I recently made a video on training your dog to come when they are called, and then extended on my Facebook page an invitation to address any further questions on the issue that weren’t most obviously answered in the video. Here is that video, and a take on some of the most popular questions that came with it.
My dog comes when he is called reliably but finds it difficult to do so when there are other dogs or people that he wants to meet. What do I do?
Setting up the reward criteria correctly is a big part of teaching this behavior correctly. In the video, I suggest two primary exercises that can be done before hand to prime the dog to pay attention. However, the biggest factor when working around other dogs, whose behavior we cannot always manage – is the distance at which we choose to work. For example, you see that I move further back when the distractions get too close, and as a result of that the dog’s performance is better. This type of adjustment is crucial. If you have access to a fenced-in dog area, you may choose to work outside of it, which can give you some control over the distance. Additionally, we often neglect a critical factor when training this behavior – to teach a dog to pay attention to you. This can be accomplished through a myriad of exercises, and a few basic ones are introduced in the video.
My dog comes 95% of the time right away but the other time she takes a few calls to come back and when she comes back I don’t know whether to still reward her given that she didn’t come right away.
I would encourage you to explore what it is about those other times that your dog falls short of responding reliably. The issue may also be with how frequently you are asking your dog to come. We want to have focused drills, but be careful not to overdo it. Make sure that your dog gets a break and is allowed to have freedom. It is essential that the dog enjoys this activity and does not begin to view it as a chore, because that’s when the reliability of the cue starts to suffer. Take note of how engaging and enjoyable the task appears to the dog in the video. While I understand that rarely will a dog be so attentive when beginning to train this behavior – it is what we want to strive for, and getting there takes time and patience. As far as rewards are concerned, I personally prefer to keep the reinforcement high and frequent on this behavior, especially until you have a very solid recall.
Can you discuss the phases of training a bit? I’ve been told to start in a distraction-free environment (inside), then outside with low distractions, then with other dogs near-by, etc. All that is fine when I’m controlling the environment! The “real world” is totally different though! If my goldendoodle finds a piece of garbage, usually food-related, then all bets are off… He takes off running, or keeps his distance and stops to chew whatever he’s got and he won’t come back for love or beef liver! How do I work up to the point where he will ignore temptations and come back? (Or just come back with the garbage in his mouth – I don’t care at this point!)
The expectations that we set for our dogs can either set them up to be successful or not. However, we would never progress in our training if we always played it ‘safe’ and didn’t challenge the dog’s ability (within safety and reason) to manage as you put it, the “real world”. Having said that, the context of training needs to happen in real-world situations. It is certainly a challenge, but we have to bridge the gap between our training scenarios and the real world in such a way, that to the dog they appear identical. In addition to that, we have to be sure not to grant the dog any ‘free passes’, with regard to opportunities to fail. If the dog is not fully reliable with distractions, we must be cautious not to put them in a scenario where they can have a consequence-free disobedience experience. With regard to building up criteria, my advice would be to examine the steps you are taking to build it up, and then add 5 more steps in between. These could be variations in environment, type/degree of distraction, time of day, and so on. This is a difficult task regardless of one’s skill level as a trainer, and when possible – my recommendation goes strongly towards looking into intermediate or advanced level dog training classes that are centered on building this type of reliability in behavior. The advantage that this often carries is that it provides set-ups that bridge the gap between training in artificial vs. more natural types of distractions.
Once outside, my dog has no interest in food or treats. I’ve tried everything from chicken, ham and bacon to keep/gain his attention but once he sees another dog he is off.
There are several possibilities here. Food may not be the strongest motivator for your dog, you may not be using a food reward that your dog finds most rewarding, or the distractions in which you are working are way beyond your dog’s threshold. Experimenting to resolve these issues will be useful in determining a better approach. Additionally, prevention is important and I would be cautious in allowing your dog to engage with the distraction since that interaction alone is reinforcement for the behavior that occurred just beforehand. The exercises and tips in the video should be a good starting point and I would also recommend looking into a more structured training plan that helps you work in that gray area between your dog being focused and completely distracted.