Safety Behaviors: Down at a Distance and Recalls

These behaviors may save a dog’s life someday.

Today I practiced two of our three main safety behaviors: coming when called, and dropping and staying at a distance. We left Zen, the third, for another day.

Clara downs on a hand signal
Clara downs on a hand signal

Down on a hand signal is a Level 1 behavior in the Training Levels, although the one we are currently practicing is not the hand signal that Sue presents there. This is one that I added because I wanted something that my dogs could see at a great distance: putting my hand straight up in the air. It was much harder to teach than the downward descending hand signal though. I think it’s hard because 1) it’s hard for my dogs to make a motion in the opposite direction from my hand (the source of food, after all) and 2) I had to start with a  little bit of distance or they couldn’t see the signal without looking straight up. So maybe it’s not Level 1 after all, even when we’re close together. But we are taking it through the Levels just like every other cue.

It’s important to me, so we have been working on it a lot. We have practiced it in all accessible rooms of the house and started in the back yard a few days ago.

My goal for the behavior is for the dog to freeze in place and collapse down instantly on seeing/hearing my cue. This could save a dog’s life if, for instance, she had gotten loose and was on the other side of a busy street from me.

You’ll see me lump a bit when working with Summer, but maybe not as much as it appears. We do a session of New Cue/Old Cue using the hand signal then the verbal since it’s been a while since we practiced the distance down on the yard. As we are practicing I am moving backwards. But the distance doesn’t exactly add difficulty, at least at the distances at which we are working. Since she learned distance sits and downs in the old levels, she grasps that at much farther distances. I’m moving back in part to find the sweet spot where it is easiest for her to see. But still, I probably shouldn’t be moving around while reminding her of a cue.

As for recalls: we practice them religiously. I enjoy them because they’re fun, and also because I’m lazy about certain things. Recall is a behavior for which I don’t even have to think about stimulus control (see definition and discussion of that here)  or fading to  intermittent reinforcement.  So unless my dog breaks a stay, she gets reinforced for coming to me virtually every time, and we both like that.

Clara Running
Clara coming when called

I have at least three recall cues. One of them I used to call my “informal recall cue” until Wendy, one of the teachers in Susan Friedman’s course, pointed out that a cue is a cue, and “informal” doesn’t have much meaning. So off with that label and I’ll explain it. The cue is “are you ready to come in?”. I reinforce it intermittently with food, but there are other reinforcers present or imminent. I use it when I would like it if they would come in pretty soon, kind of like a three minute warning. But there’s plenty of reinforcement just around the corner. Generally coming back in the house with the group is reinforcing by itself. We might do something interesting, and they often get a piece of kibble for coming when I use that cue.

In the movie you’ll see Zani, little champ, responding to this casual recall cue like Rin Tin Tin. I don’t think it’s the power of the intermittent schedule as much as the fact that she saw the camera tripod, smile.

My second recall cue is “puppy puppy puppy,” which I use when I’m not sure the dog will come or if I don’t have huge reinforcement available. I don’t use that in this video. The third cue is each dog’s name, called out in a singsong tone. That is their hugely reinforced cue. Because of the special tone, I don’t seem to create any confusion by using their names. It doesn’t sound the same as when I use their name to get their attention or to precede another cue.

I love Summer’s recall. Clara and Zani are enthusiastic and both naturally speedy. But Summer puts the most heart into it. Her recall always reminds me how far she and I have come.

What behaviors are important to you? What are the most fun?

Coming up soon:

36 thoughts on “Safety Behaviors: Down at a Distance and Recalls

  1. Eileen, wouldn’t you love to come to cold, snowy Western Massachusetts during February to teach my dog a far superior recall? We don’t have cell phones or fast internet, but you know, there’s indoor plumbing and all. 😉

  2. Beautiful downs, stays and recalls and Summers self control says alot. Rex’s recall is really, really good, downs and stays not so much >g< Thanks for saying you reward every recall. I do too but still feel the pressure from people who say dogs should work without treats.

  3. I love recalls, I’m an absolute recall junkie! I also really like training leave its/zen – with both of those behaviours in place, that means it’s playtime and my dogs can have off-leash fun! Heel work is another favourite of mine, even though I often struggle to teach it, I just love being able to walk in sync, not to mention working towards a wonderful high-stepping prance for showing off!

    1. Hey Sam, got any videos of that pretty heeling? I bet people would love to see. Post a link, if you like. Agree with you, recalls are the BEST. And it’s wonderful when our dogs think so too.

