Picture this: you're out in the countryside, enjoying a walk with your gundog.
You call their name and whistle, expecting them to rush back to you like they do at home and… nothing. Zero response. They don’t even look up from what they’re doing.
In your garden, their recall is impeccable. But here, surrounded by the intoxicating scents of nature, they become deaf to your calls. They're off hunting and exploring - nose on, ears shut off.
This scenario is all too familiar to many gundog owners.
It's a frustrating, sometimes alarming experience, especially when safety becomes a concern.
In this blog, we explore why your gundog won’t listen to you, what to do if they ignore your recall and how to teach your gundog to come back when called, even in challenging environments.
So, why doesn’t my gundog listen to me when we’re on a walk?
Before we dive into teaching a reliable recall, we need to understand why your retriever, spaniel, or HPR finds it difficult and sometimes impossible to respond to cues during your walks in the countryside.
The countryside is rich with stimuli that can easily overwhelm your dog's senses. Scents, sights, and sounds, such as those from wildlife or other dogs, are highly stimulating. This environment creates a high level of external distractions, which can exceed the level of control you have over your dog.
Initially, the field stimuli in such environments are significantly more potent compared to the control you have through your cues. In these situations, they might revert to what behaviour has been most rewarding to them in the past, or they might rely on their natural abilities and instincts to decide what actions to take at the moment.
As the dog's experiences with you grow and you engage in more structured training exercises, this can gradually shift, with the influence of these stimuli decreasing and your influence and control increasing.
Above all, we must also remember that our gundogs are bred and trained to respond to certain environmental cues instinctively.
For instance, the scent of game triggers a hunting sequence in them. In the countryside, these natural instincts are often more pronounced and can overpower learned behaviours like recall.
How do I get my gundog to come back to me even when we're in a distracting environment?
Transitioning your gundog’s recall from a quiet garden to a distraction-rich countryside involves a combination of patience, technique, and understanding of your dog’s instincts.
Start in a baseline environment. Begin training in a less distracting environment, like your garden or a familiar, quiet place. This helps establish a strong foundation for the recall behaviour without overwhelming distractions.
Use a consistent recall cue (like a whistle) and associate it with positive experiences. For example, we like to use a range of games and rewards to build a positive association with the recall cue.
Gradually expose your gundog to more and more distractions and challenging environments by playing these games in different places.
Repeat recall games frequently and use high-value rewards to reinforce the recall behaviour, such as their favourite treats, toys, or activities like letting them hunt a bit of cover. The key is to make returning to you more rewarding than the distractions they encounter.
When training a gundog recall, particularly in a highly distracting place, try to avoid calling your dog away from something they want or enjoy doing. This is because the recall cue can very quickly become a punisher.
You must avoid doing this in the early stages, so in these instances, if you need to recall your dog away from something good, use a temporary verbal cue.
If you do have to use your whistle recall, you must go straight back into the conditioning process and play hundreds of repetitions of the recall games to balance this out.
Training in distracting environments takes time and persistence, so you will need to be patient and consistent in your approach. Remember, the key is to make responding to the recall cue more rewarding and exciting than the distraction itself. As your dog's training progresses, they should learn to prioritise your cues over environmental distractions.
What to do when your gundog ignores your recall?
If your gundog ignores your recall in the heat of the chase or exploration, it’s crucial to remain composed and strategic.
Always avoid showing frustration or anger. Dogs can pick up on your emotional state, and negative reactions can make them less likely to respond in the future.
When your dog returns after ignoring the recall, do not scold them, as this can create a negative association with returning to you. Always reward your dog for returning, even if it takes longer than expected. This reinforcement makes them more likely to come back in the future.
If your dog runs away from you, do not chase or run towards them. Chasing can trigger their prey drive or make them think it’s a game, encouraging them to run further away.
If the dog looks at you but doesn’t come, try showing them a high-value treat or their favourite toy to entice them into you. As mentioned before, we need to make coming back to you more appealing than whatever distracts them.
Avoid repeatedly calling, as when they don’t respond, it will weaken the effectiveness of your recall cue and will become white noise. Instead, wait for a moment when your dog is less distracted and try again.
If ignoring recall becomes a habit, it’s a sign that you need to go back to basics and reinforce the training in less distracting environments before gradually reintroducing more distractions as your dog’s recall improves.
Recall is a skill that must be nurtured and reinforced regularly, especially for gundogs often exposed to highly stimulating environments. You might need to take a step back and consider if the training process might be lacking in some aspects – perhaps the rewards are not motivating enough, or the distractions are too challenging at the current level of training.
If you are struggling with your recall, it is advisable to use a long line for safety reasons to ensure you can retain control over your dog.
Recall: The missing link
The recall will be a lifelong project. The minute you become complacent about the behaviour is the time your dog will be in the wrong drive, flushing birds, or be in danger in the countryside.
Teaching your gundog to focus on you in the environment is an excellent base to begin building your foundations for your recall. This focus is often the missing link between your recall training and the reality of obtaining a reliable recall.
You will need to teach them to be focused on you at any time and from any distance eventually. They may not actually be looking AT you, but they will be aware of you and expecting some direction, another cue, or reassurance that they are working well.
To dive deeper into the art of teaching your gundog to focus on you and recall no matter what, download our free ebook, "Recall: The missing link".
This comprehensive guide offers valuable insights into how dogs learn and behave. It explains the necessity of teaching your gundogs to focus in distracting environments and includes videos and tutorials for a step-by-step approach to achieving reliable recall.
Your journey to a perfectly trained gundog starts here. Click here to get your free copy of Recall: The missing link and transform your walks into enjoyable, stress-free experiences!