Yay! Your dog comes reliably in the house whenever you call him.
Now what? How do you get from there to a dog who’ll do a 180 and return to you no matter what the distractions are?
Gradually. That’s how. And this is what you’ll need: Ideally access to a few fenced-in areas, a long line or tracking lead, and reinforcements. The latter two are must-haves - the long line to manage your dog and enforce the come command, the reinforcements so that... Why does a dog come when he hears the car keys jingle? Because the consequence matters to him: Stimulation. Why doesn’t he come when he is off the leash outside? Because the consequence matters to him: Being away is more rewarding. So we must change the dog’s experiences if we want a different outcome outside, and that’s why we need the right reinforcements.
The natural question that follows is what they are, and unfortunately there is no template answer. The reward hierarchy depends on the dog, the day, the moment, the season, the age, but here are a few ideas:
Extra special food! Our Will washes dishes in our house for chicken, but generally meat treats and human food works: garlic roast beef, cheese, stinky fish skins, Ziwi Peak – www.ziwipeak.com air-dried dog food. Kibble and floury cookies typically don’t impress the pooch much, albeit our Aussie Davie flipped over ordinary Milk Bones. Perhaps because she rarely got one. Junk food is a very limited resource in our house.
Don’t just think food, though. Think toys: A ball, Frisbee, tug toy or flirt pole – you can google that – excites many dogs because, especially outside, they expect and want movement, action, often more than food. When Davie spotted a deer, I rewarded her with a chase game with me for coming. The impulse to chase was what the deer triggered, and chase was what she got, and she had so much fun that not only did I get a 100% recall, but she initiated the interaction with me whenever she spotted a deer. Deer became a cue for her to come to me, which means I didn’t need to proactively keep an eye out any longer.
So, never underrate the value of interacting with you. It matters, or should.
In that sense you can raise the appeal of food by making it part of a game: Toss it and let your dog pounce for it, teach him to catch it in mid-air, or hide a few pieces for him to nose out.
Many dogs love following a scent trail. It is what turns Will’s crank the most, and I can recall her off a squirrel with a high-pitched “oops” – as in “oops I lost that dang mitten-sock-leash-hat again”. Admittedly, she doesn’t come right in, but I secure her attention every single time, and she goes searching for the item that smells like me, and returns to me when she found it to announce that, and then we both go fetch it. At that point Will is on the leash and experiences that being leash restrained is not unpleasant.
Ideally, the leash should not be perceived as aversive, and to work toward that I recall frequently, re-clip, and continue the fun on the leash for a while. We follow animal tracks in the snow on leash, we pick and share berries on leash, and I ask Will to “find the car” on the walk back from the park.
Once you know what it is your dog wants to be rewarded with, equip yourself with a variety, grab your long line, and head outside. Begin in areas where there are no, or minimal distractions.
Walk backwards and call your dog. Change directions and call your dog. Let him move ahead of you, and call him. Reward even if you have to reel him in, because you want to make it very clear that what you rehearsed in the house means exactly the same outside: returning to you has pleasant consequences.
Recruit the whole family, form a wide circle, and take turns calling the dog. Each person has a different reward s/he hands over, then another person calls, and so on. Dogs love that fast-paced game, learn to pay attention and come to each member, and tire out. If the dog goes to a person who hadn’t called, s/he must completely ignore him, while the one who did reels him in – and rewards.
When your dog comes every time you call, happily, in several locations, it is time to build in distractions and yes, you still need the long line.
I can’t stress enough the importance to raise the bar incrementally to set your dog up for success - you then can build on.
There is a gradient from least challenging to most difficult to resist; from most likely to succeed with a recall to least likely, and what a dog finds most seductive is as varied as what he finds most rewarding. With Davie, cats topped the hierarchy, and for Will it is certain kind of dogs: boisterous young ones she feels need a lesson in “how one behaves on the trail”.
So, even within a motivation category, there can be differences, but the take-away message is that a dog who doesn’t come if there is a barely moving stimulus somewhere in the distance certainly won’t return to you when he sees a rabbit in flight.
Start with stationary objects and the barely moving: adults strolling afar, calm dogs minding their own business, garbage bins on the side of the road. Then gradually creep closer, and then increase distance again and practice with stimuli that are more animated: children and dogs playing, wildlife, people who pay attention to your dog, and dogs that bark at him.
The million-dollar question is: Do you have to reinforce every come? Depending who you ask, you’ll get a different answer, and no surprise there. Dog trainers tend to disagree a lot.
There was an interesting conversation on a social media thread recently where someone asked that from the operant conditioning position that variable schedules of reinforcement, which means that a reinforcement is not produced each time or always after the same number of responses, creates a high rate of responding. In layperson terms, a dog who only gets rewarded sometimes, and can’t predict when because you mix it all up, will become addicted to coming like a gambler is addicted to the slot machine.
However, one person, Eileen Anderson at eileenanddogs.com, had following input: She said that Dr. Susan Friedman, who you can find here, www.behaviorworks.org, showed videos of a person practicing recalls with a parrot. He initially applied a variable schedule of reinforcement, and the result was very interesting: The parrot didn’t come half the time, and when he did, unenthusiastically. When the person changed the tactic and reinforced every time using a variety of food the parrot really liked, he not only came every time, but sat on his perch flexing his wings and leaning forward, ready and eager for the cue. Fascinating! The explanation Eileen shared was, and I quote: “that a variable schedule of reinforcement makes a behavior resistant to extinction, which is entirely different from reliable, consistent and enthusiastic, which is what we want for recalls”.
It’s what I want. If you do too, it seems reinforcing every time is the way to go.
Don’t be troubled by that. Remember that reinforcing doesn’t always mean food, but also interaction. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging and engaging the dog, for a lifetime, when he comes when called. Realistically, as you mesh together, you don’t have to make it a big deal every time, but as long as your dog is still learning, and your relationship developing, and whenever he is highly motivated by something in the environment, impress him when he chooses to return to you because you’ve called.
A very powerful reinforcement is to release the pooch to where he originally wanted to go, and you can orchestrate situations to practice that.
Deposit baits in an area before you get there, or throw a ball with your dog managed on the long line. When he is on his way, step on it, call him, and when he comes, release him to it. Rehearse in different areas and with a variety of tantalizing triggers, and your dog will learn that gaining access to what he wants is contingent on coming to you first. Don’t always release him, though, because in real life he can’t always access what he desires, but when you don’t, provide a different reinforcement of equal or higher value.
If you have friends and neighbors who are willing to help you, use them, but be careful how.
I am concerned about advice to hold the dog back on the collar or leash to raise anticipation; For instance, the helper restrains your dog while you walk away with cream cheese filled Kong. Surely it sets the dog up for success in the sense that he comes on cue, but what associations will he form to other people? So, unless the dog, without a doubt, perceives the whole activity and all participants as a game, and already feels good about the person who restrains him, I don’t recommend it. I feel the same about the helper snatching a toy away or stepping on a treat when the dog ignores the recall command. In that scenario, the dog learns to compete and be faster than a person so access a resource, and there is a risk that it fosters guarding with a dog who already feels insecure about resources.
Recall training is an ongoing process. Rehearse often, and never take it for granted when your dog chooses to return to you over a million other things. The end goal is that coming when called becomes a conditioned behavior, which means that your dog is not thinking when he hears the cue word, but whiplash-style darts back to you, including when he plays with dogs or greets people. With patience and consistency, you can achieve that with most dogs.