Many people struggle with having their dog come when called, especially around distractions. Some dogs are highly motivated by social interactions with other dogs or by watching things happen in the environment. They find this much more rewarding than coming when called, despite being regularly rewarded with high value rewards. Practicing recalls in increasingly challenging situations and motivating them using high value rewards is still important in working with these dogs. However, there are other aspects to consider which are important to building a successful recall.
Dog trainers often advise owners to try to “be more exciting than the environment”, and this does work to improve recall. However, sometimes, we simply can’t out-excite the environment and some dogs will always find environmental rewards such as sights, sounds and smells more valuable than what we can offer. It becomes increasingly important for them to view us as the “fun-holders” who control their access to the good stuff in their environment. When they do what is asked, permission is then given to go enjoy the rewards the environment has to offer. This makes us much more relevant to them because they need to go through us to get what they want. Accomplishing “fun-holder status” requires 2 things: The dogs believe that we provide all of the fun stuff that they get, and their access to the good stuff in the environment is prevented otherwise.
This means that our dogs must not be allowed off leash until they have proven to have a reliable recall. In off leash situations, dogs are able to ignore our recall cues and continue to reward themselves by sniffing around, moving towards, and investigating things they find interesting, or playing with other dogs. We need to keep our dogs on leash or on a long line outdoors, to prevent them from running off and learning that it is more fun to ignore us, since dogs tend to choose behaviors that have worked for them in the past.
We also need to help the dogs understand that we provide them with access to fun things they can’t get on their own. Games such as retrieve and tug, which require us to participate in order to make the game fun, can help with this. Enthusiastically rewarding dogs when they spontaneously check in with us or give us attention when outside is a great way to get more of this behavior from our dogs. Secretly dropping treats or toys in the environment, and then pointing them out to our dogs, can help dogs see us as even more valuable, because we find great things for them. If we set up easy recall situations that the dog can perform successfully and then reward that with surprising high value treats or really fun play, we can help dogs learn that coming to us is way more fun than what they were doing by themselves. We also need to make sure our dogs don’t think their fun has ended when we call them away from an enjoyable activity. It can be a powerful reward to allow our dogs to go back into situations they find rewarding after a successful recall. Coming when called then becomes the way that dogs earn more access to fun, such as play with other dogs or spending time outdoors. Rather than just acting as competing distractions, these situations become the rewards for recalls.
Building up your “fun-holder” status in order to get a reliable recall with your dog requires lots of proactive thinking and practice. A great way to learn more about this and practice with your dog is to enroll in a dog training class focused on building up the recall skill.
Cheryl Wittevrongel is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA) and Certified Behavior Consultant Canine (CBCC-KA), in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.