ESS Recall – Teaching your English Springer Spaniel to Listen when you Speak

The following is an excerpt from "The Complete Guide to English Springer Spaniels" by Dr. Joanna de Klerk - DVM. For more information visit the books Amazon Page.

Author Credit: Dr. Joanna de Klerk - DVM

One of the things that appeals most about owning an English Springer Spaniel is the prospect of long walks in the countryside, taking in the fresh air and scenery, while your dog enjoys the scents he finds in the bushes and the opportunity to stretch his legs—always staying close by while you get some valuable exercise together.

This is the expectation, but the reality may be completely different!

This chapter will outline why recall is so important for the English Springer Spaniel, and give you some tips on how to achieve it.

The Importance of Recall for the English Springer Spaniel

In Chapter 2 of this book, it was explained that the English Springer Spaniel has a long heritage as a hunting dog, and for nearly two thousand years the breed changed relatively little. It is only in the last century that the bloodlines of the Springer Spaniel have diverged into working and show lines, but even the show-bred dogs have hunting in their blood. Therefore, any English Springer Spaniel has a set of instincts that are part of his DNA, and top of the list is his hunting drive.

English springer spaniel lakeWhether you actually wish to hunt with your dog, or simply enjoy off-leash walks in open countryside, the most important thing is that you can call your dog back. This should be easy, right? After all, the English Springer Spaniel is intelligent, and he loves to be with his owner. Why would he even think about running off? The thing to recognize with an English Springer Spaniel is that his hunting instinct is so strong, it is not controlled by his rational brain that loves you and knows you fill his food bowl. If he catches sight of a rabbit or pheasant, he simply cannot help himself, it has to be chased. This may be for a half mile, or through dense woodland, well out of your sight. If he loses one prey animal, he may lock onto another. He has no thought for returning to you as all his enjoyment synapses are firing relentlessly in his brain, blocking any other consideration. When eventually the game is over, he may be miles away. Chances are, his sense of direction is sufficient to locate you again, but in his own time, by which you may be frantic and have visions of your dog disappearing over the edge of a precipice or under the wheels of a vehicle, or shot by a protective farmer, any of which are possible.

This is not an enjoyable way to walk your dog, and definitely not what you signed up for when you brought home a Springer Spaniel. The good news is, if you have started with a puppy, recall can be taught, and those long relaxing walks can be achieved. The key to preventing bad habits, such as unbridled feral instincts, from taking hold is to stop them before they start. In the early weeks your puppy will be happy to trot along happily beside you, his protector. It is only somewhere between three and six months that his hunting drive kicks in, and this is where you need a hard focus on recall training with a Springer Spaniel, whether working or show-bred.

It may seem a bit harsh and unkind to curb your Springer Spaniel’s natural instincts. In fact, if you intend to hunt with your dog, you may even argue that you want to encourage his prey drive. This is not the case. The most important factor in hunting is control, and your dog has sufficient natural instinct to hunt without it being encouraged as a puppy. Experienced hunters will advocate keeping working-bred puppies away from wildlife during their first year, as the first accidental flush will fry their brain. The same advice is recommended for owners of show-bred pets, even though their prey-drive is not quite as intense as that of their working cousins.

So, whereas recall is important for any dog, for the English Springer Spaniel it is vital. Failure to achieve it during your dog’s first year is setting him up to become a problem dog. A dog with no reliable recall cannot be walked off-leash for his own safety, which is severely restrictive and affects the amount of exercise your dog will get, as well as his natural enjoyment in his surroundings. It affects his interactions with other dogs, as a leash prevents free movement and can encourage aggression. It also makes it difficult to leave your dog with a pet sitter or dog walker. And a dog walked off-leash with no recall may stray and fall into the wrong hands, or meet with an accident. All of these reasons and more make recall training the highest priority for English Springer Spaniel owners.

How to Teach Recall

Teaching recall is not simply a matter of going for a walk and calling your dog back periodically for a biscuit. This is recall reinforcement, and very valuable, but it is secondary to actual recall training, which is a structured and purposeful activity.

In fact, some trainers say that you should give up the idea of walking your dog as a puppy, and that every outing should be focused on training. There is much to be said for this idea, as young puppies should not be physically overworked due to their growing bones and joints. And their concentration span is short, so keeping training sessions short but frequent will keep a puppy focused. This way the lesson sinks in, and he feels sufficiently mentally exhausted to settle down in the interim periods.

English springer spaniel tree
Photo Courtesy – Rebecca Panayi

To your puppy, you need to be the center of his world. Springer Spaniels usually bond closely with their primary caretaker, so you are off to a good start. But you need to make time for him, interacting with, encouraging, and playing with him as well as meeting his basic care needs. In this way, teaching recall has already begun, because your puppy will always be looking to you for his cues, and his attention will be on you when he is off-leash. This being said, as soon as you get into a more stimulating area than your own back yard, you will have to work harder at maintaining your dog’s attention, as you are competing with his natural curiosity and the sights and scents of the countryside or park.

Your puppy should soon recognize his name, and this will help to get his attention, along with the command “Come,” to bring him back to you. Reward his correct behavior with a small treat such as a biscuit, training treat, or dried liver chip. Give him some fuss, and then send him away again. This is like a game to your playful puppy, and he will love to gain your approval, not to mention the treat! You should start at this basic level in your own back yard or an enclosed space before venturing elsewhere, and never near a road in the early stages.

