(A version of this article originally appeared in The Daily Astorian/The Cannon Beach Gazette)
Summertime, and the getting lost is easy. It’s especially true if you’re a tourist. It’s also true if you’re training challenged, and you happen to be a dog.
Imagine you’re a dog on your first vacation to Cannon Beach. So many new dogs to sniff! So many new people! And lots of shops that keep stopping the parental units from your walks, but that's okay too because you'll get extra attention while you wait. You even get to jump on some friendly people when the parents aren’t looking.
That's when your leash breaks, setting you free to peek into windows, follow strangers, even run across the street! But pretty soon, scamper turns to wander and you’re lost.
You might have found your way home by scent in your town, but this town is a tangle of unfamiliar smells.
Let’s save this dog. How would you do it?
Some of you will be thinking prevention—e.g., dog should have stayed with parents rather than out of sight, that way jumping on strangers could have been prevented, and therefore, no leash break, no escape. That’s one good option, especially in a dog-friendly town like Cannon Beach. It’s wise to have other options as well; not all places are so dog-friendly. Double leashing is another option some folks choose. Others might add that having trained for calm behavior might have prevented the leash break because a dog trained for calmness wouldn't have jumped up, parent present or not. Fair enough.
Nevertheless, because some dogs will escape, it’s important to know how to get them back, by which I mean not only how to find them—once gone, there are professionals who should be consulted for the important task of tracking lost pets—but how to get them to come back to you. In the story above, if the dog’s parents had been right there when the leash broke, would the dog have stopped and returned to the parents when they called?
Recall help is a common request of people hiring dog trainers. Some dog owners who call me for training help report that their dogs used to “come” but no longer do. This is quite common for owner-trained dogs, and there’s a logical reason: These dogs have learned that responding does not pay. Generally, the reasons for a dog’s diminished recall response are:
1. Dog’s name and/or cue overuse (also known in trainer casual lingo, if you can believe this, as “nagging”), and / or
2. Recalling the dog to you then punishing, scolding, or ignoring the dog, or immediately ending the fun by taking away the ball, getting in the car and going home, or to the vet, etc.
3. Not positively reinforcing the dog for coming to you when cued by providing his favorite high value reinforcer.
Example: Owner cues unresponsive dog as follows. “Rover, come! Come, Rover! Rover?! ROVER, COME! COME-HERE-RIGHT-NOW! ROVER!” If the dog does finally come and is met with scolding and/or other punishment, or if the dog is simply ignored, the owner misses the opportunity to increase future recall behavior by positively reinforcing the dog for having recalled as instructed this time. Since increasing and maintaining desired behavior on cue is achieved by high rates of positive reinforcement using the dog’s preferred reinforcer (usually this is small pieces of novel, highly palatable food items) while avoiding anything aversive to the dog, the combination of nagging, punishing (for the sake of easy understanding, ending fun and/or going someplace the dog finds aversive such as a vet's office would count in this context), scolding, and/or ignoring the dog, and withholding high value positive reinforcement can quickly diminish a dog’s responsiveness. (There are other rules to training recall, but these are three biggies that can ruin it.)
To save the lost dog of our story, then—that is, to prevent the leash-broken dog from being lost—we would teach the dog’s parents how to train, cue, and positively reinforce recall behavior, and to recognize and avoid aversive handling whether purposeful or inadvertent. We would also guide them to safely practice in increasingly distracting environments, ensuring the dog responds to the cue in every environment, under various conditions until the behavior is proofed. Finally, we would explain to the parents that in order for the dog to continue to recall as cued, they must maintain a habit of consistent practice with high value positive reinforcers for recall behavior. That dog would develop excellent recall; he would possess a high likelihood of immediately stopping upon hearing his name or stop cue, and he would be very likely to return to his parents upon hearing his recall cue.
There are those who will say that if you “let the dog get away with it”— with ignoring repeated demands to Come, with repeatedly ignoring your calling the dog’s name, etc.—then you are teaching the dog to ignore you, and that you must be more “firm” with the dog. Those people are only fractionally correct, and here's the correct fraction: What teaches ignoring is nagging. This is an irony that the most proficient tune-out masters of our own species can confirm.
When it comes to effective animal training, you do not need the baggage packed up in “firm”; you’ll have a cleaner conscience and a happier, more cooperative dog (who isn’t at risk of developing aversives-related reactivity and/or learned helplessness) via positive reinforcement and clean cueing. "Firmness” and other euphemisms are often excuses to hurt, force, intimidate, scare, or startle a dog into behavior rather than taking the time and patience to train the dog—with skill and kindness, which you can do while teaching a dog to respond to a cue calmly spoken just once—to happily execute behavior. Since behavior learned this way is built on a foundation of trust rather than fear and frustration, you'll see much more reliable behavior.
photo: Julian Popov/Shutterstock