Of all the commands you teach your pit bull, none may be as important as the recall. Not only is a reliable recall an essential component of any off-lead adventure, but one day it could actually save your dog's life.
If you see your pit bull dashing toward oncoming traffic or preying on a venomous snake about to strike, you need him to come when you call--immediately and reliably.
Common Recall Mistakes
Before I explain how to train for a reliable recall, let's talk about what NOT to do.
Never call your dog to punish him!
If your dog is chasing squirrels and ignoring your call, go and get him. Don't wait until he finally comes and then scold him.
But intentional punishment isn't the only problem. Many people inadvertently punish their dog for coming when they call. From your perspective, nail clipping or a bath aren't punishments, but your dog may feel differently. At the very least, these are unpleasant activities most canines would rather avoid. If you call your pit bull and then put him in the tub when he comes, he may be less inclined to come the next time you call.
If you need to do something you know won't thrill your dog, it's much better to just go over and get him.
Principles of Recall Training
In order to teach your pit bull to come when called, you should:
- Always use positive reinforcement (treats, praise, hugs, play, environmental reinforcers) when your dog comes to you.
- Avoid calling your dog if you know she's unlikely to come; doing so only weakens your verbal cue and sets your dog up to fail.
- Never call your dog to punish her or do something she considers unpleasant.
What You Will Need
Recall training is an ongoing process; don't expect to teach a reliable recall in a week (though it's certainly possible to lay a strong foundation in that time frame). Teaching your dog to always come when you call will take time. It also helps to have:
- The most delicious treats you can find. Whatever your dog finds irresistible is a good choice.
- Other reinforcers such as tug or fetch toys. You know best what motivates your pit bull.
- A clicker (optional).
- One or more other people (also optional).
Begin by practicing indoors where there are few distractions. Standing or kneeling about 8-10 feet from your dog, encourage her to come to you, but don't use the "come" command yet. Instead, get down on the ground, clap lightly, or do whatever else you can think of to get your dog to come to you. If you're using a clicker, start shaping the recall by initially clicking as soon as your dog starts moving toward you.
Eventually you may require her to sit at your feet to earn a click, but in the beginning, you can reward any movement in your direction. Once she comes to you, reach down and briefly grab her collar with one hand while treating her with the other (do this regardless of whether you are using a clicker or not). Praise profusely.
If you have already taught your pit bull the "stay" command, you can put her into a "sit-stay" while you move ten feet away from her and repeat the exercise. Otherwise, having another person present would come in very handy to prevent your dog from following you immediately.
Once your pit bull reliably comes to you, you can introduce the verbal cue ("come" or whatever else you may prefer). Do this by initially giving the cue when your dog has already started to move toward you. After several repetitions, say the cue word as he is about to come to you. Don't use the cue to elicit the recall unless you are certain your dog will respond.
Adding Distance and Distractions
When your pit bull reliably comes every time you call her indoors, the next step is to start practicing in your yard. If you have one or more people assisting you, ask them to stand 15-20 feet apart and take turns calling your dog. When she comes, the person who called her should deliver the positive reinforcement while briefly grabbing her collar. As your dog becomes more reliable, you can gradually increase the distance.
Why the collar grab? If you grab your dog's collar only when you're about to put her on leash (possibly to lead her away from whatever fun activity she's engaged in), she could learn to resist being grabbed by you, and that's something you obviously want to avoid. By feeding her an especially delicious treat while grabbing her collar, you're creating a positive association, and by releasing her right away, you're teaching her that having her collar grabbed doesn't automatically mean that her freedom is about to come to an end.
So far you've tried calling your dog only when he's already focused on you. When you're ready to add distractions, start by calling your dog away from something he is only mildly engaged in and initially stand just a few feet away from him when you give the cue. Remember, you're trying to set your dog up to succeed.
If he comes, provide extra positive reinforcement, then let him go back to what he was doing. This last part is especially important. Let's say your dog is having a great time playing with canine friends or chasing rabbits. If you call him only when it's time to go home, don't be surprised if he pretends not to hear you. After all, he knows very well that obeying means his fun will come to an end. Instead, teach him to repeatedly check in with you during play sessions. You do this by calling him, offering lots of praise and a yummy treat when he comes, and then letting him return to whatever he was doing.
But what if your dog doesn't come when you call? If it happens during a training session, have him see you put away your treats, saying "Too bad" or something similar. Then turn around and leave the room, or, if outdoors, walk back into the house. If he's playing with other dogs in the park or chasing rabbits in a field, and he ignores your call, go and get him. Every time you call and he ignores you, you weaken your cue ("come" or whatever you're using), so no matter where you are or what the context, never call your dog more than once.
The bottom line is that if your pit bull ignores your call, you probably moved too fast, adding distance or distractions too quickly. Remember that recall training is a slow, gradual process, and dial back the difficulty level a notch. Keep it up, and you'll eventually be rewarded with a canine companion who comes when you call, no matter what the situation.