When I am walking my dogs, I occasionally get asked if I am “still” training my senior dogs. To me it is nothing unusual. Is that because my dogs are naughty? Well, yes perhaps… Is that because I am not a good trainer so that I haven’t been able to train my dogs well enough? Well, yes maybe…
A couple of days ago a dog owner told me with a frowning face that her three-year-old dog had started failing recalls. So, I asked what she was doing to reinforce her recalls when she actually came back. Then, she looked puzzled and said “Penny used to always come when called. But, now she chases rabbits and doesn’t come back when I call her.” I asked again if she ever gave her dog a reward when the dog chose her over distractions and came. Then, she said “Do I need to carry food when I walk her? I never needed treats as she always came back.”
Dogs are not robots. They have their own mind. You cannot program how they respond to your cues correctly every time by writing lines of code. They make their own decisions. They make decisions to suit themselves. They choose an option that is likely to result in something they like. If they think that a certain option will results in something they don’t like, they will learn not to choose the option.
When it comes to dogs’ recalls, some dogs may choose to come when called, even if they aren’t taught to do so. For example, some dogs, especially young ones, do so because they feel safe being close to their owners. But, as they develop more confidence in various environments, their need to stick to their owners may decrease. So, they are likely to learn to choose it over their owners when when they find something more interesting than their owners
If you want reliable recalls from your dog, you need to reinforce his choice to come back to you by rewarding him for his successful recalls. The reward doesn’t need to food. It can be toys, interactions with you, or other activities he likes, such as sniffing the ground or even running free! If you praise and give him a reward every time he comes, it becomes a reason for your dog to come back every time he is called. Also, when you give him a reward, whether it is food or not, for his successful recall, he doesn’t only get the reward but also learns what it feels like to come and get rewarded. If he learns that he feels good when he comes back, it will be a reason for coming back whether he gets rewarded or not.
If the case of the dog owner who I mentioned earlier, she might need to retrain her dog from scratch, because the dog has practised to ignore her calls so many times, which means that the dog’s choice to ignore her owner’s calls has been reinforced. There are various ways to teach a dog recalls strategically, but that will require a separate post.
Even if now you think that your dog has highly reliable recalls, you never know what kind of competitions for your dog’s attention can appear in the future. So, be prepared to compete with them by reinforcing your dog’s recalls from time to time, if not always!!