We’ve all been there before – someone’s left the door ajar, you forgot that the gate was open, a cat ran across the street and the leash slipped out of your hand. Accident’s happen unbelievably quickly, and before you know it, your dog’s life is flashing before your eyes. While we can’t predict the future, we can prepare for it. An emergency recall is how you can prepare for such a situation so that you don’t have to feel helpless when things go wrong.
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What exactly is an emergency recall?
Most people are familiar with your run-of-the-mill ‘come’ command. A few examples include inviting your dog over to you for an ear scratch, calling their name when it’s time to leave the park, and a quick “Bruno, c’mere” when they’re pestering the cat. These are very casual situations, where it’s not exactly imperative that they follow what you say. Sure it would be handy, but it’s not the end of the world if they don’t. Well, some circumstances warrant a bit more urgency than this, which is where the emergency recall comes in.
The emergency recall is a word or cue that you use only in emergencies (or during the training for said emergencies). When you issue your cue, your dog stops what they’re doing every time, and gets back to you as fast as their legs can carry them.
Why should everyone teach an emergency recall?
We’re not being dramatic when we say it could save your dog’s life. There are countless scenarios where your dog has no idea what dangers lie ahead. He may try to chase a misthrown ball into a busy road, attempt to make friends with a loose, aggressive dog, investigate a dangerous wild animal, or follow an interesting smell right into trouble. Everyone has a story involving a near miss, and often that’s enough to scare them into ensuring it never happens again.
Sadly, not everyone gets a second chance, so it’s essential to start working on an emergency recall cue well before you every end up needing it (hopefully, you never will!). This way, when an urgent situation arises, you can act fast and get your dog out of danger as soon as possible.
What’s the best word or command to use for an emergency recall?
There doesn’t seem to be any particular sound or word that innately makes dogs come running. That being said, you can condition them to come running to any sound. The best cue for an emergency recall is one that’s short, sharp and something you can easily recall even when you’re nearly in a panic. In addition, you shouldn’t mind performing it in public, as it’s probably going to be loud in order to get your dog’s attention!
Try to use a word that you’d be inclined to use in such a situation anyway, like “HEY!” or “TO ME!”. At the same time, you should avoid any cue that you’re likely to absentmindedly use often, like a word that’s frequently said in casual conversation. This is important because you don’t want to dilute the potency of the response your dog has to this life-saving cue. He should only be hearing your chosen word during training, and for an actual emergency.
In fact, your cue doesn’t actually even need to be a word at all. If your dog is deaf, consider using a vibrating collar, and let it the vibration be his cue (note: not talking about shock collars here!).
What do you need to teach an emergency recall?
A variety of super high-value rewards – treats, toys and play that your dog absolutely loves.
A comfortable collar or harness.
A leash, or long-line.
Essential points to keep in mind
The goal of the emergency recall is to have your dog return to you, in a flash, no matter the circumstances. The strategy you’ll accomplish this with is to show your dog that amazing things happen when you use this cue. Every single time. With enough repetition, his response (coming back excitedly) will start to become automatic. A reliable recall is simple to achieve but requires utmost consistency on your part as their teacher. Keeping a few strict rules will help your dog learn faster:
Giving the cue is always followed by a lavish reward for returning
What your dog loves may be different to others, so use whatever shows him he did a fantastic job, and that there will be more where that came from if he does it again.
Use the cue sparingly
You want to maintain an element of excitement with the emergency recall, and using it too often will take away its novelty. Consider your favourite food. If you have it once in a while, it stays on top of your list as the most incredible combination of tastes and flavours, and you savour every morsel. If you were to have it every day, would it still be so special? Pretty quickly you’d get used to the sensations and you wouldn’t look forward to having it as much. While you’d still sit down to eat, you would do that in your own time, dawdle to take your seat and look around distractedly while you’re sitting there. Think of the emergency recall cue as your dog’s favourite meal – it’s special, exciting and keeps him eager, which we want to maintain.
Use different rewards
Using the same reward over and over will dilute its value (similarly to what’s mentioned above). If you always reward him with boiled chicken, a common favourite, not only does the value of boiled chicken go down in his world, he may also begin to weigh up whether it’s worth giving up what he’s doing for that piece of chicken. If you’re unpredictable in how you reward your dog, he never knows what he’ll get for returning. This makes him more excited to get back to you and find out! Using the previous dinner’s leftovers is a great way to keep things different. Your rewards can also vary in how intensely he likes it – sometimes you can reward him with dried liver for a fantastic effort, other times if he’s sluggish in his return, a simple “good boy” and pat will let him know he did the right thing, but perhaps not as well as he’s done it before, pushing him to try harder next time.
Build distractions and distance, but gradually and not at the same time
To reinforce the correct behaviour as often as possible, it is essential that you set your dog up for success. This means that he’s only ever put in positions where you know he’s likely to make the right decision. We do this to avoid letting him practice the wrong behaviour, such blowing off your command, and enjoy doing his own thing. An example would be taking him to a dog park in the early stages of training, and giving your emergency recall cue expecting him to return when you haven’t worked on this level of distractions before. If he ignores you, he’s reinforced for doing it by being able to continue playing with his pals. You’re better off giving no command at all, and clipping the leash when it’s time to go. It’s also important that you don’t increase distractions while increasing distance, because this ups the difficulty of the task dramatically from a dog’s point of view. Slow and steady wins the race, so work at your dog’s pace.
Giving the cue is always followed by a lavish reward for returning.
