While reliable dog recall is the hallmark of a professional trainer, amateurs can achieve it too, says David Tomlinson
If there is one thing that sets the amateur handler apart from the professional, it is reliable dog recall. Whereas the professional has dogs that come galloping back on the first soft “toot” of their master or mistress’s whistle, the amateur has animals that will be galloping over the horizon despite despairing blasts from their handler’s stop whistle. OK, I may be exaggerating slightly, but stopping an errant dog and getting it to come back is one of the biggest challenges of gundog training.
Poor dog recall
I have had my fair share of dogs with poor recall, and can remember plenty of embarrassing moments when one of my spaniels has totally ignored the whistle and charged off, watched by Guns and gamekeepers. I even have a theory that spaniels, or at least those that I have bred, have a valve system in their ears and nose. When the nose is full of scent, the ears stop working.
Deaf to entreaties
My current spaniel, Rowan, was the perfect puppy, with excellent recall, but when she reached the equivalent of her teenage years (15 months) she suddenly discovered that she could run faster than I could. On one memorable July morning she had just had a good walk, off the lead, and was almost back at my house, when she decided to take off. For the next 20 minutes she led me on a merry dance as she chased pheasants, partridges, hares and muntjac. We live in a game-rich area, so nothing was pursued for very long before she switched quarry.
A few times I came close enough to whistle, though I barely had sufficient puff to do so, but she ignored it and looked past me as if I didn’t exist. The chase finally ended when the errant spaniel overheated, and waded into a pond to cool off. She made no attempt to resist capture. I felt like murdering her, but punishment after such an escapade is tricky, as you don’t want to make the dog think it is being punished for eventually giving itself up.
As far as I am aware, there are two ways to deal with dogs like this. One is the electric collar (not available to Welsh readers).
Rewarding good behaviour assists dog recall
Much better than shock treatment is persuading your runaway dog that it is much more fun, and rewarding, to be with you rather than galloping off to do its own thing.The quickest way to a dog’s heart is through its stomach, and a small edible bribe or treat that rewards good behaviour simply makes sense.
Always use high-value treats
I have a shelf full of books on gundog training, but few even mention the use of edible rewards. One exception is Lez Graham. In her excellent book The Pet Gundog Puppy, she describes taking her Labrador puppy to feed the ducks “because I wanted him calm around birds that were moving… I’d put him in a sit and feed the ducks; a biscuit for Ziggy, a biscuit for the ducks, a biscuit for Ziggy, a biscuit for the ducks…”
In her first book, The Pet Gundog: a Common Sense Approach to Dog Training, she advises not “to be shy with praise… Don’t be afraid to use a jackpot (many treats one after the other each accompanied by ‘good dog’) when training a recall and always use high-value treats. When you give your dog a food reward, give a treat with one hand and stroke him with the other.”
Bacon cubes and chicken
High-value treat? That’s the description for something more exciting than a piece of broken dog biscuit. However, if your dog knows that you have a pocketful of bacon cubes or pieces of chicken, running off might not be quite so alluring after all.
If you have a serious problem getting your dog to return to you, then the book to turn to for advice is Pippa Mattinson’s Total Recall. Published by Quiller, its subtitle is Perfect Response Training for Puppies and Adult Dogs. It is full of lots of common-sense suggestions, many so simple that you wonder why you hadn’t thought of them yourself.
However, the ultimate way to get your dog to return to you is hot roast chicken or gammon, kept warm in foil and newspaper.