Summertime, and the getting lost is easy. It’s especially true if you’re a tourist. It’s also true if you’re training challenged, and you happen to be a dog.
Imagine you’re a dog who loves to travel and whose parents take you along on their vacations. It’s your first trip to Cannon Beach! So many new dogs to sniff! So many new people! And a lot of shops that keep interrupting your walks. That’s fine because you get plenty of attention while you wait. You even get to jump on some friendly people when your parents aren’t looking. Then your leash breaks, setting you free to peek into windows, follow strangers, even cross the street! It’s very exciting at first, but then scamper turns to wander and you realize you’re lost. You might have found your way home by scent in your town, but this town is a tangle of unfamiliar smells. You have nothing to go on.
Let’s save this dog. How would you do it?
Some readers will be thinking prevention — e.g., dog staying with parents rather than out of sight and jumping on strangers may have prevented the leash break and escape. That’s one good option, especially in a dog-friendly town like Cannon Beach. It’s wise to have other options as well; not all places are so dog-friendly. Double leashing is another option some may choose. Others might argue that having trained for calm behavior might have prevented the leash break. Because some dogs will escape, it’s important to know how to get them back, by which I mean not only how to find them — once gone, there are professionals who should be consulted for the important task of tracking lost pets — but how to get them to come back to you. In the story above, if the dog’s parents had been right there when the leash broke, would the dog have stopped and returned to the parents when they called?
Recall help is a common request of people hiring dog trainers. Some dog owners report that dogs who used to “come” now ignore such instructions. Indeed, it is not surprising for dogs to ignore cues to which they once responded, and there’s a very logical reason: They have learned that responding does not pay. Usually, the reasons for a dog’s diminished recall response are
1. Dog’s name and/or cue overuse (also known as “nagging”), combined with
2. Punishing or ignoring the dog’s response, and
3. Lack of the dog’s preferred primary reinforcer on a sufficient reinforcement schedule.
Example: Owner cues unresponsive dog as follows. “Rover, come! Come, Rover! Rover?! ROVER, COME! COME- HERE-RIGHT-NOW! ROVER!” If the dog does finally come and is greeted with scolding or further punishment, or if the dog is simply ignored (a form of punishment), the dog is not being positively reinforced for having recalled as instructed. Since increasing and maintaining desired behavior on cue is achieved by high rates of positive reinforcement using the dog’s preferred reinforcer (usually this is small pieces of novel food items but may be something else) while avoiding anything aversive to the dog, the combination of nagging, punishing, and withholding sufficient positive reinforcement can quickly diminish a dog’s responsiveness.
To save the lost dog of our story, then — to prevent the dog from being lost — we would teach the dog’s parents how to positively reinforce, train, and cue behavior. We would ensure that they safely practice in increasingly distracting environments until the dog responds to the cue in any environment. That dog would have excellent recall, that dog’s parents would ensure that recall was maintained via positive reinforcement protocols, and that dog would possess a high likelihood of immediately stopping upon hearing his name and returning to his parents upon hearing his recall cue.
There are those who will say that if you “let the dog get away with it”— ignoring repeated demands to come, calling the dog’s name multiple times — then you are teaching the dog to ignore you, that you must be more “firm” with the dog. Those people are only fractionally correct: What teaches ignoring is nagging. This is an irony that the most proficient tune-out masters of our own species can confirm.
When it comes to effective animal training, you do not need the baggage packed up in “firm”; you’ll have a cleaner conscience and a happier, more cooperative dog (who isn’t at risk of developing aversives-related aggression) via positive reinforcement and cueing. Being “firm” and other euphemisms are often excuses to hurt, force, intimidate, scare, or startle a dog into attention rather than taking the time and patience to train with kindness, which you can do while saying the cue just once — installing a more reliable behavior at the same time. Contact me if you’d like to learn how!
Rain Jordan of Elevate Dog Training & Behavior can be reached at ElevateDogTraining@gmail.com.