Recalls, Poisoned Cues and Distractions

What is one of the most important things that we need our dogs to do? Yep, come back when they are called. If they come when called, then they can have so much freedom, running free on the beach, in the woods, in parks etc. If they don’t come back when they are called, then they generally end up being stuck on a lead when being exercised (which does limit how much the dog can act as a dog) or they end up being one of those annoying dogs that run up to everyone and every dog.

Why have I chosen this particular subject for a blog post? Sadly, I have a dog that has ‘lost’ her recall. Is she being naughty? stubborn? defiant? dominant? stupid? No, she just doesn’t understand what I want of her. This is going to be a very honest post of a dog trainer’s mistakes (note I say my mistakes, not the dogs…it’s not her fault)

Why has this happened? She’s been very well socialised with dogs and people from a young age, and much as I hate to admit it, at the moment, other dogs and people are much more exciting that I am. I made the fatal mistake of not making her greeting of people and dogs a reward for doing good stuff. Add to this the fact that she has had health issues that have resulted in a long period of time being spent on restricted, on lead exercise. When freedom came, it was just so exciting, and her recall became sloppy. Lack of training and reinforcement is the biggest cause of her poor recall; I got sloppy and took her recall for granted. Big mistake. The problem is now, that when she does get off the lead by accident, she will not come back and makes a bee-line for everyone else. Apologies to all that she has annoyed recently. She is also an adolescent, a teenager, with all the joys that brings.

This lack of recall is now affecting her flyball training as, although she will generally come back to her tug in training; in competition she can’t cope and her recall to tuggy goes out of the window. In fact, her recall goes out of the window full stop! We’ve now also progressed (regressed?) to her not coming in from the garden when called. Bit of a wake up call when you have to go and fetch your dog out of the garden every time!

I have now ‘poisoned’ the recall cue, so that it doesn’t mean come back to me as quickly as you can as soon as I call you, but now means do as you please while I say this meaningless word several times with several variations. Sound familiar? Having trained numerous of my own dogs (and other people’s) to spin on a sixpence and head back at full speed; it’s a bit of a shock when your darling adolescent dog sits there looking at you with her tail wagging and won’t come to you, or she legs it across a field to say hello to everyone else and totally ignores you. Our recall cue now means just do as you please, I’ll come and fetch you.

I’m sure many of you can relate to this problem. It is definitely a very common problem and is usually proceeded by dogs owners shouting across to another dog owner ‘It’s OK, she/he is friendly’ The problem comes when the dog or person that your dog is approaching doesn’t like dogs for one reason or another and let’s face it, my dog is out of my control.

So what am I going to do about it?

  • Am I going to restrict her to being on lead for the rest of her life? No. She will be on  a lead or a long line until our recall is reliable, but that won’t be forever and she will be able to go off lead in secure areas where she cannot go and annoy anyone else.
  • Am I going to stick an electric collar on her and punish her for not coming when I call? No! That will totally confuse her, is likely to make her aggressive to whatever she was concentrating on when she was shocked (whether that is people, dogs or whatever) and it won’t actually teach her to come back when called, it will only punish her for being away from me but won’t teach her to come back to me.
  • Am I going to run after her and tell her off for not coming back? No! All that will do is make her frightened of me and make her more likely to run away from me. It may also turn into a great game of chase, leading to even more recall problems.
  • Am I going to get the treats out and bribe her to come to me? No! Yes I am going to use treats and other rewards, but I am going to use them to reward her for doing stuff that I want her to do rather than using them as a lure/bribe to keep her close.
  • Am I going to teach her a recall using rewards? Yes! I am going to go back to basics and re-train this recall. I may need to change the recall cue (remember that I said our  recall cue now means do as you please). I am going to teach her that coming back to me is fun and so rewarding.

Let’s be honest now; this recall isn’t going to get better if I ignore the problem, it is only going to get worse!

So how am I going to teach this recall?

This is a basic overview.

