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My dog has a great recall! Until he spots a squirrel.

It’s an all too familiar scenario.  You’ve worked with your dog at home and on walks and he has a great recall most of the time.  With a few exceptions, he comes right back at the sound of your voice, but then you take him camping or hiking and all of sudden your recall no longer exists.  Fido is off chasing squirrels, deer, or anything that moves; you can’t get him to listen no matter what you do.

I’ve encountered this exact situation many times with my own dog.  It is frustrating and sometimes it can be very scary if you are in a dangerous environment.  So, why does your dog not listen even though you have trained that recall? 

Why won’t he listen?

The answer lies partly within the science and biology of what is taking place in your dog’s brain.  Simply put, it comes down to the fight-or-flight response.  When your dog sees a squirrel (or any other “stimulus” like deer, cat, etc.), it activates his chase instinct and all he can think about is that squirrel and getting to it.  His brain biologically will not let him think about anything else, regardless of how reinforcing, yummy, or fun it is. 

Now, to really understand it, take a minute to read the biology behind it.  When the dog sees the squirrel, the amygdala of his brain interprets that picture, sends a signal to the hypothalamus, which signals the adrenal gland to release epinephrine (adreline).  Epinephrine causes several changes in the body, like fast breathing, higher pulse, and a burst of energy.  The sympathic nervous system takes over and releases cortisol into the blood stream, which affects the hippocampus and prevents new neural pathways from forming (aka, the dog cannot learn in this situation).1  This process effectively shuts down your dog’s brain from listening to you.

The other part of this is a bit simpler, but just as important.  The environment you are in makes a huge difference in training.  When you are home or on a walk around your neighborhood, your dog might know without a doubt what “come” means.  But when you change that environment to a dog park, a hiking trail, or a campground, everything is different around your dog and he will have trouble remembering.

How do I overcome these hurdles?

Training is a never ending journey, and with each step, we instill more and more knowledge in our dogs.  So, when training your recall, you have to start small (in the home) and gradually increase difficulty (going outdoors with no distractions, outdoors with distractions, in a wooded area with no distractions, in a wooded area with distractions, etc).  In order to build up your dog’s recall, you have to take baby steps and spend a lot of time practicing that behavior in many different environments.  The key is to set your dog up for success by controlling his environment until he has experienced and learned that behavior so well he can be trusted around the squirrels without his fight-or-flight instinct taking over.    

1 https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response

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