When Good Recalls Go Bad - Part III
Today, we'll wrap up our recall series with two more reasons recall training might fail. For those of you who are just joining us and want to review the previous entries on how to train the recall using classical conditioning and how to trouble shoot potential errors, here are the previous entries in this series:
Now, let's explore two more reasons recall training may fail.
INADEQUATELY EXERCISED DOG
A dog that does not receive adequate physical and mental stimulation will make an effort to seek these things for himself. Bored dogs (those lacking appropriate mental stimulation) are notoriously adept at finding ways to get into trouble - chewing furniture, shoes, toilet paper, digging holes in the yard, barking and/or whining for attention, etc. Similarly, dogs that do not receive enough physical exercise often dig out from under (or leap over!) fences, and yes, blow off recall signals in favor of running free, usually as far and as fast as they can.
I suggest to my clients that they give their dogs lots of appropriate, fun physical exercise before taking their dogs off leash for any type of recall practice. Swimming, tug, fetch, jogging, rollerblading, biking, etc. - I like to see dogs engaged in intense, safe physical exercise prior to recall practice so the dog is less motivated to take off as soon as the leash comes off. (I also place a heavy emphasis on rewarding your dog well when the leash comes off, practicing foundation skills that he enjoys, and doing "interest building" exercises to teach him that there is value in hanging out with you when off leash!)
No matter how well you train the recall, if your dog only gets a walk once a week or less frequently, chances are you will struggle in obtaining any sort of off leash reliability with your pooch.
Virtually every puppy seems to have a perfect recall. In infancy, most puppies have a great desire to stay near their owners - they will happily follow along your side, chase you around, and come enthusiastically when you encourage them to do so. Often, this gives owners a strong sense of false confidence. Owners frequently say, of their puppies, "he's only twelve weeks old and is already perfect off leash!," while beaming with pride.
Then adolescence (and hormones) kick in. Around four months of age, dogs begin going through what is known as the "Flight Instinct Period." While technically this stage lasts from 4 - 8 months, I believe in some individuals it lasts much longer (I never consider a recall "truly reliable" until a dog has reached maturity, in some dogs this may not be until they are three years old!). Basically, during adolescence, dogs (like many human teens) pretend you've never taught them anything in their entire young lives. At this stage, your dog's body is reaching physical maturity, but he is not mentally or socially mature yet. He begins to realize that there is a wide world of excitement surrounding him, and you are constantly vying for his attention with distractions in the environment.
Adolescence is a time for testing boundaries. It is a time for curfew-breaking, which is essentially what happens when your dog blows off a recall signal. Patience, with yourself and your dog, are critical now. The fact that your dog may be blowing off your recall signal is not a reflection of poor training, but an indication that a) he is a teenager and b) management has failed. It's important to continue practicing your recall throughout this stage of development. Equally important is practicing on a long line, so that you may both keep your dog safe and prevent him from developing a reinforcement history for a very unwanted behavior (blowing your recall off).
To quickly recap some of our discussions from these last couple of weeks:
- Always reward your dog for coming when called
- Practice at least 500x when you don't need it for every time you do actually need it
- Do not call your dog or provide your dog with freedom unless you would bet your house that he'll come when called. Simply go get him or have him on a long line.
- Don't pair your dog's recall with "yucky stuff."
- Introduce distractions GRADUALLY!
- Building a great recall takes time and practice!
- There are certain times in your dog's life where he will be less responsive to your recall signal (adolescence). Be prepared!
- A dog who is physically healthy, receiving adequate physical and mental exercise, who enjoys a great relationship with his handler will be the best candidate for successful recall training.
Until tomorrow, happy training, dogsters!