  • The first step is to reward her for responding to the cue in a familiar (smallish) environment. I will be using the living room and kitchen, both very familiar and hence not very distracting. She will be rewarded to turning towards quickly when I give the cue. I want a whiplash like orientation towards me when I give the cue.
  • Next step will be to work on this outside in the garden on our own and then with one or more of the other dogs present; starting with the dogs that she is least likely to want to play with.
  • We’ll then progress to novel environments (starting with those have have no people or dogs present, then areas/times with few dogs/people about and then places with lots of people/dogs). She will be on  a lead to begin with and then a harness and long line as we build towards keeping that fast response to the recall cue.
  • As her recall develops, we’ll gradually increase the distraction levels until she is reliable in all situations.

How will I know whether the distraction level is too high for her and how will I adapt the training to lower these distractions to a workable level?

Distractions can be anything, from people stood still, walking, running, playing football, sitting, eating etc, to dogs on lead sitting still, on lead and walking, off lead walking, off lead running, off lead running, off lead fetching a ball, multiple dogs playing, to horses, sheep, squirrels, rabbits, ducks swans etc. Basically anything that is going to take your dog’s focus and attention away from you.

To gauge whether the distraction level is too high (i.e. you are too close or the activity is too intense), ask your dog to carry out a very well known behaviour (for most dogs, sit is ideal). If your dog cannot carry out that behaviour, then the distraction is too much. Move away from the distraction (2 or 3 meters) and try again. If the dog can sit, then you can practice your recalls (on a lead or line remember) and then gradually move closer to the distraction. If the dog still can’t carry out that well known behaviour, then you will need to move even further away.

It is essential that the dog is trained around distractions otherwise you end up with a dog that is fine when there is nothing else about, but won’t recall once there are dogs or people or wildlife about.

The line or lead is just there to stop the dog making errors (i.e. learning to run off). Every successful recall needs rewarding, although what the reward is can be random. So it could be high value food, low value food, verbal praise, a scrtitch, a game with a favorite toy, being allowed to go and say hello to a friendly person or dog, being allowed to go and sniff, or swim….basically anything that the dog likes.

With a bit of effort from me, Wish should soon have her recall back. This lesson will teach me not to be complacent about my recall again. We’ll incorporate a lot of games and fun into our recall training (like I’ve done with the other dogs) and that reliable recall will soon be ours.

Happy and successful training. I’ve written a step by step plan for me and Wish. If you’d like a copy, drop me and email on

Crossbreeds; the good,the bad and the ugly. Part 2

As promised, I’m back to continue our look at crossbreeds and their behavioural traits.

The flying dog depicted at the top of the page is Ziva, an approximately 5 year old Malinois cross. She is a rescue; so of course, we’re not 100% sure what she is, but she certainly shows a lot of behavioural traits of a working type Malinois: very high drive, very athletic, very little impulse control (boy have we worked hard on that), almost endless energy, strong guarding instinct, huge ball drive with a touch of possessiveness (all toys are her’s especially if someone else wants it) and she is so strong when tugging. She is also very very persistent when trying to get a toy that she wants.

We did have her DNA tested to see what breeds were in her make-up. It came back that she was a Boxer cross GSD. Really? I think not. Why do I think this? Well Boxers are clowns, are very playful, very athletic and do tend to have a lot of energy when they are younger, and can lack impulse control, but Ziva is much more extreme than any Boxer I have met which is why I don’t think she has Boxer in her genes.

GSDs can have a strong guarding instinct (they really do like their family to be together), can be a bit suspicious, bark a far bit. Yes, the working types can be high drive, can have plenty of ball drive and can lack impulse control, but generally, they are pretty level headed dogs. They can be athletic for their size, but do tend to be trotters rather than runners when it comes to day to day activities. Ziva is a runner and rarely trots. Again her behavioural traits are so much more extreme than GSDs I have owned or met, although, some of the really high drive ones are similar.

She is also quite small (smaller than either a GSD or a Boxer) and doesn’t really have the body shape of either. Colouring is  a bit GSD like. So all in all, looking at just her behavioural traits and having lived with her for 4 years, she is more like a Malinois than a GSD or a Boxer.

Below is a sequence of photos showing Ziva trying to get the tennis ball that I placed on a fence post that is around 5ft 6inches high. It took her about 30 minutes to get the ball down (which indicates how persistent she is, as well as how athletic and how fit she is)

The point that I am trying to make is not to just look at the cute appearance of a puppy (after all, all puppies are cute), but to research the breeds that go into making that particular crossbreed.

