Training The “Call Off”

Training Steps

Step 1: The dog is given its normal cue to protect whilst on leash. The decoy remains 1- 2m out of range of the dog, wearing some protective equipment and creating a small amount of stimulation (attraction) to keep the dog focused if necessary. Once the dog has been out on the leash for 5 to 10 seconds (preferably barking and being aggressive towards the decoy, but at the very least focused on him with intent) the handler gives the command to down. The moment the dog stops being aggressive and goes into the down position, it is given a verbal mark (e.g. “good’’) to confirm that behaviour was correct, and then given its cue to protect again, at which time the lead is dropped and the dog is allowed to go in and fight the decoy.

If the obedience and control work of the dog is not up to standard then the dog may be reluctant to ‘down’ when given the command. We never really have this problem because we don’t begin this exercise until the dog has a good standard of obedience and, importantly, we regularly make the dog drop before we give him his protection command so he is preconditioned to understand that unless he downs on command, he will not be given a cue to protect and as such, will miss out on the opportunity to engage / fight. If the development work is conducted properly, you will simply not have a problem in this exercise.

Many inexperienced trainers mistakenly confuse poor development and foundation work for a dog that is stubborn or difficult to train. Instead of doing the right preliminary and development work (due to ignorance or laziness) they substitute this with corrections and compulsion. While this will work to one degree or another, it is far from ideal and realistically identifies the limited knowledge and/or capability of the trainer more than anything else.

It is reasonable to use some compulsion to assist in this exercise, however if the dog is properly developed it will understand that it is in its own best interest to down on command, as this will speed up the opportunity to get to the reward and as such, little or no compulsion will be required.

Once the dog is reliably going into the down position quickly and consistently on command and remaining in that position for 5 to 10 seconds; waiting for its next instruction; we take the exercise one step further. We start by giving the dog the ‘rouse’ command, then commanding the ‘down’; (once the dog is down) we pause for 5 or 10 seconds, then give the ‘rouse’ command again (with the dog still on lead and not yet getting a bite). We then give the down command a 2nd time and if the performance is consistent, we give the rouse command again and allow the dog to drive in for the bite.

If you can achieve this performance consistently in multiple environments and contexts you are ready to progress to step 2.

Step 2: The next step is to more or less conduct the same exercise as above, however now using a long line (approx. 6m / 20ft). Start by placing the dog in the down position and then moving back to the end of the line, so the dog is approximately 6m in front of the handler (both facing the decoy – not facing each other). The decoy should be 3 to 5m in front of the dog when the handler gives the rouse command.

The decoy should start walking away from the dog and then the handler should slowly walk towards the decoy, allowing the dog to drag in / chase after the decoy at the full-length of the long line. Maintain a distance (between the dog and decoy) of about 2 to 5m and after travelling 5 to 10m, the dog is commanded to down. Once the dog goes into the down, the behaviour is marked with a conditioned reinforcer (e.g. ‘’good’’) to confirm to the dog that the behaviour was correct. After a couple of seconds, the dog is then given the rouse command again, the lead is dropped and the dog gets his reward by engaging and fighting the decoy.

Step 2 is a natural extension of step 1; the only difference being that the exercise is done on a long line and progressively introducing forward motion rather than doing it from a static on-lead position. Initially it helps if the decoy stops moving when the down command is given; however as the dog progresses, the decoy should continue moving away (even running away) to ensure the dog understands that it must comply with the down command regardless of the decoy’s behaviour.

As with all our training, each step sets the stage for the next and as such, progression is normally quite rapid and seamless because the dog is already so well prepared, based on his previous experience and training.

Before progressing to the next stage you will need to proof the reliability of this exercise by increasing the speed from a walk to a jog and also doing it in a variety of different environments and situations, including using different decoys etc.

You should not progress to the next stage until the dog can actively chase down the decoy in any situation and will immediately down on command quickly and reliably. This is also a good time to increase the duration (amount of time) the dog is left in the down before being recommanded to engage with the decoy. We build this up to over a minute before progressing to step 3 because it is best developed during the on-leash phase.

Step 3: Until now we have physically restricted the dog from getting to his reward (the decoy) until he complies with the command. In step 3 we still prevent the dog from getting success unless he complies with instructions but we do so by designing the exercise so that even if off leash he cannot, and will not, get a reward unless he complies.

There are several ways this can be achieved. We normally start the dog at least 20m away from the decoy standing inside an open doorway or gate. The decoy must be in a position so they can rapidly step inside and close the door or gate; preventing the dog from getting to them.

Once everything is set up and in position, the dog is given a cue to engage the decoy. Very quickly after the command is given, once the dog has travelled only a few meters, the handler gives the down command. If the dog complies, the handler gives the mark (good) pauses for a few seconds and then recommands the dog to engage the decoy. If everything goes according to plan, the decoy never shuts the door and simply stands still until after the second cue has been given (after the dog has done the down and then been recommanded to engage).

At this point the dog will run in and should be rewarded with a good bite and fight.

If, when doing this exercise, the dog does not go into the down position when commanded, the decoy must immediately close the door or gate completely, blocking the dog’s access to him. This is a form of negative punishment, where we have prevented the dog from getting success (his reward), because he has not complied with the command.