      1. I’d love to see it too! Between Inka having a problem with his hip, and moving house, and then winter we’ve not had much chance for real heelwork training, and I’ve started using Silvia Trkman’s method of teaching hind-end awareness first (on a good day, Inka has very little front end awareness, let alone his rear end!!), but as we go on, I have no doubt I’ll be videoing and blogging what I can 🙂

  4. Maybe you can help solve one of our “come” dilemmas? I too always treat for the “come” command and now when we are out on our off leash walks Taffy will lag behind and stop dead. I use “with me” & “lets go” but she won’t budge, she’s waiting for me to say the magic word “come” so she can be sure to get her treat. I will jog ahead and can get quite a distance, but she still stays put. I also pretend to have found something interesting and she doesn’t buy it. Needless to say this can be frustrating becasue she can do this MANY times on a walk and it doesn’t take long to drain me of treats and patience. I wondered if this happened because I sometimes practiced come and stay in the same session. I put her in a stay at one end of a large ball field and I then ask her to come from the other end and she really loved this exercise ( I can also put her in a stay and go to one end of the field and back to her and then release her no problem). How can I get her unstuck and moving without over using the “come” command?

    1. Isn’t Taffy smart!! She has figured out the surest way to get a goodie. And the longer you try to outwait her, the more persistent she becomes (if in the end, you cave). (I’m really good at training duration in behaviors I don’t want, myself!) I hope the pros can make some suggestions here. A couple of questions: do you reinforce for “with me” or “let’s go”? And do you ever reinforce for her just checking in with you on her own?

      1. Taffy is smarter than me! She loves the “come” game, I think it’s being able to run full out and then get a treat for it. Yes, I randomly treat for the “with me, lets go” and check-ins. I probably treat more than anyone else in the park and I can sympathize with Mary about being given grief for it. We have been fighting the “come” battle for some time and I’m loosing. I hate to admit it but sometimes almost our whole walk consists of “come” treat “come” treat “come” treat. I’m worried it’s becoming too much of a game for her and there has been a few times when I really wanted/needed her to come and she blew me off. I have tried to use it sparingly, but that just seems to make her more determined.

    2. Hi Marjorie! Is Taffy smart or did you just create a behavior chain? I like to avoid saying that the dog is “blowing me off” because *most* of the time, the dog is confused.

      So let’s go over what happened. You taught “come” by starting with “stay” which means you’ve created a chained behavior (the dog thinks it can’t “come” without first “staying”). Do you practice “come” in other situations (i.e. at home/backyard)? If so, what does she do? I would start asking her to come while at home and she is not staying so that she can learn to separate the two behaviors (i.e. she learns she can come without first staying). I would also recommend starting to practice “stay” at home and putting a release word like “OK!” so that she knows she can get up, but doesn’t have to “come”. (To do this, say OK and throw a treat away from her and encourage her to get it). You also need to make sure the stay is on stimulus control, meaning she doesn’t “stay” unless you say so. It seems right now, she is offering this new behavior because she knows she can be rewarded for it so give her some other options to receive rewards. You have to refrain from rewarding her when she does it without being asked. If you reward her every time she stays and then comes (even when you don’t ask) she will continue to stay without being asked. For now, when she does a down stay, just keep walking, don’t look at her or acknowledge her. She will, hopefully, get the hint that that’s not what you are looking for. Make sure to reward her when she decides to catch up to you.

      All this advice is assuming she has been taught with positive reinforcement only. Any other methods could be affecting her behavior in a different way and would be addressed differently. How did you originally teach “stay”?

      1. Hello Cross Over Trainer (I’m not sure what that really means?)

        Thank you for taking the time to address our issues with “come.” These commands are not new to her, we learned them in our clicker training obedience classes about four years ago. We have been having the “come” problem for a few years now. We taught “stay” by having the dog first position themselves in a sit at a heal position and then gradually stepping out in front of them and click and treat if they stayed in position. Eventually, we worked our way all around the dog to end up at the starting position. Then using a long line, we worked our way a little further away from our dog at a time reinforcing for further distance and time, always walking back to our dogs to do so. Actually, I think we taught the dogs to “come” before we worked on stay. It was probably me practicing on the ball field on my own that messed it up.

