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Written by Lisa Hartman   
April 2010

Fido ignores you when you’re calling him to come? Don’t take it personally

Last month I wrote about the most aggravating part of being a dog-owner: house-training your pet. Well, close behind in terms of aggravation is this: Dogs that won’t come when you call them. Many intelligent owners are baffled trying to fathom why Fido takes his time moseying over, or completely ignores them, especially if they feel they’ve done everything right.

They have gone through the dog-training classes. They’ve doled out the cookies. They’ve showered their pet with affection. “He comes perfectly when we’re in the house,” they tell me. “But when we’re outdoors, sometimes he won’t come no matter what.”

There are several reasons for this. Two of them -- often overlooked -- are competing motivations and environmental stimuli.

Your dog knows every inch of your house, and there’s not much of interest going on there. You are usually the most interesting thing in the gilded cage he calls home. In fact, when owners call from inside the house for dogs to come, it’s usually for good things: to take a walk, to have dinner, to receive a bone.

But when he’s outdoors, the world is his oyster. Every minute of the day, every shift of the wind brings a new adventure. If there are other animals outside, or other potent stimuli (the gardener, the cable guy), you are truly rowing upstream. If your dog has a strong chase or prey drive, competing against that natural instinct will make obedience even more difficult.

In some important circumstances, when you call your dog to come while he is outdoors, you’re actually punishing him. But more on that later.

It’s important to realize that a dog’s motivations and desires are always in flux. As part of training I usually advise clients to give their best doggie rewards when working on calling their dogs to come, known as the “recall.” If your dog is highly motivated by food at the time you’re in training, reward him with what he really loves. For most dogs that would be real meat. But a dog who is outdoors and has been eating well every day may not be motivated by top sirloin, especially if he’s been cooped up. He just wants his freedom.

Here’s an example: My Dalmatian, who is generally good off-leash and has a pretty solid recall (after lots of training), spent a month with me in the Northeast during one of the coldest winters on record. Not once did the temperature climb above 20 degrees! Our hour-long Florida walks turned into “Hurry up! Go potty! Get inside!” As my BT colleague Wendy Doscher-Smith would say, it was the Merciless Frozen Tundra.

He got so stir-crazy that one day, when he had a chance to bolt into the woods and chase deer (an intoxicating novelty for him), he literally leaped at it, despite blizzard conditions. Even though it was dinnertime and he was hungry, no amount of tasty meat was going to motivate him to come to me.

This is the crux of competing motivations. If you call your dog to come for a reward of a favorite toy or prized food, but he is extremely thirsty, he may ignore your initial requests and head for the stream or lake or swimming pool for a drink of water. At that moment, water is more important to him than food or toys. Similarly, if there is a bitch in heat somewhere in the vicinity, he may be compelled to find her, disregarding your efforts to call him to you.

We humans experience competing motivations all the time. An important client or your boss calls, but you’re watching the last few minutes of American Idol, so you wait for the conclusion before returning the call. Adolescents are told not to do things like watch R-rated movies, but their curiosity and raging hormones get in the way of them doing the right thing.

That brings us back to punishment. Calling your dog when he desperately wants to be somewhere else is, in essence, a form of punishment, which is a technical no-no in recall training. Think about it. When you call your dog at the dog park, and then slap on the leash and take him away from his friends, he’s going to see it as punishment. In such situations, he needs a special reward for obeying. That means you should come to the park prepared -- have a treat ready for him. You should never punish or scold a dog when he returns to you or he’ll learn that coming to you is a bad thing. The next time he’ll be more reticent.

To get your dog to come when called -- most of the time if not every time -- you need to approach the task from all angles. Practice not just at home, but also outside in distracting situations. Build a reward history so he knows it’s wonderful and always more rewarding to come to you than do anything else.

You must be alert to competing motivations so you can size up your surroundings and manage your dog properly. Don’t practice recalls if you’re not confident your dog will come. Otherwise you’ll be practicing not coming. And remember that you must be exciting and inviting to your dog at all times, especially outdoors. When you’re outside with your dog, it’s really vital to be interesting. (Put down your cell phone!)

Yet you must also be able to enforce the recall in intermediate practice, so he learns he must come and that you’re serious. It helps to adopt a work-to-earn policy with your dog. Using “life rewards” (entrance to dog parks, squirrel-chasing) as motivators is extremely potent in training. I taught my Dalmatian that if he comes when called, even though he may be very interested in a particular squirrel, I won’t just give him a food reward; I’ll also release him to chase the squirrel! In situations like that, I’m using the competing environment to my advantage.

Perhaps most important, you must know your dog well and recognize that there are no guarantees. On the other hand, the more things you do to put the odds in your favor, the closer you will be to a solid recall -- and a better understanding of your dog.

 

Lisa Hartman is head dog trainer and founder of Pawsitively Pets. You can reach her at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or www.pawsitivelypetsonline.com. You can also keep up with her and her dogs on Facebook at www.profile.to/dogtrainer.


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