01 Nov

How to Manage Recall in Distracting Environments by Understanding your Dogs Instincts and Needs 

Recall is one of the most regular behaviours I am asked to help with because if a dog can’t recall back to you in distracting or potentially dangerous environments the result can be at best annoying and embarrassing to you and others or at worse potentially dangerous for your dog and frightening for you if your dog is out of sight or have got themselves into a situation they or you are unable to deal with. 

Therefore, I recommend that it is best to ensure that you can recall your dog back to you before they get into a situation that is potentially dangerous, frightening or embarrassing to them or you. 

To be able to recall you dog successfully you need the resources to ensure that they want to come back to you in situations that are internally highly rewarding/motivating such as chasing squirrels. birds, people, or vehicles or wanting to play with other dogs. These activities are based on natural hunting instincts and in many dogs, this is what they are bred to do, and we need to be resourceful to counter these instincts before it becomes dangerous, while still letting you dog be a dog when safe and appropriate.

Before trying to recall your dog from naturally distracting environment I recommend you learn to understand your dog’s motivators 

Learning what naturally motivates your dog personally and their breed specific motivators. Such as searching for, herding, chasing, catching, carrying, or potentially killing animals (prey) or directing these same instincts on to people or vehicles if their natural prey is unavailable. These are all primal instincts in different breeds of dogs. 

Once you know your dog’s motivators. It will help you understand

The things that may distract your dog so much that they don’t readily respond to you when they are doing it. Such as sniffing, running, interacting with other dogs, chasing birds etc. 

These activities are fuelled by their or ancient (primal/survival) part of your dog’s brain and will overrule the thinking (analytical) part of their brain. 

It is important to understand that recall is to be used when needed and not as a method of restricting your dog from being a dog in a safe and appropriate environment. Each environment and situation may require an assessment from you to what is safe and appropriate. There are other ways to interact and communicate with your dog rather than recalling them back to you when it is not required.

Here is a broad explanation of what the Kennel Club classified group of dog breeds and common crossbreeds were originally bred so may find these activities internally motivating. This may help when learning to understand what motivates your dog

  • Gundogs including Spaniels and Retrievers like searching, chasing, catching and carrying animals birds or thrown items
  • Pastoral including Collies, Sheepdogs & shepherd dogs like herding, chasing, and managing other animals, people or moving objects using scent or sight
  • Hounds including Beagles, Greyhounds & Dachshunds like searching, chasing, catching, and killing animals and other animals like toys etc using scent or sight
  • Terriers including Jack Russell, Border & Westies like searching, catching, and killing mainly other animals.
  • Working including Boxer, Rottweiler, Husky these may not fit into the above classifications but are used for various working task so may have a variety of motivators which will need researching
  • Toy including Chihuahua, Cavalier King Charles & Pug these have been developed from the other groups to be used mainly as companion dogs and their motivators will depend on the original use of the dogs these were developed from.
  • Utility breeds including Bulldogs, Poodles & Schnauzer which are used for various other tasks so will have a variety of motivators which will need researching
  • Crossbreeds including Cockapoos, Labradoodles and mixed breeds previously called mongrels. The motivators can be identified to a certain degree if their parentage going back a few generations is known. Mixed breeds or dogs with an unknown parentage it will be less easy to guess what may motivate them DNA tests are available but can have varying levels of reliability.

When you understand what motivates your dog you can begin to learn the stages that lead up to your dog reaching their primal mode. Understanding and working with these stages will help with recall as you can identify when they are still in the analytical stage and before they reach primal mode when it may possibly be too late for recall during the earlier stages of learning.

By understanding what motivates your dog you can use various methods to reward your dog for the behaviour you require or prefer and using them to reinforce them when they do recall. The rewards and reinforcement should be appropriate for the level of motivation you are calling them away from. Examples include: 

  • A food, verbal, or physical reward if they have recalled back to you if you feel for their safety, if you feel they are too far away from you.
  • A high value food, a game with you or some other activity they enjoy if they have recalled before going into primal mode.
  • An exceedingly high value reward such as an appropriate chase with you such as playing with balls or other toy or chasing you instead of their intended chase after the bird, dog or person or playing tug with you rather than them playing roughly with another dog. There is nothing better than them getting what they wanted in return for not doing what they wanted.

 A too low value reward for the activity they will think it isn’t worth it. A too high reward means where do you go if the primal/survival mode gets stronger. I suggest you have a variety of rewards available to suit your dog’s motivations and reward or reinforce appropriately every time they do something you are pleased with while they are learning. 

It is important before you attempt to recall you puppy or dog in outside or detracting environments, they understand recall in your home and garden and build up outside distractions gradually. Until you can trust they can recall in any environment for their safety and confidence, your piece of mind and other people and dog’s enjoyment of their chosen activity. I suggest you use a long line, so they are unable to get too far away from you but are still able to act like a dog or hire a private dog field while they learn.

Natural Motivations   

There are several stages that dogs use for hunting, and this is their primary motivation as this was how they survived for many thousands of years. Long before they adapted to coexist with humans and eventually trained to help primitive man hunt for food and much later help them protect livestock and possessions. 