        Yes, I do practice “come” in the house and around the yard and I use the “OK” release. I also use the “wait” command quite a bit as well with good success. You stated “You have to refrain from rewarding her when she does it without being asked. If you reward her every time she stays and then comes (even when you don’t ask) she will continue to stay without being asked.” I think you hit the nail on the head! I don’t give the stay command, but I do call her to “come” and reward her when she does and then in her mind she is being rewarded for the whole sequence not just the come. Stupid me! I never thought of it that way before.

        However, I don’t think it is beacuse she is confused over the two commands. I find our issues mainly happen on two particular trails and sometimes the ball park. One of these trails tends to have a lot of blind bends and there are also coyotes so I’m not comfortable having her too far out of my sight, and she tends to let me get way too far ahead before she decides to follow. When we are at the big dog park with lots of dogs around and lots going on she doesn’t do it there at all and she does not do it at home So I don’t think it’s confusion as she can distinguish between the two commands when SHE feels she needs/wants to. Taffy actually is quite smart and she tends to think things through to her advantage. I’m suspecting this is a game to her. What I have been starting to do is when she initiates her own stay I just go to her and clip on her leash, say lets go and then release her again after whe have moved off a ways. I will randomly treat for this. It hasn’t shifted her behaviour yet, but I’m hoping and I’m open to any suggestions.

      2. Eileen, can you change the format to allow more replies? Looks like it’s only 2 replies allowed right now so I have to go back to my comment to reply again 🙂 Anyways, sorry, didn’t realize it would change my “username” my name is Ines!
        Marjorie, it seems she may be picking up on your uneasiness in that area and is there for trying to appease you. That or she’s found a great way to get reinforced! I like the idea of clipping her to the leash to keep walking. Maybe you should just keep her on leash in that area for a while so that she doesn’t keep practicing that behavior? That’s probably what I would do. You can work on loose leash walking then! 🙂 Remember, “practice makes perfect!” Hopefully that will break her habit enough to resume normal walking eventually. OR you could use high frequency reinforcement for staying next to you. Meaning you reward (one treat after another every step or so) frequently for staying with you until you’ve broken that habit. It’s actually the same strategy I use for loose leash walking. See my video here: Let me know what you think of these suggestions. 🙂

        1. Hi Ines, thanks a million for walking through this situation with Marjorie! Sounds like you all figured some stuff out. Now that you may be through, smile, I did adjust the number of replies up to 6. It’s kind of a balance because I think a bigger number may make it harder to read on mobile. Anyway, thanks for alerting me to it and I’ll try to optimize the number.


  5. I can imagine your frustration, that’s a very interesting training problem. I’m guessing it’s a stimulus control problem but I don’t know wether “stay” or “come” is the behavior not under control. I’m not qualified to give advice but was wondering if you ever read the Training Levels list or Clicker Solutions ( I think Eileen has mentioned both in old posts). I only have experience with the Clicker Solutions list but there are some very good trainers there and they have a way of pin pointing the problem and giving very good training advice, they’re all positive trainers too.
    In any case please keep posting about what you try.

  6. Thanks Ines for your response. I have wondered if she was picking up on my uneasiness on that one particular trail, but she also does this in another park that we both love and feel very comfortable in. She seems to do it more when there is not a lot of other dog traffic or much going on. If there is lots to keep her attention she doesn’t seem to bother with it as much. Plus I think it’s not just the treat, she really seems to just love the joy of breaking a stay and running full out with her ears flapping in the wind and a big smile on her face. Great video, thanks again. When I was first teaching her to walk on a leash I used the high frequency reinforcement and I have to say it worked very well then. Maybe I can marry the two, clipping on the leash and then high frequency reinforcement walking away? I need to get back control of my commands. Thanks again for your help, it’s much appreciated.

    1. I would leave her on leash OR use high frequency reinforcement BEFORE she even has a chance to do a stay if she is off leash. I would not get back to her where she is staying, clip her leash, then reinforce. That would reinforce her for staying and getting clipped to the leash… NOT what you want! 🙂 It seems like she may be bored and has created a game for you and her. Just make sure you are not reinforcing for any “stay” behaviors. Again, keep her on leash and practice walking, OR begin reinforcing BEFORE she has a chance to stay. Does that make sense?

      1. If I clip her on leash at a stay I don’t reinforce her until she is moving forward well and then reinforce for the forward movement (at least that’s MY intention). Do you think she would still associate the reinforment for the stay and being put on leash rather than moving forward??? Gee, this is more complicated than I thought and my dog really is smarter than me.

