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“Backwards” Recall Game

Perfect for Hot Days!

Good training comes in very small pieces.  Sometimes, a training exercise seems “backwards” in that you reinforce (reward) the opposite of the behavior you want.  But there’s a reason for the “backward” nature of training exercises like this.

Voluntary Behaviors are the Best

It’s great when dogs do what you ask; however, a sign of a well-learned behavior is when it becomes habit, and that starts with teaching dogs to “offer” the behavior – to choose to do it on their own.

Recall – Super Important Behavior

Everyone knows that a strong recall (coming when called) can save a dog’s life, and it also helps the humans in daily life with a dog.  But it’s more than a dog coming when you ask him to come.  It’s also “checking in.”  On a walk, on a hike using a long line, or when your dog is running around freely in a large, fenced area, your dog’s strong habit of coming to “check in” creates a connection that goes beyond a leash.  You’re keeping an eye on him and he’s helping by coming back to you between playing around and exploring.  If there’s an emergency, or you’re just ready to go home, you have an easy opportunity to reward your dog for checking in and then snap her leash on.

Benefits of Habitual “Checking in”

If your dog wanders away from home, coming to you by choice is critical as he decides which direction to go after checking out the front yard.  “Wandering” back to your front door to check in with you out of habit is much better than wandering down the block, or, heaven forbid, across a busy street.

A Simple Recall Exercise

These habits grow from the simple “backwards” training exercise of sending your dog away when he shows up!  Here’s how it works:

When your dog comes, toss a treat away from you so that he runs away to get it.  This is a “silent” game; don’t call your dog, just sit quietly with some treats next to you and wait.  He’ll wander over eventually, if not right away.  Wait.  Quietly.  When he comes close, toss a treat away.  At first, he may be surprised!  But he’ll soon discover that this game is easy for him to win.  Below are some tips to help you and your dog get started with this “backwards” training game:

  1. Don’t call; just wait.
  2. Toss the treats in the same direction every time – at first.
  3. Make sure your dog sees you toss the treat. He’ll get better at this, and then you can toss treats in various directions to increase the challenge and the fun.
This video describes the Backwards Recall Game and shows the quick recall you’re aiming for.

Analyzing this Recall Exercise

Even though you’re not calling your dog, this game will improve your recall.  You can practice other recall games separately, those in which you actually call the dog.  Why does this “backwards” game work?  Because of the basics of behavior science in the realm of operant conditioning

Sitting quietly with treats next to you sets up the environment so your dog will “offer” the behavior you want – coming to you of his own accord.  When you reinforce (reward) this voluntary recall, you increase the chances he’ll do it again, just like when you teach any other behavior.  Instead of giving a treat while your dog is in front of you, which is a typical (and acceptable) way of reinforcing his behavior of coming, you simply give the treat in a different way.  You’re making the treat more valuable, because not only does it smell and taste good, but now it moves and is chase-able!  When your dog is away from you, he is set up to repeat the behavior of coming near you, which you reinforce by throwing another treat.

Avoiding Errors in this Recall Game

Your dog may need a few tries to understand the fun if he’s new to chasing treats.  Help him out by tossing only a short distance, making sure he can see the treat as it leaves your hand.  If your dog can’t find it after running to the area where it landed, quickly toss another treat to the same spot.  When he eats that one and returns to you, toss again.  At some point, he’ll find two treats over there!  He’ll get really good at finding the treats.

This game is a good way to entertain your dog indoors on a hot or rainy day when going outside is no fun.  But you can also play it outside when the weather is nice.  Training games that offer a good time along with learning are the best! 

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