by Sierra Hampl
Spot! Spot! Come here, Spot! Treats! Come get a treat! Spot, get in here already!
If you’ve attended any of the classes at All Dogs Go to Kevin, you are aware that we spend a great deal of time focusing on Come When Called. A reliable recall is important for two main reasons:
The above example of the dog named Spot, may be what you experience every day with your dog. We have a specific way of training a consistent and reliable recall. First, an important tip to remember in the early stages, is that whatever word you choose as your recall word--here or come—should only be used during training sessions. This provides complete accuracy in building a reinforcement history with the verbal cue. Secondly, we also suggest that if you have already been using a word like 'come' with little success, it would be best to start over and choose a new word for your dog’s recall. In this case we would tell you to use ‘here’ as your new recall cue.
We want whatever word we use for coming when called to always be relevant to the dog. If he has had a history of ignoring the word you've chosen, it's already beginning to lose its relevance.
Let’s use Spot as our training example. Spot never listens when he’s having a great time in the yard. And why should he? It’s reinforcing to bark at squirrels and he does not have a reinforcement history of coming to his owner and being rewarded, so why bother? At this point, coming to his owner simply means the fun will end and he’ll be stuck inside, away from those fun squirrels.
Teach Spot the new verbal cue (in our example we will use the word ‘here’) for his recall. As we are doing this, we are also simultaneously teaching Spot that really good things happen when he responds to that cue. You will load up your hand with tasty treats - something that Spot doesn't get on a regular basis, like real meat or cheese. Spot will likely be very excited and stare at your hand. Wait (and wait, and wait!) for Spot to lose interest. This may take forever, but be patient.
Waiting for Spot to disengage from the food in your hand is a very important part of the process. If you skip this step, you will have a dog with a perfect recall when he knows that you have a hand full of food, but not in any other situation.
When at last he finally disengages, say, “Spot! Here!” and then throw the pile of treats on the floor. Practice this inside in a low-distraction environment, when Spot is only a few feet away from you to start. Please note, the recall word, in this case, here, is only said one time. After many repetitions, Spot is ready for the next step.
Enlist a friend or family member to hold Spot’s leash and stand about eight feet away from you. Just as you did in the previous step you will say, “Spot! Here!” and reward Spot as soon as he reaches your feet.
What if Spot doesn’t listen and just stares at my friend? It’s tempting to continue chanting the verbal cue to Spot however, if we do this, 'here' will become just as meaningless as the verbal cue you used before you started training Spot for a reliable recall. For this reason, we coach our students to pat their legs, whistle, stomp the floor, clap, anything they need to do to get Spot’s attention and come to your feet without repeating, “here”. As soon as Spot reaches your feet you will give him that big handful of treats you have ready for him.
What if Spot comes to me, but then runs right back to my friend? We coach all of our students to employ a “collar grab” as soon as their dog reaches them. This accomplishes a couple of tasks:
Spot is ready for an added distraction. Have your friend load up their fist with treats. They will not be feeding Spot, rather their yummy smelling hand will act as a distraction (i.e. squirrel or good smell outside) while you call Spot. As Spot is happily sniffing your friend’s closed hand you will say, “Spot, here!”. 90% of the time on the first few trials, Spot will continue sniffing and ignore you. Your job is to ignore the fact that you want to keep shouting, “HERE! SPOT, HERE!”
Instead, you will engage Spot in other ways: clapping, stomping, whistling, etc. As soon as Spot responds and run to you, grab his collar, and your friend will throw that fist full of treats at your feet for Spot to enjoy. Repeat this step until your dog runs over the instant you call him with no delay. Soon you will be able to apply this out in the yard and successfully train your dog to have a reliable recall.
How can I practice this if I don’t have another person to help?
We encourage our students not to rush through any of these steps and to contact us with any questions. Soon enough, just like Spot, your dog will be ready to practice this behavior in more distracting environments.