Speaking of Dogs: Baby, Come Back

Photo courtesy of Carla Jackson

Once there was a dog trainer who said, “If your dog won’t come when you call, he isn’t your dog.” 

A provocative statement, but I must say, I agree with him. If you can’t successfully call your dog, his life is limited to the backyard or at the end of a leash. Forever. Teaching a malleable puppy to come when called, also known as The Recall, is one of the easiest things you can do, yet “Lassie, come!” is the most universally botched command in dog training.

Some common mistakes:

• Lost in Translation: The dog never learned the meaning of “come.” We take language for granted and often assume our dogs know what we are saying. Unless you’ve made a conscious effort to pair “come” or “here” with a reward for turning and coming to youDoggie has no idea what you are trying to say.

• Wrong Place, Wrong Time: An attempt was made to teach come but it was done in a football field -sized area with hundreds of awesome odors and entertainment options. There is no way your adolescent Labrador will choose you over a flock of geese. Go ahead; just TRY to call untrained Bouncing Beau away from that tempting gaggle and see what happens. I’m willing to bet the rent he’ll learn that “come” means run off, chase stuff, have fun.

• Recall Linked to Undesirable Outcomes: Common scenarios include, punishing a dog after you’ve called him away from rooting in the garbage, calling him to dreaded bath time, calling him from play and humorlessly ending his fun with no reward.

• Lack of Consistency: You’ve changed the definition of “come” so many times; the dog chewed up his dictionary. Recognize the following? Bob yells, “Bouncing Beau, come, come here Beau, c’mon, c’mere, Beau here, get over here, get over here NOW, Beau, Beau, Beau, BEAUREGARD JONES!! Oh you little @#&$!!!” Followed by the inevitable, “Beau want a cookie?”

• Lack of Follow-Through: “Beau, come! Oh, never mind, he’s busy sniffing.” 

Photo courtesy of Carla Jackson.

Sometimes though, we reward the wrong behavior:

The Case of the Misplaced Atta-Girl

Sam and I had four training sessions with his adorable puppy, Gaga, using positive reinforcement and clicker training. The *click* from the clicker is a reward marker that tells the dog, “See what you just did? I like that! Here’s a reward.”

We paired the clicker with several repetitions of click-treat, click-treat to create a positive association with the sound. Gaga will make the same joyful connection with a word, but the power of the clicker is that it creates a unique sound. At lightning speed. It means nothing but “Yay!” Our dogs hear human voices all day long and a youngster might find it difficult to sort out which word means Good Dog! The clicker is a shortcut to the brain.

Gaga loved the training and quickly learned to sit, come when called, and lie down. It was all wine and roses until she was hit with a case of Puppy Independence.

It struck when Gaga was at the far end of the yard, rifling through some bushes and ignoring Sam’s calls to come. After several repetitions of the command, Sam thought, “Well she loves the clicker; I’ll just click and see what happens.”

So Sam clicked and Gaga wheeled around and charged across the lawn, straight to him. It was like magic! But after giving it some thought, Sam phoned to ask if the clicker can be used as an attention-getter or as a remote control.

The answer is a resounding NO. Remember, the clicker is a reward marker. Think of it as a little camera that takes a snapshot of the behavior you want repeated. At the split second it occurs.

Unfortunately, Gaga was rewarded for ignoring the recall. Sam called, Gaga ignored, Sam clicked the ignoring. She heard, *click,* and got the message that thumbing her nose at Sam earned her a reward. She just ran over to collect her paycheck.

So what to do? Simply go back to the drawing board and pair “Gaga, come,” with a reward. Repeatedly. In a controlled, set-up-for-success environment. Repeat some more. Do it until “come” means cookie. Or ball. Or a life reward. Life rewards are anything your dog really really wants to do like, go for a walk, chase the Frisbee, stare at squirrels in the backyard.

In Gaga’s case, when she learns to come immediately when called from the bushes, Sam gives her a treat and sends her back to resume investigation. Life reward jackpot!

As for Bouncing Beau, once he has achieved Recall Level Platinum, his life reward might be a chance at gainful employment… as Chief Goose Shoo-Away at the local golf course.

