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The top 7 mistakes when teaching your dog to come

Recall. It’s such an important skill to teach your dog, yet also such a difficult one to master. It’s one of the most common questions I get asked as a trainer and one of the biggest frustrations for dog owners because their dog seems to want to do everything but come back to them. Unfortunately, recall just takes work – and lots of it. Dogs are not born with a ‘recall’ gene embedded into their DNA. It’s also key that we don’t sabotage our own good work with behaviour that will discourage the dog from coming back to us. Here are 7 mistakes to avoid when trying to teach your dog an effective recall. MISTAKE NO 1: Punishing the dog for coming to you Common scenario: The owners take their dog to the off lead dog park. They let the dog off the lead and Fido starts to wander off. The owner calls him but he has already found another doggie playmate and they go racing off to the creek. The owner chases after him but Fido thinks it’s a game and runs away from the owner. Oh, this is fun!! Fido then gets a sniff of a rabbit and takes off into the bushland. After half an hour, Fido eventually comes back. The first thing the owner does is yell at Fido and hit him hard. ‘That will teach him!’, the owner says. Well actually, it won’t. Dogs can’t process cause and effect in such an advanced way as we can. They can’t think back across the whole last hour and realise which part of it they are being punished for. For them, the last action they performed within 1-3 seconds is the one that caused the punishment from the owner. So in this situation, the dog has learned that when he comes to the owner, he will be punished. What do you think the dog is going to do next time? That’s right – no way is he going to go back to his owner for a flogging! So whenever your dog comes back to you, no matter what they have done, aim to make frankfurts, cheese and chicken rain from the sky straight into your dog’s mouth! Make sure your dog knows that coming back was the best thing that dog has ever done. What do you think the dog will do then? ‘Oh wow, when I came back to Mum, she gave me a fresh piece of steak bigger than me! I’m sure going to do that again!’ MISTAKE 2: You are being the fun police! I see this a lot. Owners will get the dog to come to them to end a behaviour the dog is enjoying. For example, let’s go back to the dog park. Jack is a Labrador and his owner takes him to the dog park. He is happily playing with his doggie friends and having a great time. His owner calls him over and he comes to her. She pops him on the lead and puts him in the car and goes home. So what do you think Jack has learnt? When I come back to Mum, she puts me in the car and we go home. But what did Jack want to do? He wanted to keep playing with his doggie friends. So to him COME = END OF PLAYING WITH HIS FRIENDS. What do you think Jack will do next time? Yep, you guessed it, he isn’t going nowhere! So if you want to get your dog home from the dog park, don’t call him to you – wait for an opportune time and go to him! Another good way you can make sure going on lead doesn't predict the end of your dog having fun is by going to your dog and putting your dog on a lead at various times throughout the off lead play at the dog park. Give him/her a very high value reward and then double this by letting them off the leash to play with their doggie friends again. That way, your dog won’t always being on a lead with going home. MISTAKE 3: 'Come' means bad experiences Polly the Poodle is at home, having a snooze and her owner calls her over. Polly gets up from her snooze and goes to her owner. Her owner picks her up and puts her in the bath. Now Polly HATES baths. She hates everything about baths. A few days later, Polly is again at home having a snooze. Polly’s owner calls her. Being the wonderful Polly she is, she gets up and goes over. Polly’s owner restrains her and cuts her nails. Polly HATES her nails being cut more than having a bath. Polly is learning COME = BAD EXPERIENCES. The next time Polly’s owner calls her, she is snoozing again. But this time, she decides ‘no more bad experiences’ so she runs under the bed where she knows her owner cannot get to her. That way, she can stop the bad experiences happening to her. MISTAKE 4: You haven't trained the recall and have unrealistic expectations Dog owners seem to think that a little bit of training when the dog is a puppy is all the dog needs to become a well socialised, well trained dog. Most owners do not put in the necessary amount of time, patience, dedication or work needed to get a reliable recall. They are not consistent in their training either. But the owners then expect the dog to perform the recall in the most difficult and distracting environments possible for the dog. They have set the dog up to fail. You see, training a reliable recall can take months if not years to master. It is a daily behaviour that needs to be practiced. You need to practise recall in stages, gradually making the scenarios more difficult and distracting. Once a dog can do it in the house, take him out into the garden, but where there are few distractions. Once they have got this, perhaps