Dog Behaviour Matters

dog-with-rabbit-holeIt’s no good falling out with your dog when he doesn’t respond to your recall.  Instead of getting hopping mad – think dog!

During a beautiful sunny winter’s walk in the woods this week I witnessed a very stressed dog owner and unbeknownst to her a very stressed dog.  From what the owner was shouting at her dog I gleaned that if it did not return to her immediately she would be late for work (and potentially chastised by her boss) unfortunately what the dog’s body language told me was ‘I am very concerned about returning to you as you are being extremely aggressive!’

One of the most frustrating things for a dog owner is a dog that has selective hearing and will only come back when he feels like it.  It particularly worries owners because they feel so helpless.  Let’s get this straight the dog is not deliberately plotting to make you late for work.  There are a number of factors at play here.

THE SCENARIO

Just imagine a human scenario for a moment.  You are at a party and having a wonderful time, you have only been there a short time and have yet to catch up with your friends, hear all the gossip, have a drink and some food then your partner tells you it’s time to go home.  Not only is it time to go home, but when you get there your partner plans to go straight back out again for a few hours leaving you home alone. Would you willingly return with your partner?

The main reasons that a dog won’t come back are fairly simple; the first one is that the dog has never been taught in a way that it understands what is expected of it when you give your chosen ‘recall’ signal, often too the pay-off for what the dog is currently doing, finding scents, chasing prey, playing with others, is greater than the pay-off for returning to an owner who is not a great deal of fun to be with and having the lead put on.

LIFE ON THE HOME FRONT

If your dog does not willingly come to you in the house and in from the garden when you call then there is little chance of it reliably coming when there is a wealth of exciting distractions in the great outdoors.  If you don’t have control of the dog at home, you are very unlikely to have control on walks.

CONSEQUENCES

Going back to the lady I saw in the woods, from her behaviour it was fairly clear that when she finally got her hands on the dog she was going to be quite aggressive.  The dog knew this and therefore was extremely reluctant to go to her.  Also he had no concept of what the words “you are making me late for work” mean.  Time and deadlines are a human invention.  For this dog the negative consequence of returning was actually preventing it from doing the very thing that the owner required.  Assuming for a moment that the dog had been taught exactly what ‘come here’ means and was choosing, for whatever reason, not to return then there needs to be a sliding scale of praise and reward to help the dog understand what is expected of it.  There is no place for physical or verbal violence when training recall it is very counterproductive in most training situations. However, if your dog gets a piece of sausage or liver cake when it returns sluggishly after 10 minutes of you calling then there is no incentive for the dog to do a better job.  If a sliding scale is used it is then possible to begin to ‘shape’ the dog’s behaviour.  For example; a first time recall gets a JACKPOT!  This being whatever the dog loves best.  It could be a handful of sausage, chicken or liver cake or it could be a high intensity game with a favourite toy.

DOGGY DECISIONS

Sometimes when I have called one of my dogs I see them having an internal dialogue which I imagine goes something like this “She has called, I like it when she calls, but what I am doing here is so much fun, this is the best rabbit hole I have ever seen.  Oh she is calling again and clapping AND running around. Aw shucks I love it when she does that.  Ok the rabbit hole can wait. Hold on mum I am coming!”  obviously dogs don’t think in English, but when I have seen my dog struggling with making the decision that is right for me I will treat this very favourably and the dog will be rewarded with sausage and a fuss if it comes to me.  If the dog makes and unfavourable choice then it will get no reward at all.  If the dog has already learned to run in the opposite direction when you call then you will need to enlist the help of a trainer who is well versed in positive training.

BREEDS

Think about the breed of dog that you have chosen and how this will affect their behaviour, for example recall problems with Border Collies are often born out of a need to chase something; jogger, car, cyclist and so on.  Recall problems with a Jack Russell are often caused by a desire to head down a rabbit hole and recall problems with Gun breeds such as Springer Spaniels and Labradors are often caused by the dog getting carried away following the scent of something very interesting like a Pheasant.  What motivates your dog to not respond to you call is the very key to training it. Take the Collie as an example.  Scenario 1:  A cyclist whizzes past on his bike that looks like the best fun ever, the dog can engage in the behaviour that it is genetically hardwired to do and herd the bike, which will probably result in ‘nipping’ at the bike tyres or the ankles of the cyclist.  NOT a desirable behaviour!  Scenario 2: A cyclist is approaching the dog knows that it’s owner will call it because the cyclist is a trigger for a fantastic game of ball.  The end result; the dog gets to ‘herd’ the ball, has great fun, the cyclist passes by unharmed and dog and owner carry on their walk in a happy and harmonious way.

CHOOSING THE CUE

Many people use the dog’s name as a training word.  This results in many confused dogs! Some of the most common things that a dog’s name is used for are:  come here, look at me, stop what you are doing, bad dog and shut up.  All of these commands and just one word for the dog to understand ‘Fido’!  Put yourself in the dog’s paws for a moment.  If someone kept repeating your name but in varying tones you wouldn’t have a clue what they wanted from you.  The words you use are irrelevant, provided that the dog is properly taught what they mean, but one word per command is essential.  It is a good idea to precede the cue with the dog’s name, particularly in multi dog households, in the case of the recall ‘Fido come’ is a good cue.  It gets the dog’s attention but is clear and to the point.  The more words, the more diluted the cue and so the less efficient.  As with most training practice begins in the home. Start by calling your dog to you when you are about to feed it. Or sometimes when you are walking past the dog’s biscuit tin call him from another room, give the treat and send him on his way again.  You can use the same method with a favourite toy.  When you are achieving this then you can begin to practice outdoors with the dog on a lead to begin with.

TIPS

  • Teach your dog what your chosen recall command means, remember they don’t speak English. Enlist a trainer if you need help.
  • Set your dog up for success, if your calling only ever means the end of fun, what is the point of coming?
  • Call your dog to you regularly during walks to either give it a treat or play a short game and then send it on its way.
  • Remember your sliding scale of praise and reward
  • If your dog has developed a recall problem engage a good dog trainer to help you
  • Don’t call the dog to you for something he doesn’t like or is afraid of (ear drops, nails clipped are a couple of common ones although a dog can be taught to accept these, but that is another article!)
  • Using a whistle can be very effective, it doesn’t show emotion and can be transferred to all members of the family.

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