Recalls with distractions
(Q) My Cocker Spaniel, Ellie, is two years old. We have been practising her recall for quite some time and she is pretty good now. However, she recently spotted a bird while we were playing ball and started chasing it — nothing I did attracted her attention. Now I’m frightened to let her off the lead.
(A) Trainer Elizabeth Kershaw says: This kind of behaviour is something that happens to many unsuspecting owners of young dogs. You are absolutely correct in saying that no toy or treat can be more rewarding than the sudden awakening of the hunt/chase instinct in a hunting dog. Most gundog trainers are aware of this and are ready to control it as soon as it shows. You are in for a possibly long period of re-training.
Your spaniel must not be allowed to experience the high she gets from the bird chase. You need to practise calling her to you when she is not paying attention to you.
Take her out on a line about 30ft in length and hold the end. Start by allowing her to run and sniff, and observe her. At the moment when her nose is momentarily disengaged you are most likely to get her attention and therefore a good response to your call. Use this moment of disengagement to call her to you every 100 yards or so on your walk. When she reaches you, make sure you have treats or a toy ready.
Make it easy for her for at least a couple of weeks or more, using high-grade rewards, then look for a simple distraction — another dog on the horizon, children playing football in the distance, anything which catches her attention — and try to call her from that situation.
When you can manage 10 successful recalls in a row from that distraction, up the level of distraction and repeat. Using a thrown object away from the direction of the distraction will give her some degree of reward as it allows a legitimate chase of a moving object. You are unlikely to eliminate such an instinctive behaviour but you can help to control it by giving her opportunities to change.