This past week I read an excellent article on Karen Pryor’s web site, http://www.clickertraining.com. The article was written by Rebecca Lynch and was entitled Poisoned Cues: The Case of the Stubborn Dog. It reminds us to first look at factors other than a dog being stubborn, when a behavior breaks down. With Spring in the air and warmer weather upon us, we will need to use the cue/command perhaps most often poisoned by us as owners— getting our dogs to come when called.
What’s in it for me?
Dogs are always looking at things from the perspective of “what’s in it for me?” and for many dogs the answer to that question is “nothing good” when it comes to responding to a recall. Sure they get called (mostly at the same times everyday) for good things like food, walks, or perhaps a game of ball. But for many dogs, responding to recalls are more likely to make good things end instead of begin. If you were to keep a list of pro’s and con’s (from your dog’s point of view) for responding to “Lassie come”, chances are your list would look something like this:
- Got food (but many times this has the additional cues of time and words like dinner or food or eat)
- Went for a walk (again cues of time and words like walk and presence of leash or walking shoes)
- Got a treat (again many times your voice has changed in pitch and has become a predictor of a treat coming)
- Got my nails trimmed
- Got a bath
- Got patted on the head (yes some dogs put up with this but many do not like it)
- Got toweled off
- Got scolded
- Went to the vets
- Had to stop chasing
- Had to stop smelling
- Had to stop playing
- Had to stop yelling (barking)
- Had to come inside
- Had to get up from comfortable spot
- Had to stop sniffing other dogs butt
- Had to stop eating grass
It doesn’t take an advanced degree in mathematics to get the point , coming when called has simply come to mean an end to fun and interesting activity— and the dog gets nothing good in return.
What needs to change?
To get our recall back we simply need to change our dogs perception of what is likely to happen when they do respond to recall. By combining treats with real life rewards we can set up a win/win situation for both us and our dogs and strengthen the recall response.
What are some ways I can build a good recall in my dog?
Setup a doggy play date with a friend in a controlled area. Let your dog know that you have treats (high value ones to start) and go out for the play date. When your chances for success are high (before your dog becomes too distracted, or after he is no longer so distracted) call you dog to come. If your dog comes treat them with the high value treat and your best good dog voice; and then let the dog go right back to playing (the real life reward). Do this several times over the first session, each time make sure that your dog is not so into his play session that he has no chance of responding when you call. End the session on a cheerful note when the dogs are played out and reward the same for coming to you when you end the session as the first time he responded to your call. In addition any time your dog takes a break in the play session and comes over to check in on their own, a reward is called for. Over time, as the recall becomes stronger, you can fade the food rewards but you want to make sure that you always keep the real life rewards so that the dog feels at least that they have a chance of a good outcome when they come when called.
There are dozens of everyday situations that can be setup to take advantage of training like I just described. By planning training situations like this and stacking the odds in our (and the dog’s) favor, we build up the recall with each success. By changing the ratio of good things vs. bad things in favor of the good, your dog will start to become more responsive to recall and thus better your chances of getting a recall when the safety of your dog and others depend on it.
Kevin, Jackie, Gavin, Annie, Tosha, Elbee