Let’s have a look at the main behavioural traits of some popular breeds;

Shih Tzus were bred to alert Tibetan monks to the presence of visitors; so yes, they are going to  bark a fair bit.

German Shepherds are a guarding breed, so yes, they will bark at that leaf falling four streets away and may be a bit wary of people and dogs (they also, like so many guarding breeds, need socialising with people and dogs until they are at least 2 years old; but that’s a topic for another blog).

Shetland sheepdogs were bred to herd, so don’t be surprised if they try to herd the children up *or chase bikes, joggers etc.) They may be small, but they do tend to bark a lot, so be warned.

Siberian Huskies were bred to live in groups, be able to fend for themselves and to run/trot over great distances. Don;t be surprised if they prefer being outside to inside, or that they like to dig themselves a sleeping hollow (this might be in your garden or your sofa), they like canine company, are fully capable of looking after themselves (very independent), have a high prey drive (so likely to go chasing rabbits, deer etc.) and will run and run.

Border collies are very intelligent dogs that love  a job of work to do and if not given something to do, they will invent their own way of occupying themselves. They need to be able to use their brains as well as needing physical exercise. People think that they need to walk a collie for hours to tired it out. All that does is give you a very fit collie. They need brain games to really wear them out (scent games, puzzles etc.) and are well suited to a wide range of dogs sports. However, they do tend to herd, many will want to chase joggers, cyclists and even cars due to this herding instinct, and they can be a bit obsessive and some will show OCD tendencies. These traits will come out in Collie crosses.

Staffordshire bull terriers are fabulous dogs in the right hands. They adore people and especially children. They can be very excitable and can lack impulse control. They are very strong for their size, and although they won’t usually start a fight with another dog, if another dog starts a fight with them, they will finish the fight. They are bred to be very tenacious and should never be aggressive (if bred and reared correctly). Huge stamina. They can be very vocal (the staffie witter as well as the staffie scream). They do like their home comforts (so expect a staffie to want to be on your lap) and dislike getting wet (often not wanting to go out if it is raining) and dislike being cold. There are some cracking staffie crosses out there that make super pets and are fab for dog sports.

Jack Russell Terriers were originally bred to be ratters and some are still used for that purpose today. They are likely to get very excited when they hear squeaking noises (whether it is from a toy or a child) as that what their prey would sound like. Very tenacious, are likely to dig, are highly likely to destroy and de-stuff any toys (particularly squeaky ones) and may well go off rabbiting when on a walk. If you want one to live with small furry animals (rats, mice, guinea pigs, rabbits etc.), then do not get one off a farm or that is working bred as they are likely to do what they are bred to do. They can be yappers, can lack impulse control and can be nippers. They are bright little dogs and do love to learn tricks, do puzzles etc. I love them to bits and have three here that are just fabulous.

Cavaliers were bred to be companion dogs and are generally fab pets. However, they do need to use their brains and love being taught tricks and playing nosework games. they also excel at agility.

Bichon Frise. Another breed that is popular in ‘designer’ cross breeds. Lovely dogs and behind that white fluffy coat is a very intelligent dog that needs to use its brain. These are not just a couch potato or a pretty dog; they do need to do something. Very trainable.

I could go on for pages, but lets just do a few generalizations.
Retrievers (Labradors, Goldies, Flatcoats etc.) are generally good natured breeds that like to greet you with a ‘pheasant’ in their mouths. So expect them to pick things up and carry them (and teach them to give it up when asked) but this does tend to make them a little possessive over some toys/items, so be aware of this.They are likely to love water and getting muddy.

Spaniels (Cockers, Springers etc.) are again generally good natured, were bred to hunt  so are likely to cover large distances and may range at quite a distance from you are may chase birds, bunnies etc. They may also liable to resource guard. They can be a bit obsessive, so you may see some OCD traits in some individuals. Again, they are likely to love water and mud!

Guarding breeds (GSDs, Rottweilers, Dobermanns, Mastiffs, etc.) are likely to bark, may be suspicious of people they don’t know, may like to keep their family together and may get stressed if they aren’t and do need a lot of socialising.

Northern breeds (huskies, Malemutes etc) are likely to be independent dogs that can cover huge distances. They are likely to be diggers and can be escape artists (minmum 6ft fence required) and can howl (s tolerant neighbours are needed). They generally have a high prey drive.