Dogs as companions and family members is a very recent stage of their evolution which means that these natural motivations are still very evident in most breeds of dogs we bring into our homes. 

I strongly feel that as it is our choice to bring these beautiful animals into our homes, they must be applauded for how well they have adapted to living with us fickle and inconsistent beings. We should therefore not try to turn them into furry humans. It is our responsibility to learn to understand and respect their instincts and needs. We should accept they are a different species and have different rules they live by and thank them for putting up with our shortcomings and lack of understanding. This doesn’t mean they need to run feral and do what they want but there should be a balance in the interest of safety and acceptance from both sides. As we can’t ask them if they understand us, we need to do our best to understand them.

How to read your dog’s natural instincts to help with recall 

I specialise in spaniels and their crossbreeds so below is a how to read and understand their natural instincts and hunting sequence. Then you can start identifying what they may be planning to do in the future while still allowing them to act naturally and enjoy life without being over managed by us. 

As mentioned above spaniels are gundogs and are still worked in shooting fields to find (hunt), chase (flush out) and sometimes catch (pick up) and possess (retrieve) the prey usually birds or animals such as rabbits that are being hunted for food or sport. 

Therefore, these natural instincts and motivations are still very evident due to breeding and genetics, whereas some of the other breeds may have had some instincts diluted to a degree due to them not being used for a specific job for many generations. 

The stages of hunting in spaniels etc & how understanding why they may or may not recall during each stage.  

Before we go into each of the stages in detail be aware any sudden or fast movement from their target will accelerate whatever stage they are at up to stage 5 immediately as a dog’s reaction to movement takes them straight into their primal mode. 

Stage 1 Ground sniffing and zig zagging (quartering) - I think of this as normal spaniel movement and as long as it is safe to do so, and they are not causing any issues to themselves, or others. Recall is probably not necessary as long as they have not travelled too far out the distance you are happy for them to roam; redirection should be possible if you feel the need to do so

Stage 2 Air scenting & listening (searching) - They are sensing the presence of by smell or sound something they are interested or concerned about (target). They may stop, stand, or sit with a relaxed body and tail with their head up scanning the area up to 180 degrees in front of them I call this their “funnel” position. At this stage they are deciding what and where the smell or sound is coming from and if they are interested in pursuing it further. At any time, they may decide not to pursue it further and disengage from it by either look in another direction or at you before carrying on. If they continue in this stage for 30 seconds or more, you may wish to attempt to get their attention by using their name or a whistle. Once they have disengaged this is an opportunity to get their attention and either recall or redirect. I suggest you change direction from where they were focussing on as trust them there was something of interest in that direction which may mean they will decide to reengage with their target as you are closer, and they may proceed to stage 3

Stage 3 Pinpointing the location of their target (locating) - They will be staring in a direction with a stiffer body and tail in some breeds this is called pointing. At this stage they know the location of their target but not the actual distance or if it is a viable to pursue further, I call this their “tunnel” position as they have narrowed down the position of their target to a specific and definitive location. As above at any time they may decide to lose interest if they decide the target is not worth pursuing at this time so watch for them to disengage and react accordingly as in stage 2 or they may proceed into stage 4 or 5 the further down the stages the progression time to the next stage may be quicker as they are moving from their analytical mode into their primal mode.

Stage 4 Moving slowly and deliberately forward in a straight line (stalking) - If they have identified their target and it is reasonably close but not close enough, yet they may want to get closer before they make their move and they are or get close enough to instigate the chase by pouncing or lunging into stage 5 (the chase). Not all spaniels do this but other gundog breeds and herding dogs may.

You are now in the danger zone because if the target moves, they will start to chase and will no longer be in in thinking mode. It is preferable to get their attention and direct them away before the chase.

Stage 5 The chase – This is the point the dog will have entered their primal mode and the chase is more motivating than many of the rewards we can offer. Once in this stage the likelihood of getting them to recall is very low until they are further along in there training and have an emergency stop. They will probably chase to its conclusion which may be the target gets away or they get to play or interact with it if it is another dog or person. Once target has got away they will often reconnect with you and you can call them back if it is another dog then you may need to go and get them.

This can happen at any time the target moves regardless of the stage they are at as their reaction to movement is almost instant 

In stages 4 and 5 the dog is in primal mode where their instinct has taken over so they may hear you but are unable to respond as their natural motivations have taken over. In stages 1-3 they are at least partially in analytical thinking mode, so listening is an option. Therefore, letting them operate to stage three is great use of their natural instincts but try to avoid the practicing stages 4 and 5 as they are far too internally rewarding for them.

If you would like to understand your dog’s instincts and motivations to help you with recalling in distracting environments or any other training or behaviour issue consult with a professional dog trainer or behaviourist who offers gentle, rewarding & pain free methods for guidance and support. 

If you would like to speak with me now Click Here to contact Gill at Speaking Spaniel dog training & behaviour support 



07595 217299

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