For the typical urban dog owner, nothing is scarier than the thought of your dog slipping out of his collar and taking off down (or worse, across) the street. The first thing I teach my own new rescue dogs is an Emergency Recall -- a cue that will get my dog to come back to me, regardless of the situation. It’s incredibly simple to teach and can be a building block to more advanced training, like loose leash walking and “leave it.” I’ve only had to use Emergency Recall in a real emergency once, when Beans’s leash slipped out of my hand and she darted towards a squirrel in the middle of the street. Because we’d been practicing the recall regularly, as soon as she heard the cue, she she stopped in her tracks, spun around and raced back to me.
Emergency Recall simply pairs a unique sound you make -- in my case, a kissy noise -- with a delicious treat. In the dog’s mind, this sound comes to mean “cookie time!” So naturally, he will stop whatever he is doing and come galloping to you. In fact, your dog doesn’t have to actually “do” anything to get the treat. You’re simply teaching him that a kissy noise is followed by a treat, regardless of what he does. Though you are not overtly teaching the dog to come, by making this very strong association of “kissy noise = treat,” the end result is a solid, enthusiastic recall.
There is one catch. Because we are using classical conditioning, you will never fade out treats. Think Pavlov’s dogs and the bell; the bell only triggered salivation because it predicted food. Take away the food, and over time the bell becomes meaningless. Same goes for the kissy noise. Before you complain, “But I don’t want to give my dog a treat every time I practice this,” ask yourself, “Do I want my dog to come back if he gets off leash?” This is for emergencies, after all. While you can certainly use other training techniques for recall, the strength of this classically conditioned association makes it worth the extra treat or two per day.
Though I practiced Emergency Recall constantly when I first adopted my dogs, I now do it on a “maintenance” level: one kiss-and-treat per day while we’re on walks. This keeps it fresh in the dog’s mind.
The video below shows what the sequence looks like. To see how Emergency Recall can be a building block to more advanced training, especially when outdoors, check back here for future posts and keep an eye out for the BKLN Manners™ book coming in early 2018!
Kate is a certified dog behavior consultant and certified dog trainer with Doggie Academy in Brooklyn, NY and in Southbury, CT.