Question: My pup was responding well to our recall training at the park, getting reinforced with high-value treats like meatballs and behaving in a way that made us so proud. That all changed when a sweet elderly man at the park starting giving all the dogs Milk-Bones. Not only did our dog fail to come when called while he was feeding her, for the next couple of weeks, she rarely came when we called her in other contexts. My question is about how dogs learn and what makes their training seem to fall apart? What can I do to prevent such setbacks in the future, and how can I know when our dog has really “gotten it” so that I can be sure she will come, no matter what?
Answer: Most people have experienced some variant of what you describe, and these setbacks can be very disheartening. The situation at the park was not so much one in which a dog’s training fell apart as it was one in which a dog was asked to do something that she had not yet been trained to do. Responding appropriately to the cue to come to you when there is nothing particularly new or interesting to distract her is totally different than returning to you when someone else is feeding her treats.
What you learned courtesy of the treat man at the park is that your dog does not know how to come when called while she was getting treats from somebody else. Furthermore, she seems to have learned that even when called, she doesn’t have to come, which may explain why her recall got worse (let’s not say “fell apart”!) and why she did not come when called even in other situations.
The real secret to dog training is that there are 100 steps involved in teaching a dog something so that she can do it in any situation. Step one for teaching recall may be calling your dog to come from five feet away in your living room, with nothing else going on but you and your meatballs, and step 100 is calling your dog to come when she is 500 feet away, chasing a deer. Many people charge from step five to step 95 without realizing what a challenge this is for a dog. This is the equivalent of asking a student to go from addition and subtraction to reinventing calculus, figuring that the student already knows how to do math, so what’s the problem?
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Teaching a dog what a cue means is often the easiest part. Proofing the dog to that cue, or getting the dog to respond to that cue in all situations, is the challenge. Just because your dog knows how to come when called when nothing else has captivated her attention doesn’t mean that she can do it when she is really enthralled by the smell of a rabbit, the food she is eating or her best play buddy. Training your dog to come away from these distractions requires that you train her to do so in a series of steps of gradually increasing difficulty.
Avoiding setbacks by not skipping steps is a challenge that requires great discipline on your part. The key is that throughout your training work with her, you must not call your dog unless you are confident that she will respond. For example, if you had never trained her to come when called away from someone giving her food, most trainers would tell you that the odds of success were not in your favor. A wiser course of action would have been to simply go get your dog. Of course, this is not convenient and requires only letting your dog off-leash in areas where you can go get her if she doesn’t come, but it is only temporary.
When you call a dog to come and she doesn’t respond, how you handle the situation is important for your future success with this cue. If you do nothing, or if you keep calling her over and over, you are teaching her not to respond unless she feels like it. Either she learns that she doesn’t have to come because there is no consequence for not coming, or she learns to tune out the “come” cue; it becomes background noise and loses its meaning to her.
One possible response is to go up to her, show her the meatball treat she could have had, and then walk away. Another is to take her out of the park so she learns that if she does not respond, she does not get to stay at the park.
A third possibility is to immediately set up a similar situation as a training opportunity. Put the meatball right up to her nose, move a few feet away and call her to come. Lure her with the treat if necessary—anything to get her to come away from the food the man is giving her, and then reinforce her for doing so. Then, allow her to go back to the treat man to get whatever he has. Allowing your dog to get both reinforcement from you and what she gave up in order to come to you makes responding to your cue a winning situation all around. Setting up winning situations for your dog over and over again in all sorts of contexts is what proofing a dog for a cue is all about.
During training, have something better than what she gave up so she learns that coming to you is always worthwhile. This means that if someone is giving her liver biscotti, you give her chicken. If they are giving her a lot of nice petting attention, you give her a belly rub. If they are luring her with an ordinary ball, you reinforce her with a super bouncy ball.
In terms of your question about dogs really “getting it”—it’s hard to know for sure that your dog is proofed to respond to a cue in any situation if you have not explicitly practiced and trained her to handle a variety of environments. That said, the more situations and types of distractions in which your dog has learned to respond to the cue, the more likely it is she will respond appropriately in a novel context. Eventually, all situations are sufficiently similar that she can be said to be “fully proofed” for a particular cue. Some dogs get there faster than others, but for virtually every dog, it takes a lot of practice in a wide range of situations involving different places, with different distractions and from different distances.
For more information about canine learning, the best book on the subject is Excel-erated Learning: Explaining in Plain English How Dogs Learn and How Best to Teach Them by Pamela J. Reid, PhD. For specific advice on teaching a reliable recall to your dog, the best resource is the video Lassie Come! by Patricia B. McConnell, PhD.