try it in a quiet street, but make sure the rewards are really, really high for coming back to you with some distraction around. Of course, use a long lead at first for recalls to ensure your dog doesn’t go running off down the road. This all requires a substantial commitment and patience on behalf of the owner, but is well worth it when your dog comes rushing back every time you call. MISTAKE 5: It wasn't worth the dog's while What people don’t understand is that a dog will only do something if it’s worth his or her while (reinforcing to the dog). So many dog owners tell me: ‘He should do what I tell him to do’. I ask why? They often answer something along the lines of: ‘because I said so’. So I ask them if they would go to work for free for 40 years. They look at me like I am crazy. Same thing with a dog. Why would a dog just do something because their owner told them to? There has to be some payoff in it for them. Just like when we go to work there is something in it for us. If your dog won’t come to you, think about if it is worth his or her while. This leads me to my next point… MISTAKE 6: You are not a high enough reinforcer and you are competing with the environment You dog is not going to come to you just because. It’s that simple. You have to be the highest reinforcer for that dog. At home, with not much happening, your dog may find you the highest reinforcer. He or she may want to come to you for pats, play or food. But out in the real world, things change very quickly. You become boring to the dog (sorry but it’s true). The dog has really exciting smells to get to, dogs to meet, people to see, things to investigate. How are you going to compete with the environment? Many people tell me that their dog knows the ‘recall’ because the dog performs this at home all the time. They tell me their dog is being ‘dominant’, or ‘stubborn’ or ‘ignorant’ when they refuse to do it in the park or at the beach. Out in the real world your dog is working out the reinforcers and unfortunately, you probably sit at the bottom. Your measly dry cookie isn’t going to cut it when there are so many exciting other things to see and do. You need to think about what the highest reinforcer is for the dog out in the environment (which may be different to what it is at home) and what is going to trump everything else in the environment? MISTAKE 7: Not recognising physical or behaviour issues and the environment This one gets missed a lot! Some dogs don’t come because they are riddled with arthritis and it HURTS to come to you. Some dogs have injuries, muscular soreness, a dodgy knee or are in extreme pain and it is easier for them to stay where they are. They might be tired, lethargic or sick. We’re generally really bad at watching our dogs and knowing when something is wrong. We often become so absorbed in our own thoughts and what we want the dog to do that we rarely look at the dog’s body language or movements to understand what is going on with them. Try and watch your dog on a daily basis. Likewise, there may be something in the environmental that is stopping your dog from coming back to you. Some dogs won’t come to you because if they move and turn their back on the big German Shepherd at the dog park, he might attack them. Or your dog won’t come to you because that means they will be getting closer to the strange man next to you who they are petrified of. Dogs are extremely perceptive of their environment so consider this too. Your dog probably isn’t being ‘stubborn’ or ‘dominant’ or trying to be ‘the pack leader’ or any garbage like that. Look around you and try and understand what your dog is trying to tell you. In Summary Dogs are living, breathing, sentinel animals. They are highly intelligent and have the ability to make their own choices and have the right to control their environment just like humans do. If you dog choses not to come to you because they don’t want to, then that is ok. Make sure you have trained the behaviour to the level required, set up the environment correctly to allow the behaviour to occur and be highly reinforced, and rule out any physical issues. If your dog then chooses not to offer this behaviour but continue to do what he/she was doing, then RESPECT THAT (unless the dog is in immediate danger of course). We are not higher beings than animals and we are not there to control them. We are their guardians and we are there to live alongside them. They have a choice, just like we do. Allow them that choice just as you have been allowed choice in your life. The likelihood is that if you do this, follow the above guidelines and set up your dog’s environment so they want to come back to you as often as possible, you will have a dog with an excellent recall. Most of the time, if your dog does not come back to you, the answer is it can't. Need some help training your dog to come back to you! We would love to help! What are your experiences with teaching your dog a recall? Have you got any other tips you’d like to share?

I would love to hear about them! Dogaholics Dog Training and Behaviour Services (Dogaholics is a dog training and behaviour service located in the Newcastle and Lake Macquarie area of NSW.)


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