Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Paper Plate Recall: The Basics

Ten minutes before this picture was taken, young Cole (far right, with his butt velcroed to the ground) did not know what the word "stay" meant.

I learned the paper-plate recall from colleague Dick Russell of Baton Rouge. Dick wrote a detailed but unillustrated article about this obedience drill. Until recently it was available several places on the web, but I can no longer find it to link to the original.

So here is my own guide to this useful and entertaining exercise, without Cajun wit, but with illustrative photographs. You can click any of them to embiggen.

My model for the photos is young Cole, my Operation New Beginnings foster pup. The photos were taken just before he earned off-leash freedom here. He had no inkling of "stay" when we introduced the exercise, little idea of "come," would sit for a lure, and was a bold, energetic pup with lots of confidence and no environmental sensitivities.

What is it?

The paper-plate recall is a training drill that very quickly provides excellent building blocks for three useful exercises:

• Come
• Stay
• Send Out

And, if you choose, is also a nice drill in which to practice the finish to heel.

When you get it right, the exercise develops a hypnotic progressive rhythm that is quite satisfying to dog and trainer alike.

What do you need?

• A plate or other target. I use heavy plastic or metal rather than paper, as we have this thing called wind in Pennsylvania. A dog bowl works fine. For dogs that like to retrieve the target, a heavy ceramic tile works well. Contrasting color/brightness to the ground is very helpful. (After you master the basic sequence, you will need additional plates in order to progress. But for the first few days or weeks, you only need one plate.)

• A generous supply of very tiny, very delicious treats -- chicken, dried liver, hotdog. Very food-motivated dogs will work fine for their regular kibble. I sometimes have two kinds of bait, one high-value and one lower-value -- see below. A bait pouch on your belt is helpful to maintain a rhythm.

• A large open training area relatively low in distractions. As smooth and level as possible, and well-mowed if it is grass. Lawn, golf course, playing field, church parking lot, driveway, beach, gymnasium. You will be walking or running backwards, so plan accordingly.

• Safety containment appropriate to the reliability of the dog -- fence or 30' minimum long light line. No retractable leads. I typically train this exercise with no containment at all on pet dogs who have a "sort of" recall, and use a long line for the first few sessions of untrained animals.

• If not using a long line, a short leash or collar tab for the first few drills (usually can be taken off after less than five minutes.)

• Dog. Dog should have some inkling of what the words "sit" and "stay" mean. I typically introduce this drill to group classes after the dogs have been practicing "stay" for two weeks. I have personally taught it from scratch to dogs who have the barest notion of "sit for a cookie" and no stay, but I recommend this only be attempted by serious trainers who have practiced the exercise successfully on trained and partly-trained dogs.

How do you do it?

1) Put your target (plate) on the ground.

2) Place one smidgen of your yummy bait on the plate.

3) Stand no more than 3' from the plate, facing it. You should be positioned so that most of the training space is behind you. You will be backing up as the exercise progresses. Variation: You can move the plate further out each time you increase the distance. We did that for the purposes of getting photographs. This makes it harder for the dog to keep track of the target. I prefer to move the dog and myself on first sessions, and then later on mix it up by moving the plate further out on the same line.

4) Put your dog, with leash or tab (or long line) into heel position. (That is at your left side, facing the same direction you are, shoulder even with your leg, no more than about a foot away.)

Cole in the start position, target clearly visible in front of us.

5) Sit the dog and tell/signal him to "stay."

6) Extend your arm towards the target and command your dog to "go out" (or whatever command you are going to use). Make your movement very exaggerated.

Cole's first sendout.

7a) If your dog immediately goes to the plate to take the bait, praise him at the moment he has it in his mouth, simultaneously backing up about two - three steps past your original position and grabbing another treat from your pocket or pouch. (Go to step 7)

Successful first sendout.

7b) If your dog looks confused when you first signal the go out, get him started towards the target with you left hand helping him with the leash and collar in the right direction, praise as he finds and takes the bait, and step one step back from your original position while grabbing another treat from your pocket or pouch. (Go to step 7)

7c) If your dog is still hesitant or confused after some collar guidance, quickly lead him to the plate, praise as he finds and takes the bait, and step backwards to your original position while grabbing another treat from your pocket or pouch. (Go to step 7)

8) As soon as your dog has swallowed the treat from the plate, give one clear command to Come. The command is Dog Name + "Come."

"Cole, Come!"

9) As your dog comes back to you from no more than five feet away, bring your in-hand treat down to his level in front of you. As he reaches you, lure him into a sit while commanding Sit. Feed him as he sits. Praise and stroke him down his back while he continues to sit directly in front of you.

Good recall to front.

10) Return your dog to the heel position (most need collar guidance to do this). Command him to Sit, and then signal/command him to Stay.

Cole is now very motivated to go out to the target, and I'm telling him to stay while I leave him.

11) Step forward and re-bait the target.

Because we can't back away from the target during the recall, I am moving the plate a few feet further from Cole.

12a) Return to your dog and put yourself back into heel position with him.

12b) If your dog breaks position, correct him verbally, and if necessary with the leash, back into his sit stay -- in the exact same position where he was before he broke. Don't allow him to gain any ground. Don't be punitive or loud about this -- just calmly replace him and remind him to stay. One he's back in position, return yourself to heel position.

13) Repeat starting at step 6. Repeat at least a dozen times the first session. Twenty is better.

Second sendout, twice as far as the first.

If you had to help your dog forward to the target and treat, you will still be standing about 3' away from the target for your second iteration. Don't back up until your dog is going out to the plate with just the command and arm signal.