It’s worth re-stating because this is the backbone of our goal. Classical conditioning is always at play, which means that if you give your dog a negative experience after he returns to you, he will start to associate that chain (command -> come back to owner) with bad things. You may think to yourself, “Why would I ever punish my dog for coming back to me?!”. Well, sadly, dog owners all around the world do it every single day without realising it. At the park, someone calls their dog, because it’s time to go home (command -> come back to owner -> fun ends). This can be punishment enough, but for many, it goes even further than this. We’ve all seen some poor soul yelling across the field for their dog to return, over and over, with the dog happily ignoring (diluting the effect of the command, because the dog is learning that he doesn’t have to come back every time, which gets further reinforced when he’s able to keep sniffing the grass or playing with the other park goers). By the time the ‘stubborn’, or ‘naughty’ (read: merely untrained) dog has finally returned to the handler, his owner is fuming. He may grumble, he may smack, he may clip on the lead and yank him away. We’ve all seen it happen. Regardless, the dog is always making associations, and in these instances, he learns that command -> come back to the owner (when I feel like it) -> owner gets mad. Effectively, this is teaching the dog that coming back doesn’t lead to good things, which makes him even slower to return in future.
How to train an emergency recall, step-by-step
Step 1: In a quiet room say their name, and then run away
You start by saying their name so that you know you have their attention before running away unnecessarily. When they get to you, lavish your dog with praise and rewards. This motion alone has saved many dogs and owners in the past. Remember this for future reference, because most dogs can’t resist a game of chase! Release him to go back to what he was doing before, to show him that coming to you doesn’t mean the end of his fun. Repeat this step a few times, so that your pet knows how the game goes, then move on to step 2.
Step 2: Still in a quiet room, say their name, use your cue and then run away
You’re doing the same thing as step 1, but this time you use the cue just before you bolt so that they start to associate the cue with running after you. Reward your dog for coming to you in a zippy fashion. Start grabbing his collar when he gets to you, and while you reward him. This can come in handy later if you ever need to clip his leash or restrain him, as it helps build a positive association with emergency collar grabs.
Step 3: Move to a busier room and repeat step 2
Now you’re upping the environmental distractions just a touch, to see if he still plays the game with more stuff going on in the background. If he’s still keen and running after you excitedly, move on to step 4.
Step 4: Play the game in the backyard (if you have one)
Being outside is a huge distraction for most dogs because it’s rich with sights, smells and sounds that we aren’t even aware of. Their senses go nuts, and they’re hungry to gather as much environmental information as they can. If your yard is not fully fenced, clip on a leash for your dog’s safety. The idea is to work in such a way that allows your dog make the decision to follow you on their own, which means you won’t be yanking him with you when you run off. Repeat step 3, with just a few steps between you before you issue your cue and run away. Remember to release him after each recall+reward.
Step 5: Repeat step 4, but use more distance
You’re increasing the distance to show that the game doesn’t only happen when you’re right next to him. With more space between you, call his name so you know he’s watching, issue your cue, and then run away. Praise and reward when he gets to you.
Continue increasing distance until you can call him to you from anywhere in your yard, without fail. Be mindful of environmental distractions, because this is harder to control. Try not to put your dog in situations where he’s likely to fail in these early stages. If your neighbour is outside with their dogs, and you know your pooch can’t resist some fence-line banter, clip on his leash or stop for a while and keep working on it when times are quieter.
Step 6: Repeat steps 4 and 5 in your driveway
Often the front of one’s house has even more activity and enticing smells than the back, making distraction levels more intense. Keep playing the name+cue+run away game, rewarding your dog for every return and using the best rewards for his best recalls. Increase the distance you call him from gradually, as in step 5, and consider using a long-line if your leash is too short. This helps protect your dog from running into the street, as well as preventing him from running off if you over-estimated his ability to ignore a distraction.
Step 7: Practice, practice, practice. Everywhere you can think of!
Increase the difficulty of the environment gradually, as usual. At this stage, your dog should have a firm idea of what the recall game is, and just needs to practice it in different places, with diverse distractions. This is often termed proofing. Try parking lots, sidewalks, pet stores, parks during quiet times, then parks during busier times and anywhere else that you can think of.
If your dog seems too distracted and isn’t coming back to you as eagerly as he should, consider the following variables:
- Is the environment is too rich? Try somewhere quieter, or with less interesting smells. Work your way back here from somewhere you know his focus is sharp.
- Is the distance is too far? Keep closer to him before you cue him and run off, and see if this keeps him switched on.
- Are your treats or rewards exciting enough? What works at home often doesn’t mean squat in the real world as far as dogs are concerned. Perhaps your pooch doesn’t feel the trade-off is worth it. Try using higher value toys or treats, and consider upping your own energy to entice him into playing along.
- Are you remembering to release him back to what he was doing before? Show him that the fun doesn’t have to end when he returns to you. Let him go back to his doggie pals, or that tantalising grass patch
If you’re someone who likes to have more than one trick up their sleeve, it’s a great idea to teach other commands to better suit the situation. Perhaps running back to you is not the safest thing, and instead, you want him to stay where he is – an emergency down, or ‘stop-stay’ would be an excellent one to teach. In addition, ‘leave it’ and ‘watch me’ can have many uses.
Teaching an emergency recall is wonderfully simple, requires no fancy training gear or expensive gadgets, and could save your beloved pet down the line. All it requires is consistency and positive associations. Has an emergency recall ever saved your dog’s life? How did you teach it? Comment below and share with your loved ones, you never know whose life you may end up saving.