Tips on how to teach a great recall
We regularly subject our dogs to meaningless noises.
I’m not referring to environmental sounds, but rather our own vocal “noises.” Imagine being plunked into a foreign culture where nobody speaks your language. That’s what we do with our dogs. It’s pretty amazing they cope as well as they do!
Do you understand any of this? I sure don’t! It’s just noise to me, yet I know it’s meaningful to the speaker: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L2ST-UU6Ns8
Dogs are not verbal creatures. What we say to them is meaningless until we pair it with something that is relevant.
WHAT IS A NAME?
Name as Cue
We don’t often think of our dog’s name as acting as a cue comparable to “sit” or “down,” but in fact it is even more important. It’s not a matter of “assigning” a dog a noise (name) and expecting him to respond: it boils down to strategic pattern-building.
I want the dog’s name to signify, “orient towards me,” and eventually come to me, therefore my training plan is based on that goal. You might want it to mean something else. The bottom line is that he needs to understand the name-behavior (then reward) connection. And you need to be consistent and generous!
The “ding” of an elevator predicts the door will open. The “ding” in this case is the name; the door opening is the reward. If you were at an elevator and heard the ding, but the doors didn’t always open, you might choose to take the stairs!
Create the Pattern: Build Relevance First, Response Later.
Your pup’s name must predict great stuff within seconds of hearing it, each and every time, no matter what he’s doing. Remember, you are trying to turn a noise into something meaningful. “Great stuff” is determined by your dog. It might be in the form of food, a toy, a game of chase, etc. We often use food because it allows for many repetitions. Repetitions build habit, therefore food tends to be an efficient and effective training tool.
Assuming you, too, want your dog’s name to mean “orient towards me,” here’s a simple blueprint for how to get started.
Let’s assume your pup is positioned in front of you. Say his name once, then give him a treat (not simultaneously). Do it over and over. Don’t wait for a response or for him to do anything yet; we are simply building a pattern of name = relevance.
Repeat, repeat, repeat
After you’ve successfully practiced the simple Name Then Treat pattern, start to move. 1) Say his name, 2) then step back a few steps, 3) then feed him close to you. Repeat these steps separately. If he doesn’t follow, revert to name-treat as before, then try again.
Next is Name Then Toss Treat so your dog has to add some oomph. Repeat, but every once in a while, drop a small handful of treats at your feet. Fun!
It’s through consistent repetition that we will eventually build a response.
Keep sessions short.
CHOOSING A GOOD NAME
What makes a good name? These are some observations I’ve made over the years: they are just opinion. The following may be points to consider.
• Unique. The name must not sound like any other cue you might use with your dog, now or in the future. If you use “sit” as a cue, choosing “Kit” as your dog’s name may be confusing to her. Other examples are names like “Bea” (“be” and words like it are common in English), and “Poppy” (sounds too much like “puppy,” which we habitually and frequently use). I’m still finding cues in my own cue dictionary that are too close for comfort. “Round” and “down,” “up” and “hup” were some of my sad discoveries. Yes, context does matter, a lot, but it’s valuable to consider how your dog might be perceiving these different sounds and whether or not he’ll be able to distinguish them from each other.
• More than one syllable. A one-syllable name doesn’t stand out as well as multiple syllables. If you choose a one-syllable name, you may opt to double it. Example: “Roo” becomes “RooRoo.”
• Big, long, open vowels. You want the sound of your dog’s name to carry and have some punch. Our beloved “Astro” had a solid, open-voweled name, in both syllables. One has to fully open one’s mouth to enunciate it. Heck, “Wifi” would be a great name based purely on its sound!
THE BIGGEST RULE: do not use your dog’s name unless you are ready to reward him right away. If he hears it in conversation, hears it on repeat, hears it in the background sans reward, it will become as meaningless as the ding-without-an-elevator. If this has already happened, give him another name. Yes, this is acceptable!