and ensure they have mastered one level before moving on to the next. By systematically exposing your dog to different levels of distractions and increasing the difficulty in a controlled manner, you are setting the foundation for a reliable recall. In this way we avoid the experience of failure, and breed confidence and a positive association with learning.

One of the biggest mistakes most owners make is asking for too much too soon! You should not expect your puppy or adolescent will come when called if you ask for that behavior in a situation like a dog park. And if you do, you’re going to hurt the recall because every time they ignore you, they’re practicing not coming when called. Learned irrelevance. If they’re wearing a long line you won’t have to call them. When we let dogs play with one on we call it a drag line, and we can pick it up whenever we need so we don’t use the cue.

Other important tools for teaching your dog recall

Besides the long line, you’ll need a training pouch, a clicker, and various rewards. If you just don’t want to use a clicker you can substitute it out with a marker word, like “yes.” Pick a word that you wouldn't use except for in a scenario where you’re indicating a reward is about to follow because they just did something right. Good, or good boy or girl has a tendency to be used elsewhere, and it is fairly important that your marker word is consistently followed by a secondary reinforcer like a treat or a ball, so that when they hear it they get just as excited.

As you select what rewards you’ll use keep these things in mind: You want to establish a hierarchy of rewards for any dog you work with. Petting may be the lowest, followed by kibble, chewier treats, cheese, ball, sticks, tug toys, squeaky toys, wrestling with you, and maybe chasing you at the top. The order of things is different for every dog. As much as you can mix it up during a training session the better. And as much as you can keep it novel from session to session the better.

Having a training pouch is very important, so don’t use a homemade substitute, like a ziplock in a pocket. A rapid reward is crucial. Dogs learn best when an action and a consequence are very close in time. Even though you'll have a marker word to create excitement on top of the behavior, the rapid delivery of the secondary reinforcer is still important, and many laypeople lose time fumbling in baggies or pockets.

Recall training step by step

To begin the recall training process from the ground up, it is recommended to start indoors in a hallway or a suitable space.

  1. Roll a treat down the hallway away from you, enticing your dog to chase after it.

  2. As your dog finishes eating the treat immediately call their name and the recall cue, like "Rover come!"

  3. As they move toward you, if they appear to be very likely to come all the way, either click a training clicker or use a marker word to indicate that they are responding correctly. If needed, delay the marker until they appear engaged in coming.

  4. When your dog reaches you, provide them with a reward such as a treat, petting, and/or verbal praise.

  5. Repeat this exercise at least five times in a row, maintaining consistency in timing and reinforcement.

  6. Take a short break and engage in play or other activities to keep the training session enjoyable.

  7. Repeat this entire process for about three sets, twice a day.

If there’s at least two of you, another game you can play to install the behavior is the yo-yo game. Gather at least two participants and prepare a handful of treats for each person.

  1. Position yourselves approximately 5-10 feet apart from each other.

  2. Take turns calling the dog once, using a loud and clear voice. You can use body language and enticing movements to encourage the dog to come towards you.

  3. When the dog starts moving towards the person who called, promptly mark the behavior with a clicker or a verbal marker.

  4. Once the dog reaches the person who called, rapidly provide a reward as a form of positive reinforcement.

  5. The person who just interacted with the dog should then stand up and becomes a stationary "statue."

  6. The next person takes their turn and calls the dog, using similar enticement techniques.

  7. If the dog keeps their attention on the previous person and does not respond to the second person's call, wait patiently until the dog's interest wanes slightly before trying again, where the person who did not call the dog should remain frozen.

  8. As the dog starts understanding the game, they may attempt to go to the next person without being called. In this case, the person being bypassed should remain a statue, and everyone should wait until the dog realizes the behavior is not effective before someone else calls the cue.

  9. If there are more than two participants, continue taking turns randomly.

  10. As your dog progresses in their understanding and response, gradually increase the distance between each repetition of the game, potentially with some of the players disappearing around corners or into other rooms as you separate further.

  11. At the next level, you can try playing these games outside in a quiet park, using a long line attached to ensure control and safety.

Creative approaches in dog training can build positive associations with training, and exuberance that's performed with the behavior. Off leash dog walking should be obtainable for anyone committed to dog training.

