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Training Tips

Teaching Reliable Recall
 

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     It happens to many dog owners. That puppy you brought home, the one who once stayed at your heels and adoringly trailed behind you every step of the way, is now seven or eight months old, has morphed into the consummate escape artist, and has either forgotten his name or gone completely deaf. You find yourself standing at the end of your driveway one morning, with only fifteen minutes to get dressed and make it to work on time, and Fido or Fifi is across the street in the neighbor's yard or charging down the sidewalk like a second grader let out for summer vacation. You call, again and again; you cajole, threaten, pursue, or drop to your knees and beg, but there is no acknowledgement.
     You know, of course, and at a gut-wrenching, ego-bruising level, that sudden amnesia or profound hearing loss doesn't explain your dog's unwillingness to respond to your pleas. Your first assumption is most likely correct: he is, quite frankly, ignoring you.
     In order to avoid a repeat of such scenarios, we have to understand the situation from the dog's perspective, know what to do, and what not to do.
     First, there is a difference between a dog knowing his name, and knowing that when his name is uttered it means "C'mere now." We want the dog to link that magic word (Fido, Fifi, Butch, Precious) with a specific action, and we accomplish this by teaching reliable recall.
 
The DO's of Teaching Recall
 
1. Practice under controlled circumstances. The time to train your dog to come to you is not when you are in a crisis situation, or during those times (like feeding time) when the dog comes to you willingly. Rather, either in the yard or in the house, wait until there is some distance between you and the dog, and when he isn't paying any attention, call his name. When he comes to you offer either intense praise, a treat, or both. This may sound very simple, but the lesson dogs must learn is that coming to you when called is always good for them. Next, take your dog for a walk around the neighborhood. Every few minutes, stop, let him get ahead of you, then call him back. (A retractable leash with a long lead works best for this exercise.) When the dog responds, offer praise, give him a treat, and resume your walk. It is important that you don't jerk on the leash. A light tap to get his attention may be necessary, but the goal is to teach the dog to respond to your call willingly. Once the dog has responded promptly three or four times, stop the exercise and let him enjoy the walk.
 
2. Have your dog spayed or neutered. Not only do you do your part to control overpopulation, but spayed/neutered dogs are less likely to want to roam.
 
3. Take your dog on regular walks. Canine escapees are often driven by sheer curiosity about what lies beyond the backyard fence. Accompanying your dog on frequent adventures through the neighborhood will help stave off backyard boredom, help satisfy his curiosity, and ultimately reduce the urge to embark on an expedition without you.
 
The DON'Ts of Teaching Recall
 
1.  There is only one: don't punish. Despite our tendency to treat our dogs like furry human beings, they are not creatures driven by ethical concerns. This may come as a shock to some people, and it is in no way meant to degrade our canine companions, but dogs do not see the world in moral terms. They do not calculate or weigh their actions based on a sense of right or wrong. Why is this so important to know? Consider this: you finally manage to get your wayward pooch to come back to you, and when he arrives he is yelled at, jerked by the collar, or worse, physically beaten. How many times I've heard dog owners say, as a way to justify a fist to the dog's chops, "He knows he did wrong!" I've got news for you. The next time he escapes, he will indeed remember the lesson, and will stay as far away from you as possible. If we teach our dogs that coming to us when we call means being slapped around, thrown roughly into the house, or dragged through the backyard gate, they will, out of common sense, avoid us like the plague. From our perspective, punishment corrects moral indiscretion. We mistakenly believe the dog will ponder the problem and arrive at the proper solution: "I better not run off again, or I'll really get it when I get home." In fact, what the dog thinks (translated, of course) is something more like this: "Answering that call is bad for me, so it's better to keep my distance, if not increase it!" So, as counter-intuitive as it may seem, when the dog is back safely in your possession, when she leaves the neighbor's garbage and wiggles and wags her way back to you, pet her, praise her, and say "Good girl!" You will be surprised how quickly that once deaf amnesiac learns to recognize her name again and responds to her best friend's call.
      
    

About the Author
 
Paul Bowers, Ph.D., is a member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (ADPT), and a certified therapy dog handler and evaluator.
 
Important Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Enid SPCA, staff, volunteers, or Board of Trustees, nor is the information intended to substitute for professional training services.