Recall – Come When Called

June 4, 2012

Puppies are great at coming when called.  I have yet to meet a young pup who doesn’t bound along joyously to its owner when called either for a treat, a game or a love.  Why then do so many dogs become hard of hearing as they reach puberty.  The recall and pulling on the leash are two of the most problematic behaviours for pet owners.

Training of the recall starts when our pups are very young.  Steven Lindsay has this to say about early training of the following and recall behaviour in young puppies:

“An area of interest for average dog owners regards active following and coming when called.  Long walks consisting of occasional surprise manoeuvres, exciting changes of pace, unexpected chase and counter-chase episodes, hide-and-seek games, punctuated with occasional opportunities for ball play or stick fetching – all facilitate the learning of appropriate “staying close” skills in puppies. 

Even if you have been careful to do all these things with your puppy, there are certain things that you may inadvertently have done to make your pup’s recall weak or even non-existent.

  • Have you ever called your pup to do something your pup doesn’t particularly like such as a bath, nail trim or medication, amongst others?
  • Have you called your pup from playing with other pups or dogs in the park and put him in the car to go home, or put him on a leash?
  • Have you ever spotted your dog doing something like digging up a precious plant and called him to you to give him a scolding?
  • If your pup ignores you do you simply carry on calling him over and over with no response eventually ending up yelling?
  • Do you call your dog and when he comes to you ignore him and continue chatting to your friend?

If we are guilty of any of these things we are, in effect, punishing our dog for coming when called.  Punishment does not have to be physically aversive.  Anything that is done to your dog that he doesn’t like such as bathing, going home when he’s having fun, a scolding, ignoring him are all punishment.  Punishment decreases the likelihood that the behaviour that is being punished will be repeated.  So, is it any wonder that now the recall “Fido, come!” predicts something unpleasant happening.

There are many things that we can do to maintain the wonderful recall that we had when our pups were little.  Bear in mind that before 12 or 14 weeks, you were the most interesting thing in your pup’s life.  But then puppy started realising that there were other even more interesting things in his environment such as interesting smells, other dogs, friendly people – the list is endless.

So, how do we make our recall behaviour strong?

  • We continue our obedience training no matter where we are so that the pup learns to work through all the distractions around him and focus on you.  And practise “Come” wherever you are, rewarding your pup by letting him go back and do whatever it is he was doing before you called.  (The Premack Principle).
  • Teach him to spin towards you whenever he hears you call his name and to respond to the “Come” command so that both these things predict something great is about to happen.
  • Make yourself the most interesting thing in your pup’s life.  Vary the rewards for the pup coming to you by feeding him extra special treats, play a game with him such as fetch or chase or tug, or hide and seek, or simply give him an extra special love or tummy rub.

One of the things to avoid is that when the pup is ignoring you and continuing to sniff or dig or play, is to offer a bribe.  Very often offering a bribe causes a resistant or distracted dog to come.  However, the bribe also directly reinforces the refusal behaviour and with repeated bribery, the refusal behaviour may actually become stronger than the dog’s interest in obtaining the offered food bribe.  This of course results in the owner producing an even more enticing bribe the better to gain the dog’s compliance, resulting in even stronger refusal behaviour.  This is known as the “bribe trap”.  Very often the only way to get out of this trap is to start training the recall from scratch, using completely different cues and rewards.


The Premack Principle and the Recall

April 8, 2011

Both these photographs show dogs that are exhibiting high-probability behaviours. David Premack, a psychologist, proposed the rule that high probability behaviours can be used to reinforce low-probability behaviours.  We can use this principle when training dogs very successfully.

High-probability behaviours are activities which are performed voluntarily and which are enjoyed for themselves without the intervention of the handler or owner.  Some examples of this would be playing with other dogs (if your dog is a social butterfly), chasing monkeys or squirrels, barking at the neighbour’s dogs through the fence, sniffing interesting smells.

Low-probability behaviours, on the other hand are behaviours which are often the learned or trained behaviours, such as the recall and walking on a loose leash.

The Premack Principle works extremely well if applied to the recall.  In a familiar, non-distracting environment your dog’s recall is probably faultless.  He comes to you at full speed whenever he is called, and you reward him with lavish praise, or a treat, or a game.  You think that you have a great recall.  But, then you take your dog to the local dog park, or to the beach and you probably find that your recall is awful.  Your dog might eventually come to you, and what do you do?  You promptly put him on lead, walk him to the car and go home.  You have not used premack.  What you have done is effectively punished your dog by removing something he wants.  The way Premack works in this instance is that instead of putting your dog on leash you send him back to sniff, or play, or indulge in whatever activity he was doing before you called him.  If you repeat this a few times you will find that each time the recall becomes more and more enthusiastic. Your dog has learnt that to get what he wants (high probability “stuff”) he has to do what you want (low probability “stuff” under the circumstances).

You can use Premack to strengthen any learned behaviours.  I am sure you can think of a few instances where Premack would be useful.  Calling your dog out of a play situation, barking at the neighbours dog through the fence, chasing seagulls on the beach.  The list goes on….

Try Premack next time you take your dog out with you to make his learned behaviours stronger.  You’ll be amazed at the result.


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