There are few things more frustrating, or embarrassing than calling your dog and having them glance your direction before waltzing away. We’ve all seen that scene happening at the dog park. Joe Schmo is chasing Fido around, his voice growing louder and louder while everyone attempts to stifle their laughter. Except when it’s you chasing Fido around the park, things aren’t quite so funny are they?
Biggest Mistake When Teaching Your Dog To Come When Called
Nearly every pet owner does it. You get a cute little fluff ball, teach it to sit and give paw and come when you call it, and everything is peachy - for a while. Then you phase out the treats, just as the pup goes through the awkward “teenage” phase and starts to ignore you when you call his name.
Most owners begin to blame the phase, but in reality the owner has made a huge training mistake. While phasing the treats out is inevitable, they forget the golden rule - dogs don’t work for free!
So How Do You Get Your Dog to Come Without Resorting To Treats?
Now that doesn’t mean you have to give your dog a treat every time you ask them for a behavior, but a lazy pat on the head won’t suffice for the rest of your pup’s life. Dogs do not work for free – but will occasionally work for “free”. Attention, scratches, toys, and praise, are all very useful secondary reinforcers, but they should not be the only reinforcement your dog is receiving.
As counter-productive as this may seem, for dogs to produce consistent behavior they must receive inconsistent results. In scientific terms, you want to use a combination of variable ratio reinforcement variety (VRRV). Now in simple terms, vary what the reinforcement is, and when the dog gets the reinforcement.
When this type of reinforcement schedule is used, a long-term response is increased in animals and people. Essentially, the dog will respond more reliably for a longer period of time if this method is used. To fully understand how to implement this schedule, it is important to understand the two main sections; variable ratio and reinforcement variety.
A variable ratio is the opposite of a fixed ratio. It means that instead of receiving a reinforcer after a fixed number of responses (for example 4), the dog receives a reinforcer after an undetermined number of responses (for example, 4, then 2, then 6).
By keeping the ratio variable, you keep the animal from being able to guess when reinforcement is coming, and ensure a steady response across the board rather than seeing the response weaken the farther you get from the “reinforcement time”. Basically, the dog doesn’t know when the reinforcement is coming, and that “not knowing” is what keeps them enthusiastic. It’s the same reason people enjoy gambling, they relish the surprise!
Varying the type of reinforcement will also increase response rates in your dog. What if every time you threw away a piece of garbage, you got a bowl of ice cream for free? It would be pretty great… for a few days. Eventually, everyone would get sick of the ice cream. This would start to just leave their garbage sitting around the house.
Alternately, if you got $5 for throwing away a piece of garbage, and the next time you got $10, and the next time you got a candy bar, and the next time you got a gift card to the grocery store - you would never litter! Your dog becomes much more enthusiastic to do things that you ask them, be it come when called, or sit on command when they have a varied reinforcement schedule.
We want to begin our training by breaking behavior back down to its roots. Prepare ahead of time by stashing jars of treats (out of reach!) throughout the house. This will give you a convenient way to quickly reinforce your dog without having to get the treats ahead of time. So you can make sure they don’t know you have food!
When working with your dog we should be using a bridge word. This will let them know when they have done the correct behavior. For more detailed information on this see The Secret Training Tool You Aren’t Using (link to the other article).
For this example, we will use a clicker as our bridge.
- Call your dog from a low-distraction situation in the same room.
- Using clapping, kissy noises, snapping (AKA prompting) to get your dog’s attention if necessary.
- Click when they come to you.
- After that, reach for your treats that have been stashed ahead of time and give one or two to your dog.
- Do not open the treats before calling, and do not do anything that would suggest you have food prior to asking for the behavior.
By following those steps you have created a scenario where your dog thinks you are a magic treat dispenser, you could have food on you even though they didn’t see you grab any. If they can’t guess when you have food, they will respond to you more readily. Become a magical food wizard to your dog, and they will be on the tips of their toes waiting for you to ask them for things.
Once we have begun to convince our dog we are magic, we can start to up the distraction level a tad. Start in the same room, but when your dog is more distracted. Instead of standing around doing nothing, maybe your dog is sniffing something or looking lazily out the window. The following are your best steps to increase distraction level. Remember, you should only move up to the next step when you are confident you dog will respond.
- Lowest distraction in the same room.
- Mid-level distraction in the same room (looking out the window but not that interested).
- Moderate/high level distraction in the same room (looking out the window interested).
- Low distraction in another room.
- Mid distraction in another room.
- Moderate/high distraction in another room.
- Across the house.
- In the backyard.
- On leash around the neighborhood.
- On leash at the park.
- Off leash at the dog park.
The dog park is a pretty lofty goal when it comes to recalling your dog, and it is actually one of the last “steps” in practicing your recall. To get a solid behavior, some of the most important things to know are the biggest mistakes, understanding how to achieve the highest behavioral consistency, and of course knowing the proper training steps!
By slowly building up the distraction levels we create a solid basis of behavior with our dogs. If they have been built all the way up to level seven, but we forget to practice for a while, they will probably be able to respond at level five. Unfortunately, if we just start at a high level, when you lose it, it’s gone. There is no starting a level down and building it back up, there is just luck.
We can increase the dog’s likelihood of responding by ensuring that we very what the dog gets. We can also increase that likelihood of response if we train our dog to react to higher distraction levels. That is when until you have the greatest possible chance of not having to chase Fido around the park.