To Shape, or to Train?

I read a comment recently from a lady who “didn’t have time for positive reinforcement” because, she couldn’t “stand around in the park waiting for her dog to come back to her so she could reinforce his recall”.

I think this could be another (common) misconception about reward-based training.

Yes, shaping is a wonderful tool in the toolbox of a competent positive reinforcement trainer, but it’s not the only tool, and any trainer worth their salt will know when to shape a behaviour and when shaping is better left in favour of other tools.

I’m going to make the assumption that the commenter did actually realise they were referencing free-shaping, that is waiting for the subject to offer the desired behaviour – or a close approximation of it – before offering a reward. No luring or prompting involved, simply sit back and wait.

However, is this really the best way to teach your dog a reliable recall – take them to the park, take off their lead, and turn them loose? I think not!

When teaching a dog to recall on cue, there are a number of important points to remember: –
1) always keep your dog on a lead or long line.  This ensures the safety of your dog, as he can only move as far away as the lead or line allows.  A dog on a line can, if needs be, gently “reeled in”, and of course just because you have a 50ft line, it doesn’t mean you have to give your dog the full fifty feet, if twenty would be more appropriate, just carry the rest.  It should be noted that everything your dog can do off-lead can be done on a long line too, Inka stayed on a line until I was quite sure he’d come back when called, but we still played fetch and tug, and ran around.  It just required some hand/eye/foot coordination from me (which is easier said than done!)  Additionally, it should go without saying that a long line should never be attached to your dog’s collar (always use a harness), and that you have to hold the end that is not attached to your dog (it’s not a magic recall device!!)
2) If you take your dog somewhere she needs to be on the long line, don’t use her recall cue.  You may have a particularly friendly dog who enjoys trips to busy parks or fields, but if you’re keeping your dog safe by having her on the long line, it’s a pretty safe bet that if you call her, she’ll ignore your request and continue to interact with the environment.  That is, of course, unless you’ve worked up to the level of distraction that the park is currently providing and you’ve taken her there specifically to train recall, rather than to walk or play.
3) you need to actually train a recall.  Your dog needs to be taught how to recall, as well as on what signal, and in what situations to come back to you.  That means you need to have one specific cue for recall (a word, a whistle sound, a hand/body signal for deaf dogs, or a scent signal for blind dogs).  You need to teach your dog the value of this signal in a quiet environment and in a controlled fashion, and you need to gradually work from a quiet, controlled environment (such as your kitchen) up to a chaotic, uncontrolled environment (such as the park).
4) You need to be certain of what you want your dogs recall behaviour to be.  Do you want your dog to recall and sit in front?  Recall to heel?  Recall and present his neck/back so you can re-attach his lead?  Or recall and play “keep just out of catching distance”?  Decide, and then stick to it.  Once you’ve got one trained you can – of course – train another type of recall, but only train one type at a time to avoid confusion!

Below is a video of me teaching Starr the beginnings of off-leash recall in our enclosed back garden.  We’ve already done some recall in the house (in the kitchen, utility, front room, and upstairs), and we’ve done a little bit at the training centre too.

I should note that this is how I’ve been taught to teach recall, and so far it’s done me really well.  Anyone who knows me will be aware I’m hoping to sign up to Susan Garrett’s Recallers course when it opens (very soon!); not because I think there’s anything wrong with how I teach recall (or indeed have been taught to teach it), but because of the way Susan sees recall as a barometer of the relationship you and your dog have.

Even before I’d heard of Susan Garrett and Say Yes! I felt the same way about recall.  Your dog has to want to be with you before he or she will recall to you, and I think Susan’s way of teaching will help me learn to build a strong relationship with both of my dogs, who – because of their individual histories – sometimes need reminding that people (yes, even mom) are good.


2 thoughts on “To Shape, or to Train?

  1. Pingback: Mindful Internetting - What's Up in the Petosphere This Week? | Rescued InsanityRescued Insanity

  2. Pingback: Are You Bribing Your Dog? | Pawsitively Training

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