It’s been 6 months now since we adopted our little Spanish podenco Gizzy. Sadly for 4 of these months the wee guy has had to be rested after he fell & broke one of his front legs in 2 places back in April this year, but I’m happy to say he has made a full recovery & is now very much back on his feet again, & starting to enjoy a bit of freedom off lead too.
We always knew when we adopted a podenco that we were accepting a real challenge when it came to recall training, even compared to the greyhounds we know & love. Podencos are very primitive dogs & have been selected over thousands of years to be the best any dog can be at one specific function: hunting. We don’t think Gizzy had ever been used for hunting in Spain (thankfully) given that he was picked up as a stray at such an early age (2 months), however his hunting instinct is still alive & kicking! Unlike greyhounds (& other sighthounds) who hunt primarily by sight, these little hunting specialists are multi sensory hounds, using a combination of their superior sight, hearing & scenting abilities to track down prey. Hence the challenge when it comes to recall…
There will always be places where it is inappropriate to let Gizzy off lead, for his own safety, but with time, patience, a long line, a harness a falconry bell & really high value treats, we have managed to train sufficient recall that he is now able to enjoy the freedom of being off lead on a regular basis on some of our walks. His recall is a work in progress, & always will be I think, but we have come a long way in 6 months, especially considering for 4 of those he was more or less housebound, & I’m really proud of my boy.
So I thought I would share some of the training methods that have worked for us, in the hope that they might help others who have adopted one of these amazing little dogs, or any dog really that you are struggling with recall issues with. (NB I do not recommend holding onto the end of a long line if you are using it to train larger/heavier, faster sighthounds e.g. greyhounds – the speeds at which these dogs can accelerate from a standing start are so great you are extremely likely to cause injury to both your dog & yourself, though leaving it trailing may still be an option depending on circumstances.) Though I have a large interest in dog & animal behaviour in general & read widely on the subject, applying what I learn to my own dogs, I do not profess to be any kind of expert, & these tips are purely based on what has worked for Gizzy & I. Nevertheless, I hope you find them useful…
How to train a podenco (or primitive hunting dog) to recall
What you will need:
- Your dog(!)
- Time. Short, frequent training sessions are best, training for longer will overstretch your dog’s attention span & they will stop co-operating, always try & stop while the going’s good rather than waiting for your dog to show you they are tired.
- Patience. If you find yourself getting frustrated stop training & wait until you are in a more positive frame of mind, dogs pick up on frustration & it will have a detrimental effect on their training. Never punish your dog for failure to comply, only reward for showing the behaviour you are looking for. There is no end point to recall training, it is something you will have to work at for the rest of your dog’s life.
- A long line. Our one is a 10 metre length of nylon webbing, if it doesn’t have a handle loop at the end then tie a knot so you have something to hold into, in fact it can be useful to tie a series of knots at various lengths along the line so you easily catch it without it slipping through your hands (& burning them – ouch!)
- A harness. This is to attach the long line to. You do not want to risk injuring your dog’s neck by attaching it to their collar, make sure the harness fits securely & that your dog cannot escape from it (check & check again – I have been amazed at how dogs can manage to slip harnesses which to me looked perfectly secure, & podencos can be little houdinis!)
- A falconry bell. Attach this to the harness too. This has 2 functions: 1. It allows you to hear where your dog is if they ever disappear out of sight e.g. into the undergrowth 2. It warns any wild animals e.g. birds, rabbits, deer etc of your dog’s presence & hopefully wards them away.
- Really high value treats. What is high value for one dog may not be for another. I tend to use cubes of cheese with Gizzy, though sometimes pieces of cooked chicken, smoked sausage, liver cake etc for a bit of variety. Find what your dog loves & use that, but think bigger than just dry dog biscuits, you need to something that is going to compete with your dog’s urge to hunt so you may need to bring out the big guns here! As a vegan I don’t enjoy buying & handling meats & cheeses, but I’m afraid rabbit food just ain’t gonna work here
harness: check, long line: check, falconry bell: check
What to do:
1. Choose your recall command. It doesn’t matter what it is – most people use either ‘come’ or ‘here’ but you can say ‘bananas’ if you like, it just has to be a word/sound (you can use a whistle if you like) that you reserve solely for the purpose of calling your dog to you.
2. Start in the house/garden, if you have other dogs/pets shut them out of the way for now, arm yourself with copious quantities of high value treats, pop the harness on your dog & attach the long line, keep hold of the end of the line & let them go do their own thing, then call them using your recall command. It helps to use a high pitched, squeaky voice & to gesture with your hands, either patting your thighs or holding your arms open in front of you (as if you were going to give someone a big hug – hopefully your dog when they come to you!). You can also step backwards or even run away from them a little to try & entice them to chase you. If they come towards you straight away that’s brilliant, praise them profusely to let them know they’re getting it right & as soon as they arrive at you give them a/some treats before sending them off again back to whatever they were doing. The reward you are giving them is not just the praise & treats, it’s being allowed to continue doing whatever it was they were up to before they came to you, that’s important. You won’t always be able to send them back to what they were doing (e.g. when it’s inappropriate or dangerous) but the majority of the time you should be aiming to do this. If your dog is particularly toy orientated (Gizzy is not) then you can also reward with a game of tug, a throw of a toy or whatever they enjoy. If they don’t come straight away, use the long line to reel them in towards you, praising them as you do so. Try not to repeat the command too many times – you want them to learn that this is something you only have to say once & then they do it.