Scenthounds (Beagles, Bassets, PBGV etc.) are likely to go off following their nose and will be deaf to your calls. Generally sociable dogs. Recall will need a  lot of work.

Sighthounds (Greyhounds, Whippets, Lurchers, Salukis etc.) These tend to be sprinters. They are likely to chase anything that crosses their line of sight (so need to be taught a chase recall). They can be escapologists. They do need to run, but generally a short blast is all they will do before gong back to a leisurely walk. They can be couch potatoes, are likely to feel the cold and may dislike going out when it is raining or cold. I’ll just caution about the ‘scream of death’ that sounds like they are being killed and is usually given when they have been injured slightly.

I hope this has given you a bit of an insight as to why your crossbreed acts the way it does. If you are considering buying a crossbreed, please research the breeds that are making up that cross and ask yourself whether you can live with those traits. Assume that you will get the worst of both breeds; can you live with a dog showing those traits. If yes, go a head and buy that dogs (assuming that both parents have been health tested, are friendly and that the mother is present with the puppies). If no; then walk away and consider another cross or a pure breed. Don’t ever assume that you will only get the ‘good’ traits of both breeds in a cross; you may be lucky, you may not be. Don’t just by a crossbred pup because it looks cute. Do your research, don’t just rely on what the breeder tells you.

Although this article is about behavioural traits, please also check out the grooming requirements/problems with your favoured crossbreed. Ask your local groomer what problems they see, how often a dog should be brushed and/or clipped. Breeders will often say that a dog doesn’t need a lot of grooming when in actual fact they do. Cockerpoos need grooming on a daily basis and not just brushing the top coat, but brushing right down to the skin, otherwise they will mat (meaning your dog gets clipped off really short when they go to the groomers) and this will cause discomfort which may show itself as a dog growling when touched or being wary of people.

Also check with your vet as to what breed specific diseases are common in the breeds that make up the cross you are interested in and what common ailments they see is breeds such as cockerpoos, labradoodle, Cavachons, Pomskis etc.

Crossbreeds; the good, the bad and the ugly. Part 1

Now don’t get me wrong, I love crossbreeds. I own a cockerpoo (or cocker spaniel cross poodle if you prefer), but there are some crossbreeds that are just a disaster waiting to happen when you consider the behavioural traits and some that possess remarkable abilities; if you believe the breeder.

Avoiding the arguments regarding hybrid vigour and whether crossbreeds are actually any healthier than either of their parents; let’s look at the important behavioural traits as these are the traits that make a dog suitable for a pet home or make it more suited for an active home.

It is important to do your research on the behaviour traits of all of the breeds that make up your crossbreed, and look at all the traits, not just the ones you like but the ones that aren’t so desirable.

Take cockerpoos…mine is from a cocker mother and a miniature poodle dad, both similar sizes, so I knew I was going to get a small/medium sized dog. Cockers tend to be very active, are very driven by scent (they were bred to hunt game remember) and this can lead them to wander quite a way away from you on walks unless trained to stay close, they can be chase orientated, generally like to retrieve but they can be resource guarders (food and toys). They can also be water lovers (usually the filthiest, smelliest water they can find). They are generally quiet dogs but I have met some that are serious barkers. They are also generally people sociable and dog sociable (if they have been socialised correctly). They may have a heavy coat and will need regular grooming.

Poodles don’t shed and will need regular clipping and grooming. They are ‘people’ dogs and just love to be around people and don’t do quite so well if they are left home alone. They tend to be yappers (always the exception to the rule) and they do tend to jump up and seem to like standing up on  their back legs. They were originally water dogs and were bred to hunt game, although this does seem to have been diluted down. They are active dogs and need something to do.

I’ve ended up with exactly the dog I wanted – an active dog that is very toy orientated and roughly cocker sized. Luckily for me, she isn’t particularly vocal (although we sometimes get the cocker wooohooo) and she isn’t a resource guarder, although she does show some possessive traits. Yes she jumps up, yes she loves all people and all dogs. She has a heavy wavey coat that needs regular grooming and clipping. I’m lucky, because she is exactly what I was expecting. Many pet owners are not prepared for how active this cross can be, and those that are from working cockers are even more active. These dogs need a job to do; we’ve crossed to active, intelligent breeds and expect them to be content to have a 20 minute walk, twice a day. Sorry folks, they need a lot more mental stimulation than that. These dogs need to use their brains. They love scent work, love retrieve games, love activities such as flyball and agility and can be easily taught to help out around the home. They are not couch potatoes!

