Controversial opinion incoming..
I think the traditional way that we think about recall is all wrong. Yes, whistle training and teaching cue words are both great and they can work really well for some dogs. But sometimes, a reliable/foolproof recall can’t be achieved with a magic word or a handful of treats alone. It’s all about ENGAGEMENT.
Let me use my dog Dylan as an example. Before I was a behaviourist, I spent a lot of time working on his recall using a whistle, long training lead and high value treats. It worked a lot of the time! But, being a fearful rescue dog, he had his moments, and more than once he ran away after being startled or feeling unsure. No amount of sausages could tempt him back - he ran for the hills.
As he reached the adolescent ‘teenage’ stage, his recall became more patchy as he decided that other things in the environment were far more interesting than me and my whistle. This is common. Dylan isn’t a breed dog - he hasn’t been raised from birth to co-operate with people - and he has a strong independent streak which I love about him. However this wasn’t so much fun when he was streaking across the fields to play with a spaniel or chase a rabbit!
I went back to basics with my recall, and over time I realised that I was doing it all wrong. Dylan was never going to be the type of dog who responded reliably to a recall cue if something more rewarding was going on elsewhere. Of course some dogs do, and that’s great, but for those of us with more strong-willed dogs, or those with big prey drives, the rewards we provide just aren’t big enough.
So what did I need to do? I needed to become the most rewarding thing in the whole world for Dylan. Part of this is about food (it usually is with him), but more than that, it was about our relationship. I talk to him on walks, I play with him, run with him, let him make choices. I give him freedom and then I ask him to come back and see me - he WANTS to. He never strays far from my side now, and even when he’s away doing zoomies around the park, I know he’ll come back because he WANTS to.
If your dog wants to be by your side, they will. I listen to my dog and he listens to me - that’s the key. He and I don’t need a magic word - we are joined by the heart - and that’s what keeps us coming back together ❤️