We don’t use any form of physical corrections (e.g. E-collar or leash corrections) for non-compliance to the command here during the training phase, because the dog is already being punished by missing out on the expected success of getting to the decoy for a bite / fight. The reality is if the dog does not comply with the down command, it normally means that the developmental work has been insufficient – especially time spent at stage 2 and the proofing at that level. Based on this, it would be inappropriate and a bad call to physically punish the dog, since the problem has been caused through lack of appropriate preparation, development and training (as opposed to true disobedience or laziness). If the dog doesn’t comply with the down, it is recommended to go back and do another 10 to 20 trials (repetitions) over several sessions, following the protocols outlined in step 2.

Once you have consolidated the behaviour at this level you can conduct a range of proofing activities (listed below) to consolidate the learning and develop a more generalised response. This is also where we would incorporate a compulsive mechanism if required (e.g. leash corrections and/or E-Collar). An extremely important principle that applies whenever using any physical corrections is that you must also prevent the dog from getting its reward. Allowing the dog to get to the decoy and have a bite and then trying to correct it off is just bad training – pure and simple!

Since we have good exercise design and an effective mechanism for preventing the dog from getting to the reward, if it does not comply; we have set ourselves up for success and effective learning. Based on this we can push the envelope and work the dog in high drive states and high levels of arousal with the confidence that the dog will have no chance of achieving success unless it complies / performs the correct response.

For some dogs incorporating physical corrections, especially with an E-Collar, during the proofing can be highly beneficial. Use of a more compulsive mechanism such as this makes for more considered decision making from the dog. It also increases reliability under distraction and competing motivations. Using compulsion at this stage prepares the dog more effectively and makes it clear what the corrections mean at more advanced levels and during scenario training. If you are going to use an E-Collar for this exercise it should be introduced at this stage – not later on!

NOTE: I make the assumption here that the dog has been fully conditioned to the E-Collar prior to this exercise.

Once the dog is consistently reliable (zero errors over many trials) in a range of different environments, and using different decoys it is time to move to the next stage.

Step 4: The next stage is to conduct the exercise in situations where we have limited control over the dog and/or the environment. When conducting activities in environments where we have limited control 2 things should occur.

  1. As best as possible you should have contingencies in place in case things don’t go according to plan. As we are now in an environment where we have limited controls this will not always be easy, but good exercise design, good communication, and a plan in place before you begin will, at the very least, help.
  1. At least initially you should significantly reduce the complexity of the exercises by comparison to what you have been doing in the previous steps. Use familiar decoys and do several consolidation trials, with controls in place, and only if everything is going perfectly; you then move to conducting the exercise with limited controls.

By making the exercise very straightforward the dog only has to focus on one thing and as a result, your chance of success is significantly increased (dare I say, virtually assured). I would also recommend that initially the dog not be overstimulated by the decoy prior to commencing the activity when you have limited controls. Based primarily on good exercise design we never really have a problem at this stage – but we are very conscientious!

Very important point to note here: The thing that separates training from reality (or from a demonstration, or testing situation) is the ability to effectively control the dog and/or the environment. Part of our definition of the word training is ‘the ability to control the dog and/or the outcomes’. For example, once you send the dog off leash into an open area to conduct an exercise you have very limited ability to control the situation, and therefore very limited ability for behaviour modification / training. If the dog’s prior experience is that once it is off lead the rules change and it doesn’t really need to comply, then you are going to have major problems in the real world.

A saying I learnt from an old German trainer (Helmut Raiser) more than a quarter of a century ago was “the leash comes off on the day of the trial”. Based on this you should only conduct training activities in this type of situation once you are absolutely confident that you will get the behaviour you want. Clearly this means rock solid foundation work, followed by progressive and consolidated formal training activities. Even then I don’t recommend doing multiple repetitions in situations where you do not have control of the dog and/or the environment. Even with our most highly trained dogs we regularly do on-leash work, and/or use other control mechanisms, and control incentives. A further point on this. If, when working in an environment where you have limited control, the dog decides not to be compliant and gets away with it, then you have created a rod for your own back. At this point you will need to back up in your training, incorporating strong control measures and control incentives, for many sessions before considering testing the dog in an uncontrolled environment. It is best to think of any activity where you have limited control as a test or demonstration, rather than a training session. Since you have very limited capacity to control the outcome, what you are really doing is confirming that the dog will perform the desired behaviours in an environment or context where there are limited controls.

Step 5: It is now time to integrate this exercise into a range of other activities. This could include the conduct of area and/or building searches, when tracking and any other relevant activities that the dog is trained in. The most important factor to remember here is that when you move to scenario based training and the integration of new skills into other activities, that you should reduce your expectations, and expect (and prepare for) reduced levels of performance or possibly even errors.

When introducing the call off into scenarios and more complex activities there will be times when we go back to on-leash work, or put some extra thought into the exercise design to give us the ability to control the environment and situation in case things don’t go to plan.

At the very least, I recommend reducing your expectations and the criteria you previously had before rewarding. In simple terms, when introducing new scenarios, make it simpler for the dog. This may only be expecting the dog to remain in the down for a few seconds (rather than a minute or so), or going back to the original training environment so the dog. Also as a rule we only introduce one new element or compounding factor at a time. Again this is more of an art than a science and more experienced trainers will know how far they can push the envelope.

The best trainers always have contingencies in place, and expect the unexpected. If you always expect the dog to perform well, and therefore don’t set up the exercise to deal with possible mistakes or non-compliance, then you are setting yourself up for failure! The less experienced you have, both as a trainer and in this specific exercise, the more contingency you should build in to your exercise design I you will you no you are decreasing massive swelling doesn’t really work like that what the ending employment uses the information mildly doesn’t bite the swelling into a swelling so for example you get called.