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Saturday, September 11, 2010

Coming When Called -- the Positive Reinforcement Way

Many, many dogs are surrendered to shelters, fitted with shock collars, or neglected because of behavior issues.  This is a sad, sad situation because this is something that can be fixed!!!  As trainers, our goal is to help people establish and maintain their relationship with their dogs and keep their dogs in safe, loving homes for their whole lives.  Every time we can help someone keep their dog, we have eliminated one more dog in the rescue/shelter system. 

One of the biggest complaints people have about their dogs is that the dog won't come when called.  This, of course, is an essential life-saving skill that is necessary for your dog to have.  Unfortunately many training programs do one (or both!) of two things -- either it waits until the dog is more "advanced" in her training to begin teaching it and/or they use an aversive to teach the dog that NOT coming when called will result in a painful correction.

Dogs don't speak English.  I know this may come as a shock to some people.  In order to communicate effectively with our dogs, we need to teach them "English as a second language" -- including their names!  (We also think dogs have a very sensitive intuition and understand our nonverbal communication of our emotions, our health, and who we are.  So go ahead and talk to your dog -- we do -- they are great listeners!  But when it comes to training, assume your dog is from a foreign country and doesn't speak your language.)  

As trainers, we think coming when called is so essential that we start to lay the foundation for it in our very first class by first teaching the dogs that when you hear a click, you have done something we like, and you are going to get something good for it.  Once they get this, we begin teaching them their names.  Say the dog's name (once!), the dog looks at you, click/treat.  Through all of these steps we are also teaching the dog that we may (or may not!) hold her collar, clip on the leash, play with the dog, feed the dog (along with the click/treat), or any number of other routine and/or fun items with the dog -- this teaches the dog to come whenever, wherever because you never know what great thing might happen when you do!  Then we follow a series of steps that build on this foundation -- saying the dog's name and backing up with the dog following you, playing the "round robin" game (everyone has treats and you call the dog from person to person, feeding as soon as the dog gets to you), having "lightning rounds" (Call the dog back and forth between two people as fast as you can get the dog going, treating as often as you can when the dog arrives at each person -- many dogs love this game so much they don't want/need a treat at each person -- and that's okay.  The reward is in playing the game.), and eventually adding distractions and distance to the teaching.  

We also have some "rules" we follow and teach that will help to establish and ensure that your dog will reliably come whenever you call her:  one -- whenever you call your dog to come to you, it ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS results in a positive (a treat, playtime, dinner, a toy, etc.).  No matter how many trees they sniffed, how long they took stalking the squirrel, or how slowly they responded -- when the dog gets to you, it's party time!  This is the hardest thing to do when your dog is being a dog and chasing a bunny or barking at the neighborhood kids, but it's essential.  It only takes one time for you to deliver a negative to your dog to erode the dog's willingness to come when you call.  Remember, dogs don't speak English, so you can say whatever you want, just say it in a pleasant, upbeat tone!  Two -- teach your dog that you may grab and hold their collar, clip on a leash, or otherwise restrain them when they come to you (see above).  This alleviates the "bobble-head" and "you can't catch me" syndromes.  If your dog is used to you sometimes holding them when they come to you, it will not be viewed negatively and you won't have a dog that stops just short of getting to you and won't let you get any closer to them.  Three -- don't call your dog to come to you to do something she doesn't like -- bath, nails trimmed, crate, etc.  Go get your dog and take her to where you need to be.  (For the crate we have separate and distinct cue that we have taught.)  Doing this eliminates the negative associations with the coming when called.  And four -- practice, practice, practice this for your dog's entire life!  If you want your dog to always come when called, then practice it diligently.  Integrate it into your lifestyle.  Call your dog every day for something and reward it.  If you don't use it, your dog will lose it.

We are involved with the initiative Never Shock a Puppy and we are helping to spread the word that there are alternatives to teaching dogs that are positive and pain free.  Please, if you are having issues with your dog, seek out a trainer that will help you actually teach your dog what it is she needs to learn.  Using a training collar that inflicts pain when the dog does something wrong only teaches the dog to avoid the collar and what it does -- it doesn't teach the dog what it is that you want from her.  There are an infinite number of ways to do things incorrectly, but only one way to do them correctly -- teach your dog the correct way to do things using dog and people friendly methods.

It's Pet Blogger Hop Saturday!  Enjoy these great pet blogs!!!


Chihuahua Girl said...

Hi! I am visiting and following you from The Saturday Pet Blogger Hop. You have a great blog with great information!

Looking forward to reading more from you. I invite you to come visit my blog and follow me if you’d like at

Have a great weekend! :-)

~ Tina

Anonymous said...

Passing through from the blog hop. Pleased to meet you!

Pets and their people said...

Came over from the Blog Hop, loving your site. Following you through GFC and on Facebook