Pet Gun Dog Part 2: Recall…aka trials and tribulations of coming away from distractions

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Recall seems to be the first bigger issue many owners experience and especially owners of hunting breeds. On Jazz’s Instagram, where we share our training and daily life, I’ve received questions about ideas for improving recall in dogs as young as 15 weeks old.

This post is not a training advice from a dog trainer but simply a one spaniel owner chatting through her own experiences and resources I found useful. Hopefully it will help some of you and amuse those who know better than me 😉

At two and a half years old Jazzy’s recall is overall very good and this includes recall from birds and other wildlife but I will chat about this more later. Let’s start from puppy and adolescence…

Puppy Recall

The most useful resource for me before I even started taking Jazz out and about was the Total Recall book by Pippa Mattinson (you can find links to various resources in my previous post ) and I personally haven’t really experienced any major issues in  puppyhood. Our time outside was spent on various games and walking in creative patterns 😉 I never really got anywhere far because for the first 6 months of her life we went everywhere in zig zagz! This encouraged Jazz to follow me and as she had a strong instinct to stay with me at an early age all I had to do if she got away with some scents was to run in opposite direction for her to immediately want to join me. I spent a lot of the time running away from her at some point! I never chased her to catch her but always made sure she needed to catch me.

It went a bit like this: she got distracted and went one way, I called her, she ignored me so without saying another word I ran away as fast as I could. It never failed and I never had to run far as she wasn’t keen on staying on her own.

The only issues I did have were more due to my lack of experience with how attentive I had to be with a young spaniel. For example, Jazz was about three months old when she went into a hedge and emerged back with a tiny bird already dead in her mouth…I saw her going into that hedge and sniffing, called her but in that same moment she jumped deeper into it and all I could hear was squeaking 😦 It’s something I now find so obvious and it seems so easy to notice that slight shift between “I think that’s interesting” and “I am going for it” body language but at the time I was just too slow reading her. Following that bird incident she became obsessed with hedges and cover of all sorts but if I got her attention in time, she was fairly easy to recall.

I found that my ability to read Jazz’s behaviour and to notice when some of her senses were still “with me” were the success to recall effectiveness.

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7months to 1.5 year

Jazzy’s adolescence was my hardest time recall wise. I had good few “Fenton” moments when she made me want to tear my hair out pursuing cute little rabbits across several fields! She was at that age much more independent so didn’t care as much about not having me in her field of vision at all times and that meant my running away or hiding tactics became redundant.

I started researching different methods of spaniel training then but it wasn’t until more recently that I came across positive reinforcement methods applied to gundogs. I think whether we admit it or not, working lines of Springer Spaniels (and many other gundog breeds) are not simply companion dogs. They are highly driven by cooperation with a handler for sure but are predominantly interested in pursuing wildlife and they are damn good at it. Hunting is for many spaniels an ultimate Holy Grail and until I had more understanding of that, my control wasn’t going far with Jazz.

She was basically self-rewarding by hunting without me.

I didn’t really have a clue how to stop her from chasing wildlife (other than growling at her when she tried!) but I focused on developing a stronger “hunting” bond with her so she knew that the whole idea was to do it together somehow. From what I learnt, that desire to hunt together is actually bred into many gundog breeds and while some are much more independent and head strong that others, ultimately a good working spaniel should want to cooperate.

Steadiness exercises that improved Recall

Exercises in steadiness were the biggest influence in a change in Jazz’s attitude to an impulsive hunting. Simple things like staying sat in one spot for, at first a few seconds then building it up to 3 minutes. Such a simple exercise but it really steadied her brain and made her keep a watch of my signals.

Another was an introduction of a stop whistle exercise (a sit to the whistle sound – I will write more about this in another blog post) and more retrieving games. The more we did together that “talked” to her genes overall, the more she wanted to cooperate and listen to recall too. It’s my belief that we can’t and shouldn’t override hundreds of years of careful selection that these dogs have gone through but instead need to find a way of cooperation they find enticing.

Teaching Jazz to ‘quarter’ the ground as we walk was also a big help. She was staying much closer to me whilst still having a grand time and as a result I was able to recall her much easier than if she strayed further away.

In general I would say that what brought me best recall results had nothing to do with recalling per se but was all about creating a bond based on games Jazz truly enjoyed and that enjoyment of interaction made her want to recall.

Food rewards

High value treats were very useful with Jazz and I once went and got a roast chicken, still warm, and gave her a decent amount when she ran to me (I didn’t recall her, I waited for a situation when she just came herself). Her enthusiasm for recall was amazing for weeks afterwards 😉

Shaping behaviours 

Over the course of this year I became fascinated with positive reinforcement based training for dogs. I am familiar with the concept of learning theory and R+ and R- training methods in horses and have always wondered why there is so much resistance to opening our minds to training with less dominance. It came as an unpleasant surprise to discover that traditional Gundog world isn’t dissimilar to traditional equine training world but it also occurred to me that I was using some unnecessarily negative training methods with Jazzy that I no longer wanted to use with horses!

I feel like right now I have a much better understanding of how I want to interact with my dog and how I would want to bring up my next puppy and that’s via positive shaping of the desired behaviours. After months of browsing good old uncle Google I happened to be looking at the UK GunDog Club website and came across Jules Morgan of www.dogtrainingnaturally.co.uk . I will write more about my lesson with Jules in another blog post but for anyone struggling with various aspects of training, you might want to look her up 🙂

Wiola & Jazz

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