Many of us know what a recall is or understand the idea of what it is supposed to be. Looking on the internet it basically comes down to a signal that makes the animals return to the trainer in any situation. This takes some training but let’s get back to where I learned the strategies behind this behavior and why I think it’s an important deal.

Peter with Malibu at Marineland of Canada

I started my career in 2005, coming from a Dutch school all the way in the southwest of the Netherlands where we learned how to take care of animals. I started a job with marine mammals in that year working with sea lions. The sea lions were trained well and we had very clear routines in place to organize our animals with the least number of trainers. A signal would be given and the animals would separate themselves within a couple minutes. It wasn’t until I started to work with killer whales 7 years later were I discovered how important start of session signals i.e. call overs and recalls can be.

Working with those magnificent animals gave me an understanding of the importance of having such behaviors and of having them conditioned with a very strong history.

Within the marine mammal community, we set a strong base before we proceed with more challenging behaviors. One thing I remember working with sea lions in Canada is that your excitement of progression can make you forget valuable approximations in the conditioning process or even behaviors you need for safety. At the time we had quiet some “young” female sea lions and one of them was called, Cleveland a beautiful young female who started to get pretty big. She was a nice and challenging animal to work with just because of her history showing aggressive behaviors towards trainers.

I learned from another facility I worked at that sometimes putting yourself in the animal’s environment can change the animal’s perspective completely. I decided to train her for water work. Where we can swim together and do various behaviors in the water. I desensitized her to the point where I was with her in the water and slowly started my further ideas with behavior’s I wanted to teach her but half way in the process I thought “Peter!, what are you doing!?”

I forgot that if these animals enjoy me being with them in the water to much that they could block me from going out what happened to another female I worked with at the same facility. This moment in time I stopped everything I was doing and went back to thinking about the safety procedure I wanted her to know before something would actually happen. We should’ve trained her for a recall first. If she wouldn’t know this we would not swim with her anymore due to her history of being aggressive.

I find that recalls are an important asset in our daily work as a zookeeper. It can help us with the efficiency of our work but even more with the safety of the public, keepers and the animals themselves. On top of that we can add an enrichment program due to the fact that we can empty the exhibits fairly easy. We can even let our animal’s workout like we do by recall sessions what will be beneficial for the animals health. I believe every animal should be thriving in their environment same for the dogs we have at home.

Chili the Viszla

Conditioning dogs for recalls depends on many factors if you would do so. Even though I believe that you should do it anyway. To do this we have to see 2 parts of this behavior very differently. 1 is the actual recall and response. The 2ndone is the counter condition every and any scenario possible. Even when you think it can’t get any crazier you will benefit from those counter conditioning training sessions.

The whole point of that is that your success rate of the recall goes upwards if the animal is used to situations who might be a challenge for the consequence you have for them. In my experience training proper and strong recalls go together with a strong desensitization process and it’s up to the trainer how creative he will be with this process

I introduced you guys to Chili before. A beautiful Viszla from a friend of mine. I have the privilege to take care of him for a bit. Personally Im not a big fan of walking a dog on a leash. A friend of mine has the same and he trained his dogs for stop, wait, walk and go. This gave him more control over his dogs for the safety of both. Luckily i am based in the forest and this allows me to not have a leash on him. Whats important for me is that I can call him to me at any moment in time just to have a check on him. One of the reinforcers I use is premark principle.

He comes to me I pet him and get excited and then I send him away again. Sometimes I do bring candy but this seems to work less good. Reinforcing him with play and chase works better. Whats great about this is our relationship is building what helps the desensitisation for the recall. He has my trust and the other way around.

For the animals I work with on a daily base we think about the possibilities for those scenarios to happen first. If they are high we will add more steps into the counter conditioning part of the training plan, if they are very low we won’t even go into it. This depends on the exhibit, the specie and where the exhibit is situated.

There are many things to think about but if you want a high rate of success with recalls in any specie, use variability as a consequence and a strong desensitization plan.

Categories: Trainer Talk


Peter is a passionate Animal Consultant that beside teaching you about Operant Conditioning makes sure you will go home motivated and inspired. Make sure you read his Bio!


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