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 you, Doggie 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.

This “Best Of” article originally appeared October 23, 2013.

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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