Comes When Called—Sometimes. Tips for Better Recalls
Are you among those people who complain that their dog comes “only when she/he feels like it.” Let’s look at the most common reasons why Barley or Baxter may not come reliably when called—and what to do instead of getting frustrated with our dogs.
We mustn’t view this as disobedience—that the problem is the dog’s attitude, personality, or just laziness. The good news is that we can change what We do to get better responses from our dogs.
Here are the typical reasons why calling Come doesn’t always produce the desired response.
1. Weak Motivation. Every dog needs motivation to do what we’d like. This law of behaviorism (which applies to all species) means that we should reinforce for coming when called by immediately presenting something that our dog really, really likes. What that is depends on the individual. Food is nearly always efffective, but many dogs will be just as happy with a favorite toy, a game of tug, a good butt scratch, or smiles and exuberant praise.
Your dog’s recall will get stronger the more often and more strongly you reinforce it. Don’t use dry, hard (and unhealthy) bone-shaped cookies and tell me that positive reinforcement doesn’t work! See my article on choosing treats wisely: https://www.dogsbehavingbetter.com/dog-trainer-blog/2017/4/7/treating-your-dog-well
2. Luring vs. Reinforcing. Did you accidentally train your dog to come only when she sees that you have food? Many recalls—and plenty of other cues—have been ruined that way. Don’t blame the dog for being mercenary. Surprise her with a treat when she has come to you. Reinforcers come after behavior. Lures or bribes come before. We all need reinforcement to learn and maintain good behaviors.
3. Poisoned Cue. Has your Come (or other recall cue) become poisoned? That means Barley has been “rewarded” with some outcome she didn’t particularly appreciate—like being put into her crate, being given medication, a bath, or a nail trim. Go to your dog for these tasks. Other potential poisoners: little dogs often get picked up. Big dogs may be grabbed by the collar.
4. Unwanted Petting. Along the same lines, if Barley, like most dogs, doesn’t like being patted on the head, coming is actually being discouraged (technically, punished) by that consequence. Then there’s kissing, hugging/squeezing, ear boxing, and rough petting. Notice if she turns her head away, draws back when your hand reaches out, licks her lips, yawns, or is reluctant to approach all the way. These are signs of discomfort that should not be ignored.
5. Powerful Distractions. Consider what Baxter is doing when you call him. Outside, he is likely to be focused on smells or squirrels or listening to distant barking and other sounds we may not notice. To get his attention, you may need a stronger cue, such as a loud whistle. And raising the value of the food you use is going to work much better with those competing stimuli.
Solutions: If you are committed to getting a reliable recall, try these tips to get there faster.
—First, change your cue. If Come (or whatever you use) isn’t working very well, choosing a new cue and pairing it with delicious treats will be much more successful than trying to fix the original cue. Try a visual cue, like a hand target, or a whistle—or both.
—Set up for success. Start inside when your dog is nearby and not distracted. Add distance and distractions gradually and separately. When Barley is really distracted, close up that distance to make it easier for her to succeed.
—Play games with your new cue. Get one or more family members to call Baxter back and forth between you. Go hide somewhere and call her to come find you. When you go outside to practice, attach a long drag line to prevent him from wandering off.
—Reinforce consistently, immediately, and generously, especially outside. This could mean presenting up to 5 soft, yummy, healthy treats and using a variety of them—not always the same kind—while praising enthusiastically.
—Keep your recall tone cheerful. If you sound gruff, impatient, or angry, Barley may be reluctant to come close.
—And finally, don’t lure. This includes shaking the bag of treats! Keep that food out of sight until your dog actually comes up to you. In training, like much of life, timing is everything.
Copyright Lisa Benshoff 2018