The same can be said of Labradoodles (labrador cross poodle). Again you have crossed two active, intelligent breeds that need to be doing something and many are not going to be content with just a short bumble around the park. The males may go through a real teenage phase and can be a bit rude with other dogs once they hit 7 months or so, and if this isn’t handled correctly, they can end up being bullies or end up dog aggressive. The males also tend to be much taller than a labrador if a standard poodle is used in the cross and can have a variety of coats (some of which moult quite badly).

Sprockers (cocker cross springer) tend to be happy go lucky, active, intelligent dogs and the cross has been around for ages…they do make a very good gundog. However, they can be resource guarders, can have a high chase drive and can be hunting machines that will find themselves several fields away from you if you don’t train them to stay close.

Husky crosses can look very pretty, but you need to consider the breed traits of the husky. These are bred to be independent dogs (let’s face it, they can survive without humans in a very harsh climate) and they are bred to run. They also have a very strong prey drive and often disappear chasing something. Couple this drive with something like a lurcher, or sighthound and you have a dog that is bred to run and to hunt and to be very independent and there is a whole host of trouble just waiting to happen.

Collie crosses are very common and many seem to be fab dogs in the right hands, but consider a collie’s traits. They have a strong instinct to herd (whether it is people, other dogs, cyclists, cars etc.), they are very intelligent and active and due to their herding heritage, they may well nip at ankles. Other dogs can find them hard to deal with due to the herding behaviour and due to the collie stare (also known as eye). Collies can be chasers (cars, cyclists, children, other dogs etc) and need a job of work to do. Taking a collie out for a long walk will just make it fitter and fitter and you will find that you’ll need to walk further and further each day in order to tire your collie out if you are just relying on physical exercise. They have incredible stamina.

Couple this stamina and speed with a spaniel and you’ve got a dog that is likely to be triggered to chased birds, rabbits, squirrels etc and has the stamina to run for miles. As collies can be very movement sensitive, the slightest movement and they can be off. Yes, they are some fabulous collie crosses out there that are fabulous family pets and you may well be lucky enough to find one that is a laid back couch potato, but be prepared that you may get the tireless workaholic side.

We’ll take a look at some other crosses in the next blog.
I’m not against crossbreeding as long as it is done responsibly and the behavioural traits of each breed are taken into consideration. Being unprepared for what you might get is why so many of these dogs end up being rehomed.

Check back for part 2



Frustration in Dog Training

There have been numerous blogs and articles looking at the dog’s frustration during training and giving tips for how to deal with it, but something that occurs just as frequently is frustration in the human half of the equation and how do we deal with that?

We get frustrated when things don’t happen as quickly as we want them or they don’t happen the way we expect them to; we’re human after all. Even the best trainers will get frustrated, although some of them won’t admit it. If you are an instructor; you’ve probably got frustrated because one of your client’s just isn’t getting it and yet the dog does it perfectly when you handle the dog.

So why does this happen? First off we’re human; it’s part of our emotional repertoire. Some people are more impulsive than others; that is, they lack self-control (maybe something we should be teaching children so that they develop this skill), maybe they aren’t very patient and want instant results, maybe they haven’t thought out a logical training plan and have no idea what to do when things start to go wrong or maybe the behaviour that the dog is carrying out is so annoying and irritating, that they are struggling to find a way of coping with it rationally. Another one that is really frustrating is when you are trying to teach something and your dog can’t focus and your instructor is telling you to get his attention, but isn’t telling you how….this one is so frustrating when you are a handler.

So what do we do about these human traits? Stop what you are doing, take a deep breathe, walk away from your dog and have a break. That is your first step. Continuing to train when you are frustrated is going to end in disaster. You could end putting the dog off the behaviour that you want him to carry out (because your frustration is acting like an aversive to the dog and it won’t be earning as many rewards – a double whammy if you like; the behaviour that you find irritating is likely to increase (or escalate) as your increased attention to that behaviour could be reinforcing it or if it is a stress-related behaviour or an attention seeking behaviour, these will both increase as the dog becomes stressed and tries to appease you.

