Close your eyes,
fall in love,
Close your eyes,
fall in love,
It was a terrifying sight. Dodging and weaving, the Dachshund slipped through busy traffic, heedless to the danger around him. His eyes were locked on the ditch across the highway, where the bunny he was chasing had just disappeared. Luckily for him, his life was saved by the quick thinking of a group of drivers, who temporarily blocked traffic until the dog’s frantic owner could corral him. His leash trailed behind him, having been yanked out of his owner’s hand when the rabbit bolted in front of them.
It’s every owner’s worst nightmare: a dog who gets away and ends up hurt or killed because he doesn’t respond to his recall. There are a lot of dangers in our world, and it only takes one mistake at the wrong time or the wrong place for your dog to find himself in a bad situation. Teaching your dog to come when you call him could save his life, and will certainly save you some frustration. Here’s what you can do to help your dog develop a rocket recall.
First of all, remember that dogs don’t come preprogrammed with recall software. While your little puppy will naturally run to you when you engage him, that response will fade as he hits adolescence. Dogs learn what we teach them, and it’s no more fair to get mad at your dog when he doesn’t come in from the yard if you haven’t put the training time in as it is to get mad at your child for coming home late if you haven’t taught him to tell time.
Let’s begin at the beginning, then. As I’ve written before, I strongly believe that it’s unfair to ask more of our dogs than we would of ourselves. So, let’s start with your recall. If your child, coworker, or significant other calls you, do you always drop what you’re doing and run to them? Let’s think about those times when you wouldn’t. If you’re engrossed in some other task, you may ignore them or call out, “just a minute!” or “what?!” instead of running to them. What would it take to increase your reliability? Take a minute to really think about this. If you want your dog to respond immediately and enthusiastically every single time you call him, how can you make sure that he never gives you the doggy equivalent of “just a minute!”?
Many dogs have a problem with their recall cue. Perhaps you’ve been screaming at your dog to “come” for years and he rarely listens, or perhaps you’ve used it at times you shouldn’t have. If you think there’s any chance that your cue has become poisoned (associated with unpleasant things) or that your dog has learned to ignore it, start by choosing a new cue. Instead of calling for your dog to “come,” what about using “here,” “to me,” “now,” or even “cookies”? It doesn’t matter what cue you use. All that matters is that you use it consistently and put in the time to make sure it’s effective.
It’s easy to abuse your dog’s recall cue unintentionally, so be very careful to only use it responsibly. Consider it from the dog’s perspective. If you occasionally give him a treat when he comes, but also sometimes trim his toenails or administer ear meds after he runs to you, he’s going to be suspicious when you call him. That’s not the response we want! Only use your recall cue for pleasant things, especially early in training. If you’re going to do something to your dog that he’s not a big fan of (or worse yet, something he actively hates), just go get him without saying anything. Don’t break your cue by letting it become paired in your dog’s mind with anything icky.
Remember, too, that dogs learn through repetition. As you’re working on your dog’s recall, only call him when you know he’s going to come. If you’re not sure he’ll respond, don’t risk teaching him that he can ignore you. Instead, just go get him. If you’re not willing to bet $50 that your dog will run to you the instant you call him, you shouldn’t be calling him. (Don’t panic when you think about this. As his reliability increases you’ll be willing to make that bet more and more frequently.)
Just as with any training, it’s important to manage your dog’s behavior until you’ve trained him. I use long leashes to safely give young or untrained dogs freedom without risk. Generally, I don’t allow my dogs off leash outside of safely fenced areas until I know that I can call them off anything we encounter: wildlife, children, other dogs, ice cream trucks, or whatever other distractions are most alluring for your dog.
Training a recall involves lots of repetition. The goal is to create such a quick, reflexive response that your dog doesn’t even stop to weigh his options. I know that if my predatory dog Layla ever paused to do this cost-benefit analysis, chasing critters would win over coming to me every single time. Since I have such a history of rewarded recalls with her, though, she doesn’t take the time for mental calculations. She just runs to me when she hears her recall cue, the same way Pavlov’s dogs would drool when he rang a bell. Her response is conditioned.
Start inside, in a boring area. Say your dog’s name in a cheerful tone of voice, then say your recall cue word as your dog starts to move towards you. When he arrives, surprise him with his favorite treat. The surprise is important here. We don’t want your dog to only come when you have treats, although in the beginning stages you need to always have treats. The treats should be a reward, not a bribe. Be very generous with the reward so that you really make an impression. Leslie Nelson recommends rewarding for a full thirty (yes, 30) seconds after your dog arrives, and I find that this works really well.
