Image above: Dog walk; photograph Anna Kunst
Guest blog by Jennifer Billot
Jennifer Billot, MSc CPDT-KA is a professional dog trainer and the founder and owner of Bone Ball Bark, a force-free dog training company based in Chiswick. Over a series of blogs she explores the most common problems she encounters when clients first get in touch.
Whether you have had your dog for many years, acquired a lockdown puppy within the last two, or just picked up a new bundle of fluff, complete with a set of sharp teeth, hopefully this series will provide some helpful tips.
Help! My dog won’t come back to me!
We are surrounded by gorgeous parks here in Chiswick, and you would like nothing more than to enjoy them with your dog, stress free, knowing they will come back to you if and when you need them. Below are four common recall issues, and a brief description on how to solve them.
1. You may have created a negative association with coming to you
Over time your dog may very well have learned that coming to you means something negative. This could be because you were angry with them, that the leash will go on to go home or to move them away from something they deem to be fun, or a whole host of other reasons that stops them from enjoying the park.
Ensure that when you do call your dog, you absolutely never punish them for coming to you, no matter what! Always pair it with a tasty treat, then either let them go back to whatever it is they were doing, or get out their favourite toy for a quick game with you if you are trying to get them away from something. You should provide fun on the walks too.
If you do need to put their leash on to go home, the fun doesn’t have to stop then and there. Tug games, working on your loose leash walking, scattering some treats in the grass as you head to the exit with a “find it” cue to get them sniffing and searching, can help that end-of-walk battle by giving your dog another task to focus on.
I often tell clients to put the leash on throughout the walk and do some “Find It” games, before taking it off again. Make sure the leash doesn’t only come out when the walk is over.
Image above: Dog playing in the river; photograph Anna Kunst
2. The reward that you are offering, if you are even offering one, may not be worth their while to come back for it
Put it this way, if your other half asked you to pass them the remote and in return you were given some carrot sticks then okay, you appreciate the acknowledgement of your effort. However, if they then asked you to take a trip to IKEA on a Bank Holiday, and gave you the exact same reward of carrot sticks, chances are you won’t be going to IKEA again. However if they gave you something you absolutely loved (think chocolate cake, red wine), you will probably be willing to visit again!
In dog terms, if your dog comes away from playing with another dog, or has to run to you from half way across Gunnersbury Park, and gets the equivalent of carrots, which he could get for just sitting when asked, you can bet that when he hears “Come Here” next time, he won’t bother.
Do you know your dog’s top reward when outside? We always assume it is chicken which is rarely true. My 18 month old Labrador will choose cucumber over chicken every time, so that is what I take with me on walks. I want to always make sure I am rewarding my recall cues with his most prized treat or toy.
Usually, the softer and squishier the treat the better. They don’t want to waste time crunching something dry and bland!
Image above: Jennifer playing with a client’s dog
3. You nag your dog over and over when on a walk with words your dog has learned have no behavioural association
Training a dog is building associations between a word, sound or an action from you, that they are to follow with a specific behaviour, that then brings some form of reward. If we are inconsistent with our words, expectations and rewards, you will not have a reliable cue.
Think about how many times a day you say your dog’s name, and for a hundred different reasons. Sometimes it is out of affection, sometimes you are talking about them, sometimes you are trying to get their attention, and sometimes it is because you are angry.
When you are in the park, you repeat their name over and over where they give zero acknowledgement that they have heard you, and who can blame them? They haven’t learned that that word means you want them, and quite frankly, the outside world is more engaging.
Try rebuilding the association that their name is something good that they should pay attention to. At home, with no distractions around, say your dog’s name, and immediately give a treat.
Repeat many times over a few days and build back the idea that when they hear that word, they should snap their attention to you for a reward. I don’t advise that you then use your dog’s name as a substitute for a recall cue, but getting their attention first when outside is just as important as coming to you.
You can then give your recall cue of “Come Here” and work on retraining that those words mean to run to your feet for a top quality reward.
Image above: Dogs playing in the lake at Chiswick House Gardens; photograph Jon Perry
4. Trying to get your dog back has become a game of ‘Catch Me If You Can’
There are few things more frustrating than being in a stand-off with your dog as you are trying to get them. You take a step towards them, and they bounce back just out of arm’s reach!
Make sure you are always getting them to chase you, never chase your dog! Turn and run, and your dog should dart off after you. When they get to you, throw their toy or drop a treat on the ground, and then take off again! Make it into the most fun game you can.
Another method of stopping this game of ‘catch me’ dead in its tracks, is bending down with your back to them. Dogs are very used to orienting themselves to our front. By having your back to them and bending down to look at something on the ground, they should want to come see what is so exciting, and reorient themselves to be at your front.
When they do come round to face you, drop a treat on the floor, and move away to another spot with your back to them. Repeat a few times before you make any move to get hold of their collar or harness.
Image above: Jennifer Billot with Griffin
Jennifer Billot has a Masters Degree in Canine Sciences from Bergin University in California. She is a certified professional dog trainer, CPDT-KA qualified, and spent five years as an Assistance Dog trainer for an organization specializing in mobility assistance dogs in both Seattle and Hawaii. She offers in-person training sessions in London and virtual consultations worldwide.
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