We may also over use a NMR (No Reward Marker) when we get frustrated which will have an aversive effect on the dog and they will start to shut down, which is likely to frustrate us even more if we aren’t careful, resulting in a vicious cycle.

I cannot emphasise enough that you need to stop and take a break. Go and do something other than train your dog. When you have calmed down and can think, then you can plan what you are going to do differently.

There are several options for you to consider:

  1. Consider breaking the behaviour down into smaller steps. That way it is easier for the dog (who will get reinforced more and will progress faster) and you will get reinforced more because the dog is doing what you want him to do.
  2. Video a training session so that you can see what you need to improve on and then find someone to teach you those skills
  3. Take a break from trying to teach that behaviour for a while. This break may be a couple of days or several weeks. You’d be amazed at how often the dog processes the information from your last session and how often you’ll see the dog progress faster when you resume training after a break. A bit of latent learning can be a very powerful thing.
  4. If it is an irritating behaviour, change your perspective; instead of thinking ‘How can I stop the dog doing that?’ considering what you would like your dog to do instead.
  5. If it is one of your clients that you are trying to coach through an exercise, consider changing how you are trying to teach it. Are you focussing too much on what they are doing wrong? If so, look for what they are doing correctly and reinforce them for that. So excellent timing, well done, great treat placement, well done. Consider getting them to mirror your action as you walk them through it step by step. If they confuse their left and right, look for some way of helping them they wear a watch or a bracelet on their left arm or a ring on a finger..something that is different to their right arm. Demonstrating with their dog only shows that you can get their dog to do it but it doesn’t make the owner feel any better about themselves.
  6. Minimize or avoid the use of NRM.
  7. If your instructor isn’t able to give you the tools to get your dogs attention, then take a break and consider your options. Is the environment too much for your dog at its current level in focus and engagement training? Does the instructor lack the knowledge to help you work through this problem? Does the instructor lack experience of your breed of dog? May be a change of instructor is called for just whilst you learn how to build the focus and engagement that you need. May be a total change of instructor is needed.

I’m sure you can think of other situations where you may get frustrated.

A couple of real-life examples for you:
1. A recent rescue dog has no idea to play and the handler is trying to teach the dog to retrieve (only a play retrieve not a formal one) and the dog is struggling to grasp that they have to pick the item up off the floor, but will hold it if the handler holds it. The handler has tried different objects and is no further one. After a week or so of making very little progress, the handler takes a break and moves on to doing other things. After the break, the handler gets an article out and all of a sudden, progress is more rapid and the dog now has the basics of a play retrieve. Breaking the cycle of handler frustration and giving the dog a break, enabled the tension of the situation to dissipate and for the dog to be able to learn.  The handler being more relaxed enable them to be better with their timing and to be more enthusiastic with their praise.

2. A rather stressy working bred, high drive rescue has the habit of leaping up and nipping at times of high excitement. Really not very pleasant for the handler (the nips hurt) and very hard not to react by pushing the dog off and shouting at it. A very frustrating situation for the handler. So, as the dog is quite food orientated, the handler dropped food on the floor whenever they got the dog out the their vehicle to distract the dog from leaping and nipping and also used the food drop technique frequently as they walked the dog, to reinforce the paws on the floor. A hand touch was also trained and the dog encouraged to leap up to touch the hand (so that the dog had an activity that they enjoyed doing and it was another reward that could be used). Food was also tossed on walks to give the dog something to chase and to build that into a game that is played with the handler. As time progressed, the dog could then be rewarded from the hand for walking nicely and not jumping/nipping. This one is still work in progress but the nipping is now becoming a memory rather than a frequent occurrence and the handler is starting to enjoy the dog and is building a relationship with it.

Enjoy your dogs, enjoy your training and don’t be frightened to take a break, it will do you and your dog and your relationship, the World of good.




Welcome to Canine Tutor’s blog. Here we will post about issues that have come to light in our own training, whilst we’ve been delivering workshops, topics in the news and topics that have been requested by our followers and course attendees.

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