  7. Haha! I do believe that it could still be reinforcing her for that. 😉 She seems like a very smart cookie! Basically, if you have to go take her with the leash, then no rewards. You can combine that with high frequency reinforcement while OFF leash to keep her next to you. Good luck! 🙂

  8. Oh No! I can really see now just how her little mind is working and I think you are so right. I have been reinforcing her for that stay. Thanks for helping me to see this. I’m going to try exactly what you perscribed. Thanks Again!

  9. Your dialogue to recalls is very much like my own thought process. In reality, I very rarely call my dogs to me in the house or in the yard (they’re normally right with me all the time, anyway).

    I am making a video on how I teach drop on recall with food placement only. It may be of interest to you, but I’ve never made an edited video before, so I’m delaying the creation process!

    1. Tegan, I would love to see that! I hope you will post it here in the comments when you get it done. I have collected up several methods for teaching a drop in motion but haven’t tackled it yet in a serious way. Of course getting the drop in motion (without slowing down their general recall) is a crucial part of the safety behavior.

      The first edited video is the hardest! Good luck.

      1. I’ll try to remember to send it your way once it’s completed. 🙂

        I have never actually had to spend much time on teaching a ‘drop in motion’ – my dogs learn that ‘drop’ means ‘drop’ whether your sitting, standing, running, on the couch, in your crate, whatever. But that might be a consequence of the food placement method? I’m not sure.

  10. Interesting how many types of recalls that there are. I have only one word “come” that means come all the way to me. ‘C’mon” is not a cue, more of a suggestion to come towards me (and stop dilly-dallying!). But, without deliberately training it, she responds to a “this way’ cue, which means that I want her to change direction to move in the same direction as me. I like it, because sometimes I just need her attention and want to re-direct her, don’t need her to come all the way to me. It’s reinforced (I think) by allowing her to continue exploring.

  11. Okay gals! I NEED to do this training with my new rescue dog! The hubby left the gate open and he calmly trotted off down the busy street this am with buses and cars, and there I was following him with his leash (which he loves and if he sees it he usually starts wagging away) to no avail as he kept a good 50 ft between he and I merrily dodging traffic and giving me a heart attack! I tried all the recalls we have in the yard and not even a faint glance form him, tried moving in another direction towards a safer area and nothing. He has obviously done this before many times in his past home…? I managed to catch him only because some dogs started barking and he got himself stuck between a guard rail and some fencing. As soon as I attached the leash he most happily came along back into the yard. SO where to start? a recall or a sit/stay, down/stay. Or all of the above. He is easily stressed and is on low dose of Prozac which seems to have helped him in his general every day life. We have just been able to ask him in the house (after 6 mos) and he comes in most times on his own. (used to have to leash him) Sometimes I do use body pressure and herd him in….which after reading Eileen’s post on aversives, may be part of our problem with him moving away from me when out in the big world.
    Thanks all for any help!!

    1. I like Nicky’s advice of looking at the Training Levels. More than anything, I would start integrating all sorts of mini recalls into life. For fabulous treats, like Nicky recommended. Dogs can tell the difference between “training sessions” and real life, unless we blur those lines on purpose. Just a few minutes ago, I knew that one of my dogs was still outside and probably was about ready to come in. I used that probability to my advantage. I grabbed up a piece of Stella and Chewy’s (freeze dried raw food), went to the back door and called her. She got a great treat for coming in.

      Angela, I must admit that I had never thought of that side effect of using body pressure to herd a dog around, and I think it is a great point. If one does that a lot, then what does the dog think when we walk towards them the rest of the time?

      Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels (and many other trainers) integrate a collar grab into recalls, working up to it gradually of course. Teaches the dog not to dart away from a reaching hand. Good luck!

  12. Angela, Google Sue Ailsby’s training levels and start from there.

    Eileen, I love recalls too. I should say my dogs do. I reward every recall too, even when they are just checking in on a walk. A very handy tip from Pippa Mattison’s book, Total Recall is to carry a pouch of wet cat food as a jackpot for an ace recall. Used once in a blue moon, works wonders.

    I was told to limit “drop on recall” to 1 in 10 happy recalls. Seems good advice.

    I know this is an old post. Thanks for this blog. It keeps me motivated.. I’ve had a lovely evening, following links and reading old posts.

    1. Thanks, Nicky! You reminded me of this article, where Kathy Sdao “plants” a hamburger ahead of time in the crotch of a tree to use as a great surprise reward.

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