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I saw an infographic on Facebook today that I had to read several times because I was in such adamant disagreement with one of the suggestions. The information was surrounding recall training and while most of it was helpful, good advice, there was one point that made me cringe as I tried to make sense of it.
The suggestion was: "Never call your dog when they are sniffing... they really do go deaf..." Forgive me for being blunt, but I couldn't possibly disagree more with this advice and I'll venture out on a limb to ask a question in response: At what point do we stop making excuses for an undertrained dog and start taking responsibility so that we can develop and maintain the good behaviours that will keep them from harm? While I'm sure whoever wrote this was well-meaning, it is not a suggestion I will ever get behind, especially surrounding a life-saving skill like the recall. Sniffing is a very real thing and it will definitely need consideration as you work through your recall training. Identifying that is a must, but we have to work through sniffing, not just cross our fingers in hopes that we never NEED our dog to come when a scent catches there attention.
First: Dog's Rarely Stop Sniffing
Those of us who are lucky enough to share our lives with dogs know that they really never stop sniffing. Seriously, watch your dog as they sit still, you'll see their nose moving. Put a piece of food on the ground in front of your dog's nose while they are napping. It's a rare dog who won't immediately engage with the aroma using their nose. Even from a dead sleep, their olfactory receptors are still busy and ready to kick in. This is evolution's way of keeping them safe and it's a very important part of a dog's physiological being.
Dogs experience the world primarily through their sense of smell. Those noses have approximately 300 million olfactory receptors, compared to the 5 million that most humans have. This means that unquestionably, their noses are going to distract them. Will they potentially turn their ears off while they are sniffing? Yes! Should you accept this as an expectation? Thinking that when your dog is in a deep sniff, there's no way you could possibly learn to listen? How well do you think that expectation will serve you when you NEED, not just want, your dog to Come? I'm sure there are some people who are happy to accept that expectation and continue to make excuses for their dogs. I am not one of them! I'd much rather have a reliable recall, even knowing that it means some extra work.
Second: Dogs are Capable of Amazing Things
Dogs are very smart and capable creatures and they have amazing noses. There's no question about that. They can sniff out Cancer cells, predict seizure activity, smell bed bugs, detect drugs with just their noses, smell excess currency on a person in a crowded airport and truly, this list could go on forever. Their noses are an incredibly powerful thing, without question, but I can't imagine for a second suggesting that they can't 'think' while they are sniffing. How could they possibly accomplish any of these things if they weren't able to become a team with their person? I believe whole heartedly in my dogs and their abilities and considering the tasks they do accomplish, I know not to question their ability to come when called, regardless of ANYTHING that may have their attention, be it another dog, a running squirrel or the best ground odour they've ever found.
Third: If you don't train it, they won't do it
This is the key. There's a great expression that says, "you can't be what you can't see". With dogs, they won't know what you want if you don't train it! You need to put in the effort and teach your dog based on your highest expectation. Don't just train your dog to come to you in the yard. Train your dog EVERYWHERE and with every distraction you can possibly think of. Keep them safe, first and foremost by using a long line through the entirety of their training. Bring them to parks, work on 6 foot recalls on leash at strip malls, work around your home and through your doorways to outdoors, but also work away. Find as many different opportunities as you can to work on your dog's response to this crucial command. Find the tough distractions, don't shy away from them. If you can't find them, create them! The more you train, the better your dog will learn and understand. Anyone who says your dog can't or won't hasn't learned enough about dogs yet. If you put in the time, your dog CAN and your dog WILL! It's truly as simple as that.
There are so many methods in dog training and because dogs are wonderful creatures, they will make progress with most of the methods out there. If you aren't sure how to create the bomb-proof recall, find a qualified dog trainer who can help you. A trainer who has enough experience in the field will teach you how to work through distractions like sniffing while helping to blossom your dog's energy and enthusiasm for running straight to you.
Finally: Teach them to Scent
If you have one of those dogs who LOVES to sniff more than anything, that's GREAT! It may not seem ideal, but it opens up a whole world of possibility, fulfilling games and relationship building. Teach them to work for you with their nose. There are so many fun scenting games you can play with your dog. These games will help them learn to open their ears to you while they use their noses. You can find a nose work class in your area or online, play fun scenting games in the house like hide the cookie or get into some tracking work. Here's a great introductory article about teaching tracking.
In the end, you can have the most fail proof method of recall training at your fingertips, but if you don't teach, practise and proof, you won't have a recall. If you change your expectations to match what's easiest, when the point comes that you really need a solid response, you'll be at a loss.
I'll close with this. Be a team with your dog! Be clear in your teaching and consistent with your expectations. Teach your dog what you want from them and they'll give you their all at 110%. Give them the incentive to do amazing things and they will eagerly hop to it! Your dog is beyond capable as long as you believe they are. Now roll up your sleeves and train!
As always, Happy Training!
Hi! I'm Shannon and I joined the McCann team in 1999 while training Quincey, my wonderful and spirited Rottweiler, to have good listening skills. I'm the Director of Online Training and Content for McCann Professional Dog Trainers and I enjoy writing about dogs and dog training for the McCann blog. I currently share my life with 2 Tollers (Reggie & Ned) and I love helping people develop the best possible relationship with their 4-legged family members.