Try to surprise your dog with a recall at least three times a day. Say his name, say his recall word as he starts to move towards you, and surprise him with really delicious treats. I use lamb lung with Layla because it’s her favorite. Dobby works for tuna or cream cheese, and Mischief loves blue cheese or rabbit.
After a few weeks of practicing your surprise recall at least three times a day, try using it when your dog is mildly distracted. By this point you should be getting a very enthusiastic response! If you’re not, keep working on the surprise recalls or get help from a professional until you’re seeing the level of joy and excitement you’d like. Once your dog is reliable around mild distractions, move up to moderate distractions, and eventually tough distractions. Expect this process to take a couple months with a naïve dog, and even longer if you’re retraining a dog who had already learned to blow you off.
But what do you do if your dog doesn’t respond when you call him? Honestly, if you’re working within the parameters detailed here, that shouldn’t be happening very often, if ever. Remember that you’re not going to call your dog unless you’d bet $50 he’ll come. Don’t make risky bets!
That said, sometimes something will happen to distract your dog on his way to you or you may misjudge the situation. If that happens, resist the urge to call him again unless you’re fairly certain he legitimately didn’t hear you the first time. Instead of teaching him that he’ll get a second chance if he blows off your first cue, do something else to get his attention.
Clapping, making kissy noises, and running away often work very well to draw a dog’s attention. If these don’t work, walk (don’t run, which may spark a “catch me if you can” chase game that you’re sure to lose) up to him and collect him quietly. Resist the urge to punish him, as this would only teach him that allowing you to catch him is a bad idea and make him more difficult to get in the future. If he’s wearing a long line (which he should be, if he’s still unreliable), step on the line to prevent him from moving further away, then walk along the line until you get to him.
When you’re close enough that you’re quite certain he’ll respond to you, whether that’s 5 feet away or 5 inches, say his name and try your recall again. If he responds, praise and pet him enthusiastically but withhold the food reward. Ask him for another behavior he’s good at, like sit or shake, then try another short recall from that distance and reward him as usual. The message is that if he doesn’t respond the first time he’ll have to work harder the second.
It’s definitely worth your time to teach your dog an especially reliable recall. Not only can it provide your dog with a better quality of life by giving them more freedom, but it gives you peace of mind.
Does your dog come when you call them? What did you find the most helpful in teaching him to respond? Please share your questions and ideas in the comments below!
Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, “I will try again tomorrow.”
-Mary Anne Radamacher
I want you to imagine that you’re hanging out in your front yard on a pleasant summer day. It’s a lovely day, and you’re feeling pretty content as you lounge on your lawn, relaxing. You notice your neighbor approaching, and as they walk towards your house you smile and get up to greet them, extending your hand to shake theirs. Just as you’re about to meet one another, you’re interrupted by a sharp pinch, like a bee or wasp stinging you. The sensation is unpleasant, and your thoughts of a pleasant interaction with your neighbor are derailed by the mild pain you’re experiencing. Your neighbor continues on their way, and you go back to relaxing.
A few minutes later, a friend walks by your house, and when you attempt to say hello to them the same thing happens. As you move towards them, a sharp sting interrupts you. Over the course of the day, this happens each time you attempt to greet someone.
How would you feel? If I walk by your home at the end of the day, are you likely to act very social towards me?
Even worse, how would you feel if this kept happening all week, month, or year? What would you do if you got stung every time someone approached your property? Would you start warning them away? Avoid them? What emotions would you experience when a stranger approached you in your yard? I know that, personally, I really hate being stung. I would dread visitors, and would feel anxious about what was going to happen when people approached me, even if I didn’t always get stung.
Sadly, this exact situation happens to many dogs every day. I work with dogs who have been living this nightmare every week, and get calls from families of dogs who have been dealing with this on a regular basis.
I’m talking, of course, about dogs who are confined using an Invisible Fence or other electronic containment system. While these systems can provide the benefit of more freedom and a sightline unspoiled by physical fences, they aren’t without risks. Unlike some of my colleagues, I don’t think every dog who uses an electronic containment system will demonstrate behavior problems. However, as someone who frequently deals with the fallout when these fences do cause issues, I think we need to be thoughtful about their use. I will not personally ever use an electronic fence for any of my dogs, and strongly encourage my clients not to use them either. Much like getting surgery in a third world country, electronic fences may save you some money – but they’re also much riskier than other options.
