So yesterday, I was skimming through some posts on a training Facebook page. I came across one where someone asked a question that I thought was absolutely brilliant and made me wonder why I had not seen the question before. The question was posed to trainers and asked…do you believe there is such a thing as a 100% reliable recall in a dog? The responses from the trainers were almost unanimous and a resounding…”No”. Those who worked their recall with their dogs very strongly and regularly estimated their recall to be very close with some of their dogs at 99% or 95%, but for the most part, it ran around 90%. Factors that came in to play were the individual dog and its genetic tendencies (scent driven dogs or high prey drive for example that could work against recall in certain circumstances or retrieving genetics that could work for the recall), history (things like a re-homed dog with a recall cue that was poisoned by punishment and/or the trust in the relationship had been damaged by punishment-based training ), behavioral makeup (fearful dogs), environment, etc.
In other words…dogs are not robots…they are individual organic living creatures with many factors that can work for or against a good recall. I always look at these individual make-up aspects that contribute to a dog’s recall and discuss them with my students, however, what occurred to me that I have never looked at in great detail with them is our ego-based expectations of our dog’s recall and the means we will go to to ensure 100% compliance (for example shock collar training).
Interestingly enough, Robert Milner, world renowned search and rescue dog and hunting dog trainer, stated emphatically that after teaching the recall the traditional shock collar way for 40 years and then seeking out a method that produced reliable results faster after the desperate need for reliably trained dogs very quickly after the terrorist threats of 911, experimented with force-free positive reinforcement recall training (clicker and treats) and says he will never go back to the old punishment-based methods and has been training force-free for over 10 years now.
Why? Not only did they see the training time cut by 2/3rds (6 months versus 18 months), he also states that they see dogs who are much happier to recall and willing to go above and beyond what they are asked to do. I know that many people turn to shock collars with the justification that they want 100% reliability for the safety of the dog. I would highly encourage people to carefully examine their motives and the consequences.
Is our motive truly the welfare and safety of our dogs? Be brutally honest. How many of us just get really pissed off because our ego gets bruised in public when our dogs blow us off. I know I catch myself being guilty of this…”I’m a trainer…my dogs have to be perfect!!!” If our motives are truly the welfare of our dogs, then I need to ask…”Why would we even consider using methods that deliver pain to our dogs and are scientifically proven to have negative behavioral fallout over the long term?” Shock collar trainers will say the end justifies the means, however if we look at Robert Milner’s experience, they found more reliability with force-free rewards based methods. I have really had to look at this in the past couple of years because of Lily, my Great Dane. She has been the most challenging dog I have ever trained in regards to recall.
There were times last year when, as she blew my recall off and ran across a busy road in rush hour traffic to go see what interesting things there might be in a yard across from the dog park (the municipal government for the city where I live in Edmonton refuses to invest money in to fencing dog parks and as a result, none of our parks are fenced), a fleeting thought ran through my mind of “do I have to go to a shock collar with this dog so she doesn’t get hit by a car?!” and my answer came back instantly inside of me as a resounding “NO!” I know this will rile some feathers, but sometimes bad things in life happen to our dogs and I say this having given this full consideration…doing what I do and having seen the sad things that shock collars have created in dogs over and over, I would rather my dog be hit by a car than know that I intentionally inflicted pain on her repeatedly to teach her something.
That said, there are certainly things I could do to ensure her safety. I took a deep breath and realized, I needed to put my ego aside and step up my training…I needed to be responsible to her and her safety by bringing her to the park on a 50 foot long line and go back to basic recall training and then wash, rinse, repeat. A year later, her recall has improved a great deal and I would place it at about 85 to 90% reliable.
Do we still have work to do? Yes. Am I aiming for 100% reliability? No.
If I get it, great, but I am aware this is extremely rare and unnatural. For this reason, I carefully choose the parks I use by ensuring I am not near roads so that I responsibly contribute to her safety. By looking at this issue and the reliability of recall, I believe we can take a lot of pressure off of our dogs and ourselves and be a lot happier if we acknowledge that our dogs are organic individual creatures and their recall to us with time and work can get very very good, but may never be 100%.