2. Once your dog is consistently coming without you having to reel them in inside/in your garden, repeat all of the above but introduce some distractions e.g. other family members or dogs being present, some toys they are able to go play with in the garden, some treats lying around (make sure they are not as high value as the training treats you are using e.g. maybe just dry dog biscuits or something like that). You can put the falconry bell on your dog at this point to get them used to the sound of it if you like – be warned though the noise will get extremely irritating if they wear it all the time so maybe just put it on whenever you’re practicing recall! Try & practice most days, vary the times/situations when you call them & always ensure you follow through with your request by reeling them in on the long line if they don’t come on their own. Always reward them with praise & treats (& letting them go back to what they were doing if appropriate).
3. Once they are coming of their own accord every time you call them inside/in the garden despite distractions you are ready to progress to outdoor training. Start somewhere with as few distractions as possible e.g. no other dogs, no wild animals, maybe concrete or short grass rather than lots of trees/bushes to sniff etc. It does not need to be enclosed, because you are not yet going to drop the long line. Practice all of the above. If your dog is repeatedly too distracted to come to you of their own accord (i.e. you have to reel them in on the line to enforce the recall) then stop & take a break/try a different environment, go back a step to somewhere with less distractions.
4. Once your dog is coming back even when there are distractions outdoors you are ready to try dropping the long line. Make sure you do this in a securely enclosed area (NB some podencos can jump 6 feet high & they are very adept at digging under & slipping through small spaces so do take this into consideration when choosing your place!) & make sure you attach the falconry bell to your dog’s harness now, just in case they do manage to escape somehow. Practice as above but without holding onto the end of the long line, leaving it trailing behind your dog. Try not to let the distance between you & your dog get such that you aren’t able to step on/pick up the long line to enforce their recall at any point should they ignore you when you call them. This being the first burst of ‘freedom’ your dog has had in a long while you may regress a few steps backwards before you make progress again with your recalls. Remember not to call your dog to you if you don’t think they are going to come – either give up & try again another time or just let them enjoy the freedom in the enclosed area until they tire themselves out. Gradually introduce more & more distractions within the enclosed area during your training, such as other dogs & people.
5. Once your dog comes back every time you call them within the enclosed area even with distractions without you having to step on/catch their long line, you can progress to trying dropping the long line in non-enclosed areas. Pick somewhere relatively enclosed to start though, without too many places your dog could escape off too if they reach the end of their line & you don’t catch it in time, & certainly away from any roads/traffic. Practice often. Never just call your dog to you whenever you are going to put them back on lead or end the fun they are having. 99% of the time you recall them you should be letting them go back to enjoying whatever it was they were doing before you called them. Your treats & praise can’t realistically compete with the pleasures they experience from exploring their environment, so you have to make access to these pleasures part of the reward for coming back to you.
the unmistakable jingle of that falconry bell!
This is the stage we have reached with Gizzy now – he can be off lead in some (but not all) environments with his trailing long line (& falconry bell) attached. Most of the time he comes when called but when he doesn’t I step on the line & use it to reel him in to enforce the recall. He will never be perfect – my praise, cuddles & treats are never going to trump the thrill of following a really enticing scent or chasing a rabbit, but with awareness of where these types of distractions are likely to crop up or not I now feel confident to let my wee one have freedom a lot of the time. & the long line is my life line for when he slips up – even if I can’t get to it in time to stand on it/grab it, it inevitably catches or tangles on something along the way, allowing me to go & retrieve my wee munchkin & whisk him to safety. The falconry bell is a further safety net, for if he gets far enough into the undergrowth that I can’t see him & the line still hasn’t caught on anything (or maybe it has but I can’t see it), allowing me to locate my dog even then. It’s not a full proof system I’m sure, but it’s the best one I have come up with & one that I am happy to use.
If your dog is not interested in the treats you have, try switching them for something else. It also helps to conduct your training sessions before you feed your dog a meal, or to delay their meal until after you have trained, thus making sure they are hungry! If your dog is not coming back to you & is too far away from you for you to retrieve them via their longline, don’t repeatedly call them (once you are sure they have heard you), try running away from them to entice them to chase you, crouching down, hiding behind something, digging in the ground (seriously – I have a podenco-owning friend who does this, & it works!). If you have followed all the preceding steps then this shouldn’t happen often, & when it does all you have to do is wait it out until your dog eventually returns to you, safe in the knowledge that they are not going to come to harm (or cause others harm) in the environment you have chosen to allow them off lead in. & remember to reward them when they do eventually come back, even if it is the last thing you feel like doing! Most important of all, remember that off lead exercise is not the be all & end all for dogs. It is nice to be able to let your dog have some of that freedom, but it is more important to ensure they are safe.
Good luck! If you have any experience or tips regarding recall training for podencos/primitive hunting breeds that you would like to share please post in the comments below – I’d be really interested to hear & learn from others’ experiences.