Carla Jackson is a professional pet dog trainer and owner of Jackson Ranch for Dogs, a kennel-free boarding and training facility. She specializes in private training, behavior consultations, puppy socialization and day training. You can find Jackson Ranch on Facebook, visit the Jackson Ranch website, or call (530)365-3800.

Carla Jackson
Carla Jackson is a professional pet dog trainer and owner of Jackson Ranch for Dogs, a kennel-free boarding and training facility. She specializes in private training, behavior consultations, puppy socialization and day training. You can find Jackson Ranch on Facebook, visit the Jackson Ranch website, or call (530)365-3800.
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11 Responses

  1. Welcome back, Carla. We've missed you! 🙂

  2. Avatar Charlie says:

    Remarkably, you are able to make serious dog training FUNNY, ENGAGING, as well as totally USEFUL. Entertained, informed. Who could ask for more?

    I give this article the top 10-Bark! rating. If I had only known some of these things before my daughter became a teenager, life would have been so different.

  3. Avatar Lisa & Robert Wi says:

    When the time comes for us to get dogs again, we will definintely consider doing the clicker training….our Huskies were terrible at listening….per the breed, but boy did we have some memorable times with them over the 16 years we had them! Doni, hope you're well…your grandbaby is so cute!

  4. Avatar Robb says:

    Great read. This could save your dog's life. I think of all the risky situations they face… and if your kid follows them into the street. Scary.

    Good tips.

    Thanks, Carla!

  5. Avatar Meredith Fisher says:

    Hi Carla,

    Thanks for the info. But, what if you have an adult, male, 7-year-old, un-altered Samoyed? Is there ANY hope to correct his behavior at this late date? He listens very well and will come when I call him. But, when he is on the leash he yanks my shoulder of socket like he's leading a sled. And gets very aggressive when he sees other dogs and is very protective. Not very socialized, with the exception, of course, of our older Sammy Sophie. At home he is a big furry sweetheart, but when I take him out into the world he is a different dog. Would there be good info on your DVD to address these issues? Or maybe, as I fear, I'm the one that needs training!!!

    • Hi Meredith,

      Nice to hear from you! It sounds like your dog might be suffering from issues that can be traced to his lack of socialization and training. Most on-leash aggression is the result of fear. He is afraid of the approaching dog and because he’s on leash, the flight option has been eliminated. He’s left with Option B – fight. Many people assume the dog is being protective, when in fact he is frightened and doing everything he can to say, “You there! Stay away!!”

      I encourage you to take steps to manage his behavior and help him become more comfortable in the world. There is no quick fix, but with positive reinforcement, patience, and lots of practice, you can make both his and your life much easier. If you email me at jacksonranch@shasta.com I will be happy to send you some information about working with reactive dogs.

      For pulling on the leash: First, teach him to heel or to walk on a loose leash in a distraction-free area. As he improves, slowly increase the distractions until you're ready for prime-time. Our DVD does address this topic.

  6. Avatar Donna Dowling says:

    Great article, Carla. As someone who adores dogs and will always have a dog, I certainly appreciate your advice. I have had 3 wonderful dogs that you have met. Dingo – a dog you could take to church, without a leash, I might add. Nick – having a screw loose with ADD issues, but he sure loved going to Jackson Ranch. Scout – a peculiar dog with psychological issues – didn't like being boarded. The only one we have left is Scout, and her insecurities make it difficult to travel without her. I still give your writing the top 10 bark (like Charlie).

  7. Avatar Carrie says:

    Wish I could find a place like this to board my two cats. 🙂

  8. Avatar Eric O says:

    Carla,

    Great article! As a "newbie" to clicker training I definitely see myself as Sam. Yes, that clicker worked wonders in my frustration of getting my "puppy" to come. But something said oops, "what would Carla say?" Alas, one phone call later, and my new found "miracle calling device was relegated to a rewarding device not a whistle!

    Your teaching and training techniques for both the little dog and the big human are amazing. Thank you for your patience and guiding hand. Keep writing as there is a lot of us who need help!