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Coming When Called - Everything You Need

dog training, dog walking, best dog walking in San Francisco

The ability to come when called, or “recall,” is infinitely the most important behavior for our pups to be able to perform at our off leash dog walking company. Each new puppy we take in goes through rigorous training with us which lasts for multiple months. If we start puppies young enough initial training is a breeze. Puppies are naturally very easy to train to come when called. Read why in this piece I wrote previously. Once they begin adolescence at 6-8 months they become much harder, and even if we started young they usually regress quite a bit. At this age dogs become very difficult to manage and I’ll usually get lots of questions or complaints from my dog walking staff or their owners. Although we put in time and effort daily with our youngsters it’s imperative that the owners we work for hold up their end of the training otherwise their dog will likely become too unmanageable for group off leash outings. So, for your reading pleasure, here is the entire, thorough explanation for how to teach your dog very effective recall from the ground up.

First some background. Why do dogs regress with adolescence no matter what you’ve done previously? Adolescents have much more energy, are more confident, exploratory, curious, and in need of constant stimulation. Unfortunately many of our city dogs can’t get the physical or mental outlets they need during their day, and time out of the house at the park is often spent in exuberance. Overstimulation can be just as damaging as under stimulation. Many dogs come out of the boring crate or the house like a bat out of hell, and this explosion of energy, running and wrestling with other dogs, could give them a rush of dopamine. Consider dopamine the dope of the happy hormones, whereas serotonin is the calming healthy, happy hormone. Your dog could be getting his kicks with a rush of dope. It’s hard to lead these play addicts to train. And, if you’re not careful, training ends up meaning the absence of play; the exact opposite of what they’d like to be doing. Errantly many owners try to force their dog to train, but if the dog chooses otherwise and is able to reinforce that choice it can become more likely they’ll make the same choice in the future, to avoid training. (For more information on how to make sure your dog has plenty of less exuberant, more mindful stimulation in their day, even when crated, Google dog enrichment, which should be an integral part of raising a well balanced dog.)

It’s an extremely important part of this puzzle to understand the concepts of protecting your cue, poisoned cues, and learned irrelevance. Protecting your cue means making sure that the cue you use and the behavior you want from your dog when you give it are always strongly correlated in the dogs’ mind, and positively so. Poisoned cues are when your dog’s association with a cue accidentally becomes a negative one. And learned irrelevance means when you use your cue often and without ensuring a consequence so the dog learns it’s basically just another noise you make, no need to respond.

Certainly one of the biggest pieces of advice I can give on this subject is stop using the name all the damn time. It’s unbelievable how often new dog owners overuse their dog’s name, not protecting their cue. Hopefully you’re about to start catching yourself now that I’ve said something. Hey Rover! Awww Rover you’re so cute. Rover don’t eat that. Rover, no. No. Oops watch out Rover. Rover, get down. Rover, Rover, sit, Rover sit. Sit. Sit, Rover sit, Rooooveeeer…. you get the picture. Protecting your cue means only use the name when you are going to make sure the behavior of coming to you is reinforced, creating the association you want to establish - that they should pay attention when you say it. You’re about to communicate something important, something good. Don’t poison the cue by using it in any situation where what comes next could be perceived as a negative, like when it’s time to leave the park. Never use it when they’re in trouble. Use something else, like, “Hey!” Work hard to set you and your dog up for success so that you wont find yourself in a situation where you feel the need to use it when you’re not at least 90% sure they’ll succeed to avoid learned irrelevance.

There is no better way to make sure your dog succeeds at least 90% of the time than a long line, which actually ensures they’ll be reinforced 100% of the time. Because if they’re wearing a long line and you never ever use their name unless your hand is on that line, you can always pull them in if they don’t succeed on their own. You still only want to call the dog when you’re 90% sure they’d come on their own! But, if you’re wrong, at least you can still make it a win, though perhaps not a win/win, which is the goal of training if we want them to like it.

