The recall – the road to freedom

Since the quite cataclysmic Finnish debacle this winter when Quling “did” Finland by hunting and disappearing into the Finnish forests, flushing pheasant after pheasant, hunting like a maniac for 15 minutes completely out of my control, I’ve mostly worked on our recall. I have, as you know, let go of the thought of him as hunting dog in one aspect – he’s never going to be a dog that I’ll trial with, but I might be able to work until I have some control over him. But the other aspect of our hunting training is the fact that I train to learn things and to make our everyday life work. And then we’ll see where that takes us. His great desire to hunt combined with his anxious and very cautious side doesn’t challenge me as much when I don’t try to do anything that’s too difficult for him. I have partly accepted that that’s the way he is and I’ve also managed to create a bit of a grey scale around his behavior – not everything is black or white, or 100 % ON or 100 % OFF at all times.

I have tried to build him up from different directions. Among other things, I have focused on our cooperation. We have, for example, taken classes in competitive obedience and had so much fun – do you know how much the foundation skills for hunting allows you to conjure up lots of behaviors for the obedience? He is super-talented and full of joy and focus in that training. I have also continued with nose work, which also builds our cooperation because we have so much fun together and because I’m the route to all the rewards.

In addition, I have worked a lot in everyday life by rewarding Quling with what he wants. Naturally, it’s always part of my way of thinking of training – using things that the dog wants as rewards. But I have tried to take it one step further and really think about possible environmental rewards.

I never ever want to end up back in the situation when my dog disappears on the horizon and the only trace I see of him is pheasants flushing here and there in a forest further away. Since I have opted out of (consciously) using punishment as a consequence in dog training and working with clicker training instead, I need to think a bit more. I will of course never ever find a reward that causes him to choose another activity than the amazing one – hunting – that is the best in the world for him. So I need to make sure that he doesn’t get a chance to rehearse hunting like an absolute maniac without me and at the same time put in a great amount of training (and richly rewarding) the behaviors I want instead or behaviors that can help break the madness. The behaviors I want instead is has to with him hunting in hand – thus together with me. I’m working on it, even though there are very limited opportunities to practice it right now while the ban to have dogs off leash is active here in Sweden.

But something that I can work on is the recall and the stop. So that’s what we’ve been doing. Quling actually has a very good response to the stop whistle when working. I can stop him within a couple of hundred meters without any problems. All the whistles work great when he is in hand and in a good mood. But when he ends up in his completely out of hand hunting like a maniac mode, my stop whistle only works sometimes and that of course isn’t good enough. I’ve been giving it some thought, and perhaps I can get through to him with the recall instead at first? Quling loves running and he’ll probably rather run towards me at full speed, than stop and sit down when he’s in maniac mode.

So I have started easy, with Quling on a long line, or inside a fenced area, before moving on to working in the cow pastures in increasingly more difficult situations. He gets two rewards for responding to the recall whistle. One is smoked ham or bacon which he is totally crazy about. My partner sometimes grumpily wonders where all his sandwich toppings are going, but I pretend not to hear, haha. The second reward is the cue “RUN”. So, if he comes to me on the recall, he gets to run at full speed as a reward. The run cue means “run at full speed for a while and then come back to me”. In the video below you’ll see how he very consciously runs out at full speed and then “recalls himself” without me using the recall whistle 😉 He created this chain in no time – in the beginning I recalled him as he ran off, but I then began withholding the whistle and he turned anyway.

We’ve now reached the point where I’ve begun to add some heeling in the middle of this. The chain may look like this: recall whistle, ham, heeling – “run”, voluntary recall – ham or / and “run” – recall whistle, etc.

I also reward all the spontaneous contact attempts he makes, or him coming up to me, with ham. In addition, I have a cue, “do your thing”, when he can do just about what he wants, but doesn’t have to return to me straight away.

I am currently walking in one of “my” cow pastures, which is also where we do our training, and where I know where the game passes over in the mornings. I can immediately see if my dogs catch scent and if they do, Quling is put on leash straight away – the other two are fine and they stay close. But I can also use the scent of game on the ground. We’ve now reached the point where I can turn Quling on “old scent”, without any issues.

We’re not quite there with fresh scent. I can see it on our morning walks, where he’s always on leash. He instantly gears up and feels like a completely different dog. Ideally, I’d like to find the middle ground between old scent in our well known cow pasture and really fresh scent from wild boars in the woods, where I more or less hear the boars just turn the corner. Unfortunately, my nose isn’t good enough for that 😉 so it is a bit difficult to find those situations. Once or twice, I’ve tried to go out and work him when I’ve seen a hare jumping around in the field, in order to use that scent. But you need both luck, time and timing for that to happen.

Some dogs seem to have a greater need to run than others. It seems very reinforcing for them to run at full speed. Quling is definitely one of those dogs. It’s easy to end up with just wanting control, being terrified of situations with full speed and therefore ending up holding the dog back. That most likely only creates a pressure cooker of a dog. The more I reward Quling with letting him run, the more he is with me; listening to me and keeping track of me. I can grant him more freedom when he is ready to listen to me. But like everything else, it’s a balancing act. One cue to run too much in the wrong situation and he thought that I meant for him to check the entire county… He is a true opportunist. 😉

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