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 back 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 back, no matter what?
Answer: Most people have experienced some variant of recall training fiasco, and these dog training setbacks can be very disheartening. The situation at the dog park was not so much one in which a dog’s recall 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 have reliable recall and doesn't not know how to come when called while she was getting treats from somebody else. Furthermore, the dog 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 recall 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 dog 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.
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Many people change from step 5 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?
Teaching a dog what a recall cue means is often the easiest part. Proofing the dog to that cue, or getting the dog to respond a recall cue in all situations, is the challenge. Just because your dog has good recall and 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.
How to Improve Your Dog's Recall
Avoiding setbacks by not skipping steps is a challenge that requires great discipline on your part. The key is that throughout your dog recall training work with her, you must not call your dog unless you are 100% 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. Rather than call out "come back," 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 dog recall training. 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.
The most importanting factor in all dog training, but especially training dog recall, is setting up winning situations for your dog over and over again in all sorts of contexts. That's what proofing a dog for a training 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.
Why Recall Can Tough for Dogs
In terms of your question about dogs really “getting it”—it’s hard to know for sure that your dog is recall 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.
My friend and Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist Patricia B. McConnell, PhD, breaks recall training into 6 important recall training steps.
1. Prevention Prevention Prevention. It’s hard to compete once a dog has learned that ignoring you means he gets to chase a deer or snarf down a McBurger wrapper.
2. Winning is Everything. Start teaching a recall when you can’t lose. No distractions. Your dog practically beside you. The perfect reinforcement.
3. Reinforce the turn toward you. If your dog was focused on a chipmunk, but turns his head to you when you call, you’ve won half the battle.
4. Teach Stop on Cue. It only took me a couple of years of working with dogs to realize that, as mentioned above, dog recall includes several behaviors. 1) Stop what you are doing. 2) Change your focus onto me. 3) Turn around toward me. 4) Come toward me. 5) All the way.
5. Repeat repeat repeat. Reinforce reinforce reinforce. Never stop reinforcing recall behavior. Not every time, and not necessarily for responses when all the stars were aligned, but running and chasing is such a natural behavior for a dog that stopping a chase and coming back to you is basically a circus trick.
6. Be realistic. Adolescent dogs are famous for forgetting everything they’ve learned as a puppy, so don’t hesitate to go back to step one (prevention) for a few months, even if your dog was a star pupil as a youngster.
Eventually, with hard work and training, all situations are sufficiently similar that she can be said to be “fully proofed” for recall training. 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.
Tips on Teaching Your Dog A Reliable Recall
Training your dog to reliably return to you when called—any time, anywhere—could literally save her life, so it is no exaggeration to say that a dog's recall is the most important behavior you will ever teach her. Here are a few tips I regularly share with clients.
1. Play is one of the best reinforcements. If your dog learns that coming to you is fun, she will be more likely to respond. Call her to play tug or fetch, or let her chase you; even just running in the opposite direction often works, because almost all dogs love to chase. (Don’t chase your dog; she will learn to move away when you approach, and that can ruin her recall.)
2. Not all dogs are equally easy to train to come when called, and while there are exceptions, here are a few breed generalizations that usually fit. Dogs bred to work closely with people and pay attention to them during that work—Collies, Shepherds and Retrievers—are often easier to train with dog recall. Dogs bred to work independently—Terriers, scent and sight hounds, Mastiffs, and Pointers—often require more practice and time for the recall to be completely proofed.
3. If your dog has learned that the word “come” has no meaning and she ignores it, consider changing the verbal cue. If a word has become irrelevant, it is often more efficient to start over. Common recall words include “here,” “front” and “ven” (Spanish for “come”).
4. Dogs need to generalize many aspects of recall training in order to be able to respond appropriately in all contexts, which is why practice in so many contexts is important. Place, a key factor, is particularly hard for many dogs to generalize. A recall in your yard is completely different than a recall inside the house, and a recall at the park is completely different than a recall at home—inside or out. Other factors include distance (how far you are from your dog when calling her) and distraction level (food, other people, sounds, traffic, toys or other dogs). Plan to train your dog everywhere—that way, she will be more likely to respond, no matter what.
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.