Amazon sells great long cotton training lines. Twenty feet is good for a dog on the smaller, or relatively slower side, and thirty for a big or more energetic dog. A long line gives you a time or reaction buffer to intervene on any decision making your dog has while they practice being off leash. If for instance they look up and see dogs playing in the distance and think they’d like to run away from you over to them, you’d ideally be able to step on or pick up the line to prevent this idea from being reinforced by them reaching those dogs and enjoying the experience. We don’t want the dog reinforced for forgetting about you and leaving you in their wake. (If you miss it and the dog takes off do not call them. It’s not going to work, so why use it? Move your feet, not your mouth, and try again next time. Train for tomorrow, not for today.) The training line ensures the association will be made - when you say Rover your dog is going to get a treat, or a ball or stick or play with you. Something good comes right after that name is used. You have the ultimate protection of the cue with that line in your hand. Now as long as you don’t use the cue along with any reprimanding, and as long as you’re not taking something good away from their perspective with it (even when well intentioned) while you’re calling them, we don’t have to worry about poisoning it. And as long as you use it sparingly and with care you’ll make sure you don’t water it down.

As I explain in this piece on building the proper foundations and then growing on them, understand that as we start using the cue to come when called we should start small and doable, setting the dog up to succeed. It begins in the home where your dog can learn with no distractions and you slowly begin working around tougher and tougher distractions, increasing the difficulty. Only when your dog masters each level of difficulty with great form do you move up. Difficulty could be found in your building’s foyer, or your backyard, then on the street, then in a quiet corner of a park, then with dogs in sight 100 yards away, then 50, 25 and so on.

One of the biggest mistakes most owners make is asking for too much too soon! You should not expect your puppy or adolescent will come when called if you ask for that behavior in a situation like a dog park. And if you do you’re going to hurt the recall because every time they ignore you they’re practicing not coming when called. Learned irrelevance. If they’re wearing a long line you won’t have to call them. When we let dogs play with one on we call it a drag line, and we can pick it up whenever we need so we don’t use the cue.

To train recall you’ll need a training pouch, a clicker, a long line, and various rewards. If you just don’t want to use a clicker you can substitute it out with a marker word, like “yes.” Something you don’t use except for in a scenario where you’re indicating a reward is about to follow because they just did something right. As you select what rewards you’ll use keep these things in mind: You want to establish a hierarchy of rewards for any dog you work with. Petting may be the lowest, followed by kibble, chewier treats, cheese, ball, sticks, tug toys, squeaky toys, wrestling with you, and maybe chasing you at the top. The order of things is different for every dog. As much as you can mix it up during a training session the better. And as much as you can keep it novel from session to session the better. Having a training pouch is very important, so don’t use a homemade substitute, like a ziplock in a pocket. A rapid reward is crucial. Dogs learn best when an action and a consequence are very close in time.

To build it intitially:

To train from the ground up start indoors. Roll a treat down the hallway and just as they finish eating it call them back. Right when they start toward you, right when that idea pops in their head, click, or say your marker word indicating that’s exactly right. When they get to you give them a reward. Do this at least 5 times in a row, then break and play. Do about 3 sets of this, twice a day.

If there’s at least two of you another game you can play to install the behavior is the yo-yo game. Each participant takes a handful of treats. You get about 5-10 feet from each other. Take turns calling the dog once, loud and clear. You can certainly use body language as much as you want to entice them to come. Duck down to their level and motion loudly, or move backward, to lure them in. When they start toward you mark it with your clicker or verbally and when they get to you, reward. Now that first person will stand up and turn into a statue. The other will go. If the dog does not take their eyes off the first person, just wait. Eventually they’ll get boring. When they do the second person should try once more. Once the dog starts to get it they may cheat. If they go to whoever would be next without them calling then that person should remain a statue and you wait for them to see it won’t work before someone calls the cue. If you have more than 2 people, great. Just take turns randomly. As your dog progresses start to add distance between each rep until the players are all out of each other’s sight. At the next level either of these games might work outside in a quiet park with a long line attached.

