dogandbowlI’ve previously shared games for teaching a strong recall, but this one is always my favorite.

It’s called the magic bowl game and it’s all about teaching dogs how to make the right choice—namely, coming to you, even when there’s something else in the environment they want.

I use it in my recalls class at Superior Dog Training; I just have the students play on a long line or we take turns, with other dogs out of the main space while each dog plays the game. We never START the session with this game — first we’ll practice easier recall games, to strengthen the behavior; then, we’ll use the magic bowl game to test our training.

A Recall Proofing Game: The Magic of the Bowl

To play students need a bowl, some treats, and a dog that has a decent understanding of their recall cue, whatever it may be (come, here, to me, etc).

To begin, we need to teach the dog that this bowl is AWESOME. Why is it awesome? Because it has food it in, and they don’t even really have to do anything hard in order to get it.

Step 1: Introducing Dogs to the Magic Bowl

If the dog has a stay, have their owners put them in a sit or a down stay, and then have them watch as their owner puts a treat into the bowl and places the bowl a few steps away. If the dog does NOT have stay, the owner can enlist a partner (you?) or simply hold onto the dogs collar while placing the bowl as far away as they can reasonably get it.

Then they simply release the dog from their stay (or let go of their collar) and tell them to “get it!” After the dog has eaten the cookie in the bowl, repeat this entire process two more times.

  1. Pick up bowl.
  2. Put dog in sit/down stay.
  3. Place cookie in bowl.
  4. Place bowl a few feet away.
  5. Release the dog to the bowl with a “get it” cue.

Now comes the “magic.”

I tell my students we want the dog to think the bowl is magic. You put cookies in the bowl, but if you ask the dog to do anything other than “get it,” the cookies disappear!

After letting the dog go eat cookies 3x in a row, now we’re going to demonstrate this magic for them. On our 4th repetition, we will change the process just a tiny bit:

  1. Pick up bowl.
  2. Put dog in sit/down stay.
  3. PRETEND to place a cookie in bowl.
  4. Place bowl a few feet away.
  5. Call your dog.

If the dog doesn’t come on the first try, that’s okay. Most dogs don’t on the very first try—after all, they think there’s a free cookie, just sitting there for the taking! But, when they get to the bowl, they find nothing there. 

If they come to their owner after going to the bowl, their owner should tell them they’re a good dog and pet them—but they don’t get any cookies for that.

If they come directly to their owners before going to the bowl, then have a party! They can get several cookies in a row and lots of loving; after all, they made the right choice!

Step 2: Continuing the Game

The next step of the game depends on what choice the dog made.

If the dog made the wrong choice

If the dog made the wrong choice (ie. went to the bowl), then we’ll repeat the process of “pretending” to place a cookie in the bowl and calling our dog to come.

That is…

  1. Pick up bowl.
  2. Put dog in sit/down stay.
  3. PRETEND to place a cookie in bowl.
  4. Place bowl a few feet away.
  5. Call your dog.

Some dogs need to repeat this process 3-5 times before they realize the bowl is magic—when their owner calls them, the cookie that was in the bowl disappears!

If the dog made the right choice

Awesome! Now we’re going to show him exactly how magical that bowl really is… by sending him to it for a treat again. To do this, simply walk through the game again, this time only sending the dog to the bowl once before calling them again.

That is…

  1. Pick up bowl.
  2. Put dog in sit/down stay.
  3. Place cookie in bowl.
  4. Place bowl a few feet away.
  5. Release the dog to the bowl with a “get it” cue.
  6. Pick up bowl again.
  7. Put dog in sit/down stay.
  8. PRETEND to place a cookie in bowl.
  9. Place bowl a few feet away.
  10. Call your dog.

 Recall Proofing: Advanced Magic Bowl Games

Once the dog has the basic concept, you can test his understanding and ability to make the right choice simply by playing with a few factors:

  • His distance from you
  • His distance from the bowl
  • The distance between you and the bowl

For most dogs, it’s easiest to make the right choice if the bowl is far away, you are close to them, and the bowl and you are in opposite directions (because the dog has the make the choice early on).

For some dogs, it’s easier when you’re close to the bowl, because they just assume you’re going to yell at them or move the bowl if they go for it instead of coming to you — but this is pretty rare in my classes.

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 5.10.05 PM

Image 1: In the left hand image, the bowl is far away and the owner is nearby, making the choice easy for the dog. 

Image 2: In the middle image, the bowl and the owner are roughly the same distance from the dog, but are a reasonable distance from each other, so the dog really has to make a choice when the owner calls him.

Image 3: In the final image, the owner and the bowl are again both roughly the same distance from the dog, but they are much closer to each other. In this case, the dog doesn’t have to make a choice until they are already in motion and they can debate in their head what they are going to do up until the last moment… 

Encourage students to play with the three legs of the triangle to make things easier for their dogs if their dogs are struggling and harder if the dogs are doing well (always mixing in a few easy reps every once and a while to keep things fun!). And, if the dog fails several times in a row, simply remove the bowl all together and practice several easy recalls to remind the dog that recalls are fun!

Photo Credit: laurawashere95 via Flickr