To veer into the financial world for a metaphor, a Really Reliable Recall isn't a CD--it's a savings account. The kind of savings accounts people don't seem to have anymore, where you put in $5 a week and then get back a little nest egg just in time for Christmas. You have to "invest" in your recall on a regular basis. The longer you let it grow between "withdraws" the more bang you'll get for your buck when it's time to cash in.
The unfortunate reality is that we all need to make an investment in a reliable recall. No matter how careful you are, sometimes things happen outside of our control. You need a backup plan. We know you know the dangers of trust and what to do in the minutes and hours (and--hopefully not--days) after your dog gets loose. But here's something that may pay off in those first seconds . . . and save you a lot of heartache.
So here are some tips to building a Really Reliable Recall. Keep in mind, just like your "water-resistant" watch, there is no such thing as a perfect recall. But following these steps will build a strong recall that may one day save your dog's life.
RULE #1: Set your dog up for success.
The most important rule of building a recall is to only practice it when you know it's going to work. How do you do that? Well, start out by using a long leash--or several leads clipped together. Set your dog up for success. Only give them a second to respond and start reeling them in like a fish. You need to start building the association in their minds that when you call, they come. No matter what.
Make sure you have a really great treat and that THEY KNOW IT! And make sure that you are the most interesting thing in their environment. Don't practice your recall in the backyard while your neighbor's intact poodle body slams the adjoining fence. That is definitely an advanced maneuver and you'd better be very sure of your dog before attempting it. You're much better off practicing in your living room, which is much less likely to be invaded by squirrels.
RULE #2: Do NOT use your dog's name.
Your recall is a very specific word or phrase that means "get your butt over here right now." Your dog's name means "look at me, I'm about to tell you something." This is a really important distinction for two reasons. Number one, your dog's name will never be a strong recall because you use it too much. You call their name dozens of times over the course of the day. Every time you call their name, you're making a "withdraw" from your Really Reliable Recall Savings Account. The second reason is that in an emergency, your dog may be quite far away from you when you spot him. If he's on the other side of a busy street you'll need to get his attention but you may not want him to automatically run to you.
So, if you aren't using their name, what are some examples of a recall cue? Well, every dog is different--and so is every owner. It has to be something that works for both of you. Generally, a recall should sound positive. For one of my Greyhounds, our recall was "Hey, Big Boy!" It was a phrase I never used in conversation and wasn't his actual nickname, but it really worked for us.
RULE #3: Invest in your recall!
Once you've figured out what your recall will be, it's time to start building in the "really reliable" part of it. You do that by practicing. A lot. This isn't a one-time effort. You may put a lot into your recall over the first week or so. Maybe you're having a staycation this year and for a week you're going to practice your recall three times a day. That's awesome! But you can't then forget about it until you need it. Maybe once a week, plan ahead and set yourself up for success. Do you have bacon and eggs on Saturday mornings? Save a piece of bacon for your dog. If you're still unsure of him, let him know you have the bacon before you call him. If you're pretty confident, let it be a pleasant surprise.
Our last piece of advice is to remember to shake things up. Don't let yourself fall into a rut with your recall practice. When your dog is 100 percent reliable in the house, move the party outside. When he's got the backyard nailed, take your extra long lead to the local dog park early enough in the morning that you won't encounter anyone else. Or ask to borrow a friend's yard. Keep in mind that using the long lead with other off-lead dogs around is just asking for a dislocated shoulder.
We also don't recommend bringing bacon into an occupied dog park. Ever.
Good luck and have fun practicing your recalls! It will be the best investment you'll hopefully never have to cash in.