My teammate, Jill Andrews, who is training at the Michael Ellis School For Dog Trainers sent me a message to add a method she's learned there. She says if a dog learns a behavior with lots of vigor and intensity then that behavior stays that way even if the lure or reward fades - like muscle memory for energy. So what they do there is they have the handler feed a bunch of high value treats while an assistant restrains the dog with either a back clipping harness or holding them back by the chest. Then the handler runs away with a handful of the treats and calls the dog in a high pitch voice. Now the dog is struggling as hard as they can to get to the handler so when the assistant releases the dog charges full speed over to the handler. This works very well even around high distractions nearby. Once they get to the handler they get a long sustained reinforcement, like 10 treats in a row while the handler continues to backpedal and the dog continues forward motion. This helps so the dog doesn't run to you then get a treat and immediately run away again. The intentional use of mild frustration translates to a drive to run to someone who calls the name. If you're by yourself you can wrap the long line around an object like a table leg, pole or tree so that your dog is restrained while you back away until you let go of the line.

Once the cue is installed:

Once the behavior is installed it’s time to start bulletproofing it by using it in increasingly more difficult scenarios. It can be problematic for us as group off leash walkers if a dog does not have this behavior installed and proofed through various levels of difficulty outside of our care because the level of difficulty present with us is about as high as it gets. Group walks are a great place to bulletproof most behaviors, but they’re not as easily installed with us. The energy around us is just too high.

Each day that you start training remember to start small and doable and build over time. During a set do 5-10 reps in fast succession, then break. With you a typical training session might look like this.

With us a typical protocol for a dog who’s struggling with recall would be the following:

  • Start with a dog on a regular length lead. Waft a treat in front of their nose to gain their attention. Once you have it use the name, then pop the treat in their mouth. Require no behavior on their part. You’re just building the association. Repeat 5 times. Attach a long line and let the dog run with their friends.

  • After a few minutes of running pickup the line and wait for some sort of break in the action. (You may need to stay very patient.) If necessary you can cause a break by stopping the dog from reaching any action with the line. With your hand a few feet up the line waft a treat, get attention, use the name, pop the treat in the mouth. Repeat 5 times. Release them to play.

  • After a few more minutes grab the line. Have your hand a few more feet down the line. See if you can get their attention without advertising the treat. Once you have attention back up quickly and excitingly so the dog moves into the space. Look for the idea that they’ll come, not the behavior, to be ahead of it. If you see it quickly use their name and the word come, and once they start toward you immediately use a verbal marker indicating they’ve just chosen a behavior you like, then reward when they get to you. Repeat 5 times, then release.

  • Let them play awhile, then grab the line. Go even further back on the line and call the dogs name, this time while a little higher distraction is present. Wait very very briefly to see if it worked. If it didn’t just give a slight tug, like a tap on the shoulder. If that did not work reel them in and give them a treat. No matter what happens make sure that quickly after you use the cue they receive a treat. If it didn’t work, next time try less distraction or closer in. Find what works and repeat 5 times. You don’t need to progress any further today than you’re able to get along with the dog. Time is on your side.

  • Repeat the same as above but start to mix in different rewards, like sticks, toys, or running away with them.

  • If the dog ever comes out of a distraction, like play, running, or digging, and comes to you without you having called, capture that behavior and reward it because you want that to happen again. If you can, throw in the cue when they’re already on their way.

  • Get involved in their play with others and if they give you attention use that as a moment to practice the cue and reward. Use movement to stay interesting to them. If you catch their eye run away and use the cue, then reward when they get you.

That would be a great session. At no time in that session should the dog think they’re being forced to do something they don’t want to. The point is to manipulate them into enjoying it. Dog training is really just manipulating dogs into making the choices we want them to make and manipulating them (or preventing them) to not make the choices we don’t want them to be reinforced for. They should see the whole process as fun and engaging. You should maintain a positive association with training.

Troubleshooting low distraction:

If you find that your dog is simply too distracted to be able to perform well in any environment outside the home you should take a step back. Many dogs have above average drives to sniff, explore, hunt, or are more visually stimulated by movement, and the sights and sounds of the real world seam to cloud their ability to hear, and overpower whatever rewards you brought out. We’re always up against the motivators that are present, and the idea is to have at your disposal at least a couple rewards that are more powerful motivators for your dog than things that are out of your control. Typically you should be able to very thoughtfully select an area to train that’s not very difficult, and you can try doing this sort of exercise for awhile to work around distractions.

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