This question was posted on a Facebook discussion group for professional trainers. For privacy, it has been slightly rephrased and names have been left out. 


I have a dog in for a board and train right now. His owner’s biggest complaint is lack of recall, otherwise he’s a cool, calm dog. Everything he does seems to be at a leisurely pace. I can get him to come when called in a training situation (slowly—zero excitement whatsoever) but when trying to add distractions he needs leash guidance every time. Distractions range from sniffing the grass in my yard to playing with my dog. He’ll take food most of the time but sometimes spits it out. Owners say when he gets excited he won’t come when called and likes to turn it into the “chase me” game. I have him properly conditioned to a remote collar and am using it every time for recall. I’ve tried getting him to tug or play before training sessions to get him a little more excited, but as soon as we start training he slows back down. I always maintain the high energy of the play going into the training but it doesn’t seem to help. I’ve tried rewarding with play instead of food (his owner free feeds which I’ve stopped), I tried only feeding during training and he wouldn’t even look at me. I believe he knows the command well enough but I just haven’t figured out how to get him to perform it reliably.”


I can’t give one simple answer to this so I will break it into seven tips:

1 – STOP USING SOCIAL MEDIA DISCUSSION GROUPS: These groups are cool for chats, general research or simple questions but serious questions should be sent to a specific trainer whose work you admire, not some group where everyone and their mother can throw in their two cents. Call me old school but it would be even better to pick up the phone and call a trusted source. Yes, I mean actually talking to someone, old school. 

2 – AVOID PREMATURE REMOTE COLLAR CONDITIONING: Analyzing the question, he states, “I have him properly conditioned to a remote collar.” He also says he’s “using it every time for recall” and that the dog’s motivation drops when he “starts training.” The logical deduction is that the remote collar is causing avoidance behaviors. Hence, the dog is NOT properly conditioned to the e-collar. It could be poor technique but I’m pretty sure he is simply using it prematurely. In other words, the dog needs basic training without the remote first. 

There are many protocols for “properly conditioning” a dog to the electric collar (e-collar, remote collar, shock collar, stim collar, static collar) being taught through various schools, workshops and online sources. All legitimate sources advise starting with low level stim to avoid causing fear or pain, which I totally agree with. However, there is also a trend towards starting untrained dogs on the remote collar right away, which I believe is premature and wrong. Even low levels can be stressful simply because the dog doesn’t understand where that strange sensation is coming from. It can also be distracting to the dog, which actually inhibits rather than increases the dog’s ability to listen to you. So, the first thing to do is STOP USING THE REMOTE and build a foundation first.   

3 – STOP DOING “TRAINING SESSIONS”: The question is framed in a way that makes the dog sound hard to motivate but what is being described is a drop in motivation, not a lack of motivation. Clearly the dog has good energy when not in “a training session.” The dog “gets excited” and wants to be chased, plays tug, plays with the other dog and takes treats when not in “training.” The dog is playing and tugging just fine but, “as soon as we start training he slows back down.” 

I have a sneaking suspicion that, consciously or not, the trainer is taking the training session too seriously. He is probably thinking something like, “I only have the dog for X amount of time and he has to learn A,B and C before the owners pick him up.” Hey, I understand, it’s a business and clients expect results but sometimes rushing things actually slows things down. 

Dogs have no business sense but they can sense negative energy. Focus less on “training” the dog and more on playing with the dog. After a tug just say “all done”, put the tug in your pocket and walk away. Let the dog sniff around. Wait a few minutes and then invite the dog for another short tug session…NO “Come” command, NO e-collar. 

4 – NATURAL DOGMANSHIP AND GETTING OUT OF THE YARD: Forget “training”, focus on adventure. (environmental rewards) Get out of the yard, go on a hiking trail, an open field, the beach, a lake…somewhere new, fun and interesting with enough room to use a 50’ long line. Yes, it must be at least 50’.

I know, I know, you were taught to stay away from distractions during the learning phase, right? This is typical advice for formal training but what I’m talking about is natural dogmanship. It’s about gaining an even deeper connection and stronger foundation with the dog BEFORE formal obedience. It’s really powerful, more in tune with nature and goes like this:

DO NOT CALL THE DOG TO YOU. Just walk around and see if the dog follows naturally. If the dog does not follow naturally say, “Let's Go”, turn and walk away. If the dog doesn’t respond to your verbal command, give the long line a pop and walk away. Do not try to reward or engage the dog, just keep walking, the adventure is the reward. 

DO NOT FOLLOW THE DOG. The dog can go ahead or lag behind but do not follow him. Change directions often enough that the dog starts keeping an eye on you and following your lead without any commands. It may seem counterintuitive but a slightly aloof attitude can attract the dog to you while trying to engage the dog can be a turn off. 

5 – TRAINING THE CASUAL RECALL: Once the dog is following naturally, responding well to “let’s go” and rarely needing a leash pop, you can start to work on calling the dog to you. Call, “C’mere”, while bending down and clapping your hands against your thighs. Use the long line if you need to but focus primarily on encouragement. Be a cheerleader! When he gets there DO NOT make him sit, just give him a treat, pet him or play with him for a second or two then say, “Let’s go” and continue walking. This is what I call a “casual” recall. 

6 – TRAINING THE FORMAL RECALL: The formal recall is what the trainer asking the question was probably working on. It requires the dog to come and sit in front, facing and focusing on the trainer. Working on this without strong motivation in place can slow the dog down, make him hesitate to come or make him strongly avoid coming when called. The formal “Come” has value but should be taught AFTER the dog is responding well to rewards and already has a solid sit command. 

7 – LAYERING IN THE REMOTE COLLAR: The modern remote electric collar can be an amazing, off-leash-freedom-enhancing tool when used correctly. It is also the most misunderstood and misused tool in the universe! As you can see, even the professional asking the question is misusing the tool simply by using it prematurely. Protocol #1 is train the dog first. Then layer barely perceptible e-collar levels into the conversation with the guidance of an experienced professional that you trust. Pay attention to the dog! If the dog is slowing down, losing motivation, acting timid, shutting down or anything odd at all, there's a problem and you need to stop pushing the button! When in doubt, it’s out. 

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-Chad Culp, Certified Dog Trainer and Canine Behavior Consultant

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