Traditionally, there is so much in dog training that is based on the notion of dogs in some way ‘challenging’ human authority and therefore needing to be tricked into doing what people need them to do. When I think about advice I’ve heard about recalls over the years, that sort of thinking seems particularly prevalent there. Especially with high prey drive dogs – I suspect because those dogs are more likely to ignore a recall.
You’ve probably heard similar things. I’ve seen ecollars advised so that the dog can receive a vibration or electric shock on their neck at a distance, tricking the dog into believing that the human has a superpower enabling them to reach over great distances and physically do something unpleasant to the dog if they ignore a recall. I’ve seen some quite elaborate advice about how to use a long line to create the same effect – a dog who believes their person can physically restrain them even if they are a long distance away. I’ve even read of people who just chase their dog if the dog ignores a recall and then give the dog a telling off when they catch it – I always think those people must be much faster runners than I am.
I don’t see my relationship with my dogs in that sort of way. I believe that my dogs want to cooperate with me and when they don’t, it is because they are unable to in that moment. Perhaps overwhelmed with scent or the sight of a squirrel. Or perhaps they feel it would create social conflict with another dog if they ran straight to me.
There is considerable evidence for my way of looking at things. In Norway and Sweden, English Setters participate in tests of their working ability. The results of these tests are often used to help with selecting dogs for breeding – with dogs who show good working ability being more desirable. One of the traits tested for and therefore one of the traits that the dogs are bred to have is cooperation with the handler in a hunting situation. The dogs are selectively bred to want to listen to people. I’ve picked on those working tests but really, that is standard for many breeds of dog. They need to want to do the job – but they also need to want to cooperate with people.
If you are shaking your head and saying, “Ah but my dog is a breed not selected for cooperation”, there is more to this story. You might have heard of the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin is often in the press these days and is associated with bonding. It is the hormone that promotes bonding between mothers and babies. Experiments have shown that it makes people more responsive to social situations. Oxytocin is all about improving cooperation in social groups. Humans and dogs have been living together for tens of thousands of years and in that time, both species have evolved to use oxytocin in an interesting way. When you and your dog make eye contact and gaze lovingly at each other, you are both experiencing rises in oxytocin. The dogs we live with have literally evolved to cooperate with us. There is absolutely no need to figure out how to trick them to gain cooperation from them.
I have a quick tip for you around recalls and framing your thinking to help. If your dog does ignore a recall, remember that your dog wants to cooperate with you. An ignored recall contains loads of valuable information about your dog’s capabilities at that moment. Think of it as an opportunity to learn. Write down all you can about the situation where the recall was ignored. Then see if anything jumps out that would help you to better plan and structure off lead time for your dog.
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Hi - I'm Tracey
I am the author of Canine aggression: Rehabilitating an aggressive dog with kindess and compassion and founder of Best Dog Learning and Stuff Ltd. I specialise in helping people with dogs who have a high prey drive. I have an honours degree in Canine behaviour and training, am a Tellington TTouch practitioner, and an ACE Advanced Tutor. I am currently studying for an MSc in Applied Animal Behaviour and Training.
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