Arlo’s Recall Rehab… wait, where did it go?

Arlo, doing what he does best.

I realized this winter that, since adopting Elsie this summer, Arlo’s gotten to be a little out of practice. Specifically, his recall was going down the toilet, and fast.

Now, the trouble with working Arlo is that he is very difficult to motivate – he doesn’t want anything from me, at least not reliably.  Hotdogs? Spit.  Sardines? Meh, gets tiring after a couple days.  Tripe? Same (seriously).  Toys? “You want me to do WHAT with that!?” Sometimes he’ll be thrilled to work, most of the time not. I have to seize those windows of opportunity to be able to make headway, but how is that going to help me train a recall in the park? It’s bothersome but doable to train obedience/tricks on Arlo’s watch, but not so much for training a recall – arguably one of the most important cues for a dog to respond to reliably, their safety could be on the line.

So what makes him happy, what does he find reinforcing?  Certainly greeting novel dogs is at the top of his list.   Premack’s principle states that a low probability behaviour (coming to me) can be reinforced by a high probability behaviour (greeting the dog), and considering Arlo’s bag of reinforcement is pitifully empty this is the method I chose to persue.

So… This winter I tightened my belt, bucked down, and got to work on what I called Arlo’s Recall Rehab (because it’s an alliteration, which I thought was fun).  I dug out my 30ft longline and headed to the parks.  Because I would have limited opportunities to reinforce a recall (limited number of dogs in the park), and because I wanted to keep a high contingency between “greeting” and “recall” (no greetings without a recall, no recall without a greeting), strict management was of the utmost importance to the success of this training.  If you recall from my last set of posts, I had poisoned the cue word “come” through some terrible training early in my relationship with Arlo.  I had been using “touch” as my recall cue and decided to ‘refresh’ this cue through training rather than choosing yet another recall cue. Plus, he likes to smack his nose into my hand.

The sequence of events would be as follows… A dog appears in the vicinity, I would cue Arlo to touch, he would return to me to touch my hand, I would mark/release with “go see!” (already loaded with a CER of “yippee!”), at which point he was free to greet the other dog.  And that is how it did look.  I gradually decreased the degree of management as he learned the rules of the game – going from cuing the touch at a very close distance with a hold of the longline/leash to increasing the distance to dropping the line.

Everything was fine and dandy, I was beginning to have some faith in his recall.  And I started to relax… a little too much…

Now, from the perspective of a trainer working with someone and their dog, I would be able to see a slight decline in reliability and coach that owner to tighten up their criteria, manage the dog more carefully, and keep the contingency I mentioned above as high as possible.  Why would the dog care to target a hand in turn for greeting a dog when the last three greetings were “free”? (not asked to target first)  But, being trainer and student rolled into one, my outside perspective was… well, lacking. I think a lot of trainers encounter this. We just have to learn to step outside the situation, no matter how big or small, and ask ourselves “what would I tell me if I were my student?”

So, here I am, realizing that I was a terrible student of mine and Arlo’s recall is in decline.  But at least I’ve realized this, and I’m back to heading to the park with “MANAGEMENT. CONTINGENCY.” tattooed on my forehead.  I dropped the ball on this one, and no matter how frustrating it is when Arlo blows me off to greet a dog… I know that it only happened because I dropped the leash as well.