My teammate, Jill Andrews, who is training at the Michael Ellis School For Dog Trainers sent me a message to add a method she's learned there. She's learned that if a dog learns a behavior with lots of vigor and intensity then that behavior stays that way even if the lure or reward fades - like muscle memory for energy. So what they do at the Michael Ellis School is have the handler feed a bunch of high value treats while an assistant restrains the dog with either a back clipping harness or holding them back by the chest. Then the handler runs away with a handful of the treats and calls the dog in a high pitch voice. Now the dog is struggling as hard as they can to get to the handler so when the assistant releases the dog charges full speed over to the handler. This works very well even around high distractions nearby. Once they get to the handler they get a long sustained reinforcement, like 10 treats in a row while the handler continues to backpedal and the dog continues forward motion. This helps so the dog doesn't run to you then get a treat and immediately run away again.

The intentional use of mild frustration translates to a drive to run to someone who calls the name. If you're by yourself you can wrap the long line around an object like a table leg, pole or tree so that your dog is restrained while you back away until you let go of the line.

Once the recall cue is installed. Bulletproofing.lo

Once the behavior is installed it’s time to start bulletproofing it by using it in increasingly more difficult scenarios. It can be problematic for us as group off leash walkers if a dog does not have this behavior installed and proofed through various lower levels of difficulty outside of our care because the level of difficulty present with us is about as high as it gets. Group walks are a great place to bulletproof most behaviors, but they’re not as easily installed with us. The energy around us is just too high.

Each day that you start training remember to start small and doable and build over time. During a set do 5-10 reps in fast succession, then break. With you a typical training session might look like this.

With us a typical protocol for a dog who’s struggling with recall would be the following:

  • Start with a dog on a regular length lead. Waft a treat in front of their nose to gain their attention. Once you have it use the name, then pop the treat in their mouth. Require no behavior on their part. You’re just building the association. Repeat 5 times. Attach a long line and let the dog run with their friends.

  • After a few minutes of running pickup the line and wait for some sort of break in the action. (You may need to stay very patient.) If necessary you can cause a break by stopping the dog from reaching any action with the line. With your hand a few feet up the line waft a treat, get attention, use the name, pop the treat in the mouth. Repeat 5 times. Release them to play.

  • After a few more minutes grab the line. Have your hand a few more feet down the line. See if you can get their attention without advertising the treat. Once you have attention back up quickly and excitingly so the dog moves into the space. Look for the idea that they’ll come, not the behavior, to be ahead of it. If you see it quickly use their name and the word come, and once they start toward you immediately use a verbal marker indicating they’ve just chosen a behavior you like, then reward when they get to you. Repeat 5 times, then release.

  • Let them play awhile, then grab the line. Go even further back on the line and call the dogs name, this time while a little higher distraction is present. Wait very very briefly to see if it worked. If it didn’t just give a slight tug, like a tap on the shoulder. If that did not work reel them in and give them a treat. No matter what happens make sure that quickly after you use the cue they receive a treat. If it didn’t work, next time try less distraction or closer in. Find what works and repeat 5 times. You don’t need to progress any further today than you’re able to get along with the dog. Time is on your side.

  • Repeat the same as above but start to mix in different rewards, like sticks, toys, or running away with them.

  • If the dog ever comes out of a distraction, like play, running, or digging, and comes to you without you having called, capture that behavior and reward it because you want that to happen again. If you can, throw in the cue when they’re already on their way.

  • Get involved in their play with others and if they give you attention use that as a moment to practice the cue and reward. Use movement to stay interesting to them. If you catch their eye run away and use the cue, then reward when they get you.

That would be a great session. At no time in that session should the dog think they’re being forced to do something they don’t want to. The point is to manipulate them into enjoying it. Dog training is really just manipulating dogs into making the choices we want them to make, and manipulating them (or preventing them) to not make the choices we don’t want them to be reinforced for. They should see the whole process as fun and engaging. You should maintain a positive association with training.

Troubleshooting low distraction in teaching dogs recall:

If you find that your dog is simply too distracted to be able to perform well in any environment outside the home you should take a step back. Many dogs have above average drives to sniff, explore, hunt, or are more visually stimulated by movement, and the sights and sounds of the real world seem to cloud their ability to hear, and overpower whatever rewards you brought out. We’re always up against the motivators that are present, and the idea is to have at your disposal at least a couple rewards that are more powerful motivators for your dog than things that are out of your control. Typically you should be able to very thoughtfully select an area to train that’s not very difficult, and you can try doing this sort of exercise for awhile to work around distractions. However, some dogs are extremely difficult because of a lack of interest, high energy, low attention span, or low training endurance. If this is the case, rather than do inadvertent damage to the training, try consulting a professional.

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