by Judith Bell, Dog Behaviorist, June 5, 2012
My dog has a perfect come indoors and in class. But once he gets outdoors, he runs off to explore. I even have to put his leash on to get from the car to the house. I know the problem was not training a solid come outdoors when he was a puppy. But what should I do now that he is older?
Watching your dog’s rear end head up the driveway as you stand there yelling “Come!” is a pretty scary and extremely exasperating experience! It’s embarrassing when it happens in public, and it’s dangerous.
It sounds like your dog has learned “come” in certain situations but not all. Behavior is context dependent. Your dog comes to you indoors, but add the distraction of life outside and your “come” falls on deaf ears. His ability to come is dependent on the location you ask him to do it in, which means he has not generalized the behavior. To get your dog to perform the recall in all situations, you need to start practicing it in as many different situations as possible.
There are a couple of rules to remember when you ask your dog to perform a behavior and you raise the level of distractions (outdoors):
- you need to expect less of your dog;
- you need to use a higher-value treat; and
- you need to reinforce at a higher rate (give more treats faster).
Start practicing recalls in the house by playing the recall game. Remember, any behavior you reinforce will be repeated. Save one of his meals a day and use it to reinforce him for coming to you. Have everyone in the family take a handful of dog food and have each person take turns calling the dog. Be sure everyone is using the same cue. If you’ve called your dog before and he didn’t come and you didn’t make him come, then you’ve weakened your cue. Pick a new cue like “here.” Get your dog’s attention by calling his name; when he turns and looks at you, say “come” or “here” with a happy voice. As he starts coming to you, praise him rather than repeat your cue over and over. Watch your body language. Most of us have the tendency to lean over to call our dogs. If you are the least bit concerned he may not come, you may have a frown or tense look on your face. Instead, stand up straight or squat down with open arms and a smile on your face and call him with a happy tone. Be inviting!
Once he gets the “game,” start making it harder by having people hide and then call him. It’s a great way to make the recall a fun thing to do, and it will wear your dog out on the days he doesn’t get as much exercise as he should. Although it seems like a lot, fifty times is not too many times to call your dog to you in a day when you’re trying to teach him this new behavior.
Start playing the game out in the yard once you feel confident he understands what he’s supposed to do. If your yard isn’t fenced, put him on a thin long lead that he can drag around. Since you are outside (greater distractions), be sure to expect less and use higher-value treats. You’ll never be as interesting as squirrels, birds, and blowing leaves, but a hotdog can be pretty enticing! If food isn’t appealing enough for your dog when you are outside, try a game of ball, tug, or chase as a reward. If he doesn’t come, use the long line to coax him toward you. Don’t undermine that new cue by not enforcing it.
Now start taking him out and ask him to come to you in as many different circumstances and environments as possible, always using a long line or leash in unfenced areas. Never call him to you if you’re going to ask him to do something he doesn’t like. If he comes to you when you call him from an especially engaging distraction, have a party! Let him know just how much you appreciate his response.
Even with consistent practice, your dog will make mistakes. Don’t let that discourage you. A perfect recall is unrealistic. But a near-perfect one is possible with persistent training, a consistent cue, and a variety of appealing rewards. Dogs who come when called, despite the distraction of a running squirrel or a pile of warm horse poop, lead fuller and freer lives. It is the most essential behavior your dog needs to know if you want to ever trust him off leash.
Stay tuned! We’ll have more dog talk next time. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the meantime, if your dog is fat, you aren’t getting enough exercise.
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Photos by RockFarmers and Judith Bell.