Some owners, especially those who intend to hunt, like to train their dog to the whistle. This has the advantage of carrying a long way if your dog is far from you. If you regularly walk your dog in popular dog-walking areas, however, multiple owners using whistles may confuse him. In this case, teaching a particular whistle pattern is a good idea.

The most effective way to keep your dog’s attention on you when faced with multiple distractions is to keep changing direction. Don’t allow your dog to predict where you are both going, or he will run on ahead. A zigzag path will keep him focused. This also mirrors the quartering pattern your dog will adopt if he is to hunt later on. Even if hunting is your ambition, and you have an end goal of sending your dog out quite long distances, teaching heel work at this stage sets the foundation, and tells your dog that the place to be is by your side, unless he has been given permission to go further away from you.

If all this training doesn’t seem to you like it is fun for your dog, be reassured that he is actually loving having your complete attention, and by restricting his freedom now, you are permitting him greater freedom in adult life as a well-trained dog. But you should still allow your dog to enjoy using his nose and exploring his surroundings. And your Springer Spaniel has a natural talent for retrieving, so playing fetch also reinforces recall training. This is because he is focused on the ball or toy so he is not running off, and he is bringing it back to you. You should not overexert a puppy, but ending the session with a game serves the dual purpose of a lesson and a reward. It also increases the growing bond between you and your dog.

Recall Problems and How to Solve Them

The advice given previously concerns training a puppy; however, the same techniques apply if you have taken on an adult dog with poor recall. You should always try the positive reinforcement approach first with a Springer Spaniel, as their natural inclination is to please you. However, an adult dog has ingrained behaviors that can be more challenging to retrain, so you should keep your off-leash sessions to a safe enclosed area while he is learning recall.

English springer spaniel fields
Photo Courtesy – Belinda Jayne Macleod

Whereas most Springer Spaniels form very strong attachments to their owner and indeed to any human, occasionally you may get a dog that has no social drive. In these cases, the dog feels no need for human company, and certainly nothing to draw him back from the thrill of his hunting drive. If your dog turns out to be psychologically wired in this way, or if you find you have taken on an adult dog with an established chase drive, you may find that the soft approach is getting you nowhere, and you may have to resort to more forceful training. This approach was used traditionally with working dogs, and although it has fallen out of favor in modern times, it still has its place where positive reinforcement has failed. In this case it is worth getting some professional help, at least to start you off.

One more forceful training method is the use of an e-collar, favored by huntsmen. This is not an electric shock collar, as it does not zap the dog in a painful way, but it does emit a light stimulus via remote control to divert the dog’s attention from the hunt and signal the need to return. The e-collar should only be used with a full understanding of how to operate it humanely.

If you have a Springer Spaniel with a high prey drive, it is a mistake to leave him outside unsupervised. He is highly likely to abscond, especially if he is kept with another dog, as there is nothing a highly driven dog likes to do more than hunt with a buddy. Any farmer is within his right to shoot a dog worrying his livestock. So, where recall cannot be achieved, the dog needs to be kept indoors, and always supervised outdoors.

If your puppy previously had an excellent recall and suddenly becomes defiant at around the age of nine months and challenges the boundaries by running off and doing his own thing, do not panic; this unfortunately is adolescence. However, for a while, you will have to take a step backward, and reinforce all the old recall training that seemed to be established. You may even have to walk your dog on a leash for a few months while he goes through this phase. This is for his safety, but also so that he does not get away with negative behavior which may consequently become ingrained. You may also consider the use of a training leash. These are very long lines that allow your dog to run, and for you to reestablish calling him back, without the danger of him going out of range. You should always attach a training leash onto a harness and not a collar, so that your dog does not run to the end of the line and get a sharp jolt to the neck. Your end of the line does not even need to be held, but it may be caught if necessary, to bring the dog back.

English springer spaniel sunset
Photo Courtesy – Nicola Lancaster

Another fun way to reinforce your bond and focus your dog is Canine Agility. Although this is not direct recall training, it does teach your dog to look to you for his cues the whole time, which will improve his recall out on his walks. Agility cannot be started while your dog is very young, as impact activities may damage his growth plates, but the potentially challenging adolescent stage at around nine months is also the point where he is physically able to start Agility. Having a fun job to do may see him through this period, and you will both emerge fit and focused! Agility and Flyball are discussed in Chapter 9.

Recall training is the most valuable, life-enhancing, and potentially life-saving lesson you can teach your Springer Spaniel, and it may all fall into place very easily, or it may present an ongoing challenge. Whatever your experience, you should never be afraid of taking a step backwards and returning to basics. You should have realistic expectations about walking your dog in his first year, with an emphasis on training rather than leisure. And if you feel you are getting nowhere, seek the help of a professional behaviorist. A bit of advice in the early stages is a worthwhile investment for the future, and those pleasurable walks in the countryside that you envisaged at the outset.

To read more from "The Complete Guide to English Springer Spaniels" by Dr. Joanna de Klerk - DVM, or purchase on Amazon, visit the link below:

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