If your dog went out on his own or with just a starter tug on his collar, you will have backed up a couple of feet. The target will now be further away. When you send your dog, he will have to go further. When you command Stay, you will be going further away from him. Both are challenges. You want to gain just a little ground on each iteration so that your dog gradually masters the difficulty of the longer send-out and the temptation of the greater distance from you on the stay.

But your best recall will come when you are backing up rapidly. So when you call Come, walk or run backwards as far as you can before your dog reaches you, receive him and feed and praise him, then gently swing him into heel position and walk forward to a position just a few steps further from the target than your previous spot.

If you start 3' from the target and do 12 repetitions on your first training session, backing up a couple steps on each rep, you will be sending your dog to a target about 40 feet away by the end of ten minutes. And your dog will be holding a stay while you walk 40 feet away, put food on the ground, and return to him.

Yes, in ten minutes.

I first practiced this exercise on Moe, who as a seven-month-old already had a pretty good stay and a great recall, plus an abundance of enthusiasm. In our first session he progressed to a 200 meter stay and sendout -- we had to stop when we ran out of township park. Dogs without the obedience foundation and with less drive and confidence will require much slower and more incremental progression.


Dog is hesitant to go out

This is more common than you think. Keep close to the plate as dog gains confidence. You can move around the plate in a circle in order to mix things up. Use a more tempting bait on the plate -- whatever your dog likes best. And be sure to start with a hungry dog -- don't feed him before the drill session.

Cole has become confused on a longer sendout (same session, moved outside the pen and onto a 30' drag line). He looks back for help.

I move forward a few steps and give an exaggerated directional cue with my arm. This is enough to address his momentary confusion. Cole does not lack confidence, he just doesn't know where the target is and has not learned to trust that it is on the line yet.

Success! Now I need to start backing up and preparing to call him.

As he's momentarily distracted by an uninvited interloper, I increase my pitch and excitement, and move away from Cole more rapidly for the recall.

If the dog has a great recall and a hesitant send-out, or he would rather run around on the send-out, try using a better bait on the plate than the unexciting one you use for the recall.

Dog breaks stays, tries to make an end-run around you to the bait, runs the other way, and generally makes it difficult to correct the break smoothly (insubordination rather than error)

Use a long line. If he rushes the plate, block him and correct with a strong NO for any rudeness in attempting to get around you, through you, over you. It's crucial that he never get to take the bait until he has been sent for it. If he takes off the other way and it is not because he is afraid, give him a leash correction and return him to his original spot. Keep the exercise low-key to avoid overstimulating the dog -- again, the slow progressions and ritual drill should become almost hypnotic in their ability to focus both human and dog.

If the dog is running from you or from the pressure, then close up the distance to the target, send him one last time, and end on a positive note with a good recall. Work him in subsequent sessions with smaller increments from the target. This is not insubordination, it is confusion and possibly fear.

A persistent offender on the stays should first be worked close to the target for several sessions. If the dog continues to break frequently and/or resist correction, stop paper-plate drills and spend 2-3 weeks working on Stay and Leave It in other contexts.

Dog is good on send-outs but slow on the recall, or does not recall

Start by increasing the value of the reward he gets for recalling. Use regular kibble on the plate and nummie treats in your hand. Praise and pet him lavishly when he comes. Run backwards and raise the pitch of your voice to be sure you are tempting and inviting to him. Be sure you aren't doing anything he perceives as punitive after he comes to you -- no manhandling in returning him to the sit at heel, no scolding tone to the Stay command.

If he's having fun at your expense, use a long line and drill at that length until he is coming back reliably.

Dog hits threshold where he won't go out any further, or seems to lose the target

Work the dog at the threshold distance where he is still succeeding, moving around the target in a circle so he is approaching from different positions. When he's fast and accurate on those, slowly start to increase distance.

Get down to dog level -- can you see the target? It's easy for a foot-tall dog to lose sight of the target in shaggy grass or slightly uneven ground. You can try elevating the target.

I can get the longest send-outs the most quickly in bowl-shaped terrain, where the dog can most easily see the target at a distance.

If you work incrementally, the dog will begin to take the "line" from your arm signal.

What this Drill is Not

The paper-plate recall is a food drill. It can serve its purpose without ever fading or randomizing the bait. As such, it is not a substitute for the obedience exercises done in a variety of contexts and without the promise of a cookie. Practicing this drill will help you increase the speed and precision of your dog's recalls. It will help build your dog's ability to hold a stay at a distance from you like no other exercise. And it is absolutely the quickest way to start a send-out for later advanced work. But unless you work on those commands in different contexts and without bribes, the drill practice will not jump context and translate to daily life in a reliable or predictable way.

Later we'll revisit the paper-plate recall drill and discuss advanced variations with multiple targets and directionals.

A class of beginning obedience students, third week, start paper-plate recalls with their dogs. Note that the dogs are on 15' drag lines in an unfenced area, and are working simultaneously about 20' apart. They are staying focused on their own plates and are not distracted by the other dogs' sendouts and recalls.

Lest anyone think that this is difficult to teach.

Note that dog in the center is a Jack Russell terrier.


  1. Great post.

    I change this just a bit in that instead of a plate or bowl I use a mat or rug big enough for the dog to sit/stand on and teach a go out to "place" as we go. The larger target helps the dog find it at a distance and this exercise really speeds up distance work on the place command.

  2. Heather,
    This is great. Any chance you would have this in a printable (PDF/Word) file? I can't take the computer out to the field with me... I am going to start this w/ my "3 stays in a row is it" Aussie - this might keep him interested longer.

  3. This remind me of the baseball drill that is done for retrievers.

  4. I love the hat Heather, I am now calling you Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.

  5. So this exercise is basically magic. I have tried it recently with a dog who had no 'stay' and now does, and not only have her recall and send out improved, her self-control has too!


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