So, what can go wrong? Here are the most common issues caused by electronic fences, in order of the frequency with which my clients report them:
If you do plan to use an invisible fence, there are a few things you can do to lower the risk. First of all, if your dog already shows fearful or aggressive behavior in any context, know that these behaviors may be exacerbated by the use of an invisible fence and seriously rethink your plan. Avoid using any sort of electronic containment for young dogs (under three years of age), and have the system introduced to your pet by a professional. Don’t cheap out on the system, either: the last thing you want is a faulty product malfunctioning and burning a hole in your dog’s neck (it’s happened) or shocking your dog every time you pull your car into the driveway over the wire (yes, it’s happened). Finally, if you start to see any of the behaviors detailed above, discontinue use of the fence and call a Certified Professional Dog Trainer immediately. The sooner you contact us, the better the chance that we can reverse or at least minimize the harm.
Sadly, cases caused by electronic containment systems continue to make up a sizeable chunk of my business. While I’m grateful for the income (hey, dog trainers have to eat too, and this isn’t exactly a lucrative profession!), it makes me incredibly sad when people and their dogs have to live with the fallout caused by these tools. It’s absolutely possible for dogs to live their whole lives with these fences and never experience a problem. However, the risk is there, and the use of these containment systems is significantly riskier than simply toileting your dog on leash or putting up a physical fence. Furthermore, it’s impossible to predict how any dog will react to electronic confinement. Your dog may be fine… but do you really want to bet his well-being on it?
[Edited to add: Great minds think alike, and when I saw this wonderful post on Notes from a Dog Walker that was eerily similar to this piece, I almost decided to pull this post lest people think I was copying it (I promise I wasn’t, as I write most of the posts you see here several weeks before they actually show up on the blog). If you’re still on the fence (ha!) about electronic containment systems, please go read her post as well. Experts agree: electronic containment is oftentimes bad news.]
There are no secrets to dog training or weight loss.
Last week we discussed the reasons behind the frustrating problem of your dog disobeying you. (And if you haven’t read that piece yet, please go read it first before you go any further. Really. We’ll wait.)
As helpful as it can be to understand the reasons behind your dog’s behavior, there are still times when it’s really important that your dog listen to you. So, how can you increase your dog’s reliability? Let’s explore two of the easiest things you can do to help your dog respond more enthusiastically, every single time you ask.
1. Train responsibly. While this was already mentioned in passing last week, it’s such an important thing that it bears repeating. If your dog isn’t obeying, give him the benefit of the doubt. Rule out physical and emotional pain first, and if you have any reason to suspect that your dog is hurt or anxious, address that problem immediately.
Remember that dogs, like people, learn gradually. If you know a situation is too difficult for the level of training your dog currently has, don’t expect your dog to succeed in that situation. Young learners, whether human or canine, deserve to be taught in such a way that they build on success rather than setting them up for failure. Gradually make training exercises harder for your dog as he gains proficiency, and help him out if he’s struggling.
2. Make it worth his while. How, when, and why you reward your dog can make or break your training. Most new trainers tend to reward infrequently, but doing so is shooting yourself in the foot.
Remember, dogs learn through repetition. The more frequently and generously you reward your dog, the faster he will learn. Make sure the rewards you use are those your dog really wants, as well. If your dog isn’t willing to work for whatever you’re offering in the moment, it’s not going to change his behavior. Kibble or even just praise may work fine to train your dog at home, but you may need to offer chicken or tuna at a busy dog event.
Furthermore, don’t limit yourself to one reward. Mix them up! In addition to food, consider using toys, play, and access to things your dog loves. If your dog lights up when he gets to chase bunnies, why not let the opportunity to move towards a bunny be his reward for focusing on you? If your dog really gets into digging, put the behavior of digging on cue and then let your dog dig as a reward for obeying when you’re in areas where it’s appropriate for him to do so. For dogs who love sniffing and peeing on every vertical surface, give your dog the opportunity to relieve himself in exchange for his compliance with one of your requests. By approaching your relationship with your dog in this way, you can develop a rich partnership in which you both get exactly what you want by working with one another. How cool is that?
Ultimately, the responsibility for your dog’s behavior falls on your shoulders. After all, you’re the one with the opposable thumbs (not to mention that big prefrontal cortex)! And that’s not a bad thing. The more you work with your dog, support him, and help him succeed, the more he’ll give back in terms of his focus and willingness to try for you.
Now it’s your turn, blog readers. How have you improved your dog’s reliability? What tips and tricks would you like to share with others? Please add to the discussion in the comments section below!