Jun 23

Sometime last year, I was concerned about times when Carly would fly so fast down the beach that she’d be out of hearing distance before I could call her back. Barbara Heidenreich suggested training an emergency recall. Zoos use this with some animals in case there is an incident with a trainer or an animal has to be moved quickly to another location. The idea is that the cue is different than a normal recall, and the reward is a huge jackpot, so there is a much higher probability of a response, even in the face of external distractions or competing reinforcers. It’s also a very useful behavior to have trained in case of an accidental escape outdoors.

I practice this once daily at home with both Carly and Piper to keep it fresh, using a referee’s whistle as the cue and usually a whole almond in the shell as their jackpot (highly, highly desired by my guys, as both toys and food). I use it at the beach when Carly is getting too far away, but not every time we go. Typically her flights are large loops, but within visual and hearing range. I am careful not to overuse it, otherwise the jackpot isn’t a jackpot any longer, and the emergency recall loses its extra incentive.


Today I had the first opportunity to test it with Piper. He is about 15 months old, and has never been especially keen on going outdoors. He simply hasn’t shown the curiosity or ease with things and events outdoors that Carly did, even when very young. When he’s outside I try to take it very easy, going to familiar places routinely, doing a little training there, providing lots of opportunity for calm behavior and lots of reinforcement. We use a harness outside because I want to see far fewer startle responses before free-flying. Today he surprised me by flying out to me as I walked out the front door, then landing on the roof next to the entry. He sat there and looked around, and I wondered how this would play out. I called him a couple times and he stayed where he was, looking at the trees around us. Then I remembered the whistle on my key chain. Gave the double-toot that’s our cue and he looked back at me for a second, then flew right down. I took him inside and got an almond pronto! (Carly got one too, for not flying out the door. )

To get started training the emergency recall I shortened our daily recall training sessions a bit, and switched to the ref’s whistle at the end. At first they had no idea what I was asking for (and were a little startled by the loud sound) so I followed the whistle with our usual recall cue. When they came they got the big jackpot. I did this at the end of every recall session for a few days. Next I moved to different positions in the house, while still in sight, before giving the cue, and then out of sight in a different room. When that was working well, I stopped doing it at the end of our usual training sessions and started those steps over (whistle cue close by, then further away, then from another room) at random times. This is how I keep it in practice now. It’s quite funny to see them come racing in from wherever they are to get their jackpot.

The first time I tested it outside with Carly at the beach, I did it when she was not too far away. I had no idea if she’d respond out there. She turned around so quickly it was as if she skidded and made a u-turn in mid air.

It is not a 100% solution by itself. I still have to keep up all the regular training and practice routines or both kinds of recall get unreliable. In environments where there are a multitude of competing reinforcers (seagulls, people, trees, etc) the regular practice is especially important, so that the whistle works even when other reinforcers are present.

I was very pleased with the response from Piper today on his first escape outside ever. And also pleased that he was eager to go outside to begin with. We took a nice walk outside later so he could explore more, and did our usual training out by the pool.

Next up: competing reinforcers!

For more information, Barbara Heidenreich describes training an emergency recall in Good Bird Magazine

Carly Lu’s Flight Blog