The inevitable question, when a reliable recall has been trained, is “when do I get to wean off treats?”
The answer, at least as far as I’m concerned, is, “you don’t.” While for some this may fall just short of blasphemy (positive reinforcement trainers should always wean off treats, right?), there are a few behaviors for which I will gladly pay my dogs reliably throughout their entire lives. (More on those behaviors next week!)
The method we’ve used to teach this behavior is classical conditioning. Classical conditioning means a neutral stimulus (the whistle) is paired with an unconditioned stimulus (“something that already has meaning for the dog” In this case, food!) on a 1:1 ratio. Through reliable pairing, the conditioned stimulus attains the same emotional response initially elicited by the unconditioned stimulus. The key word here is reliable. I always somehow “pay” my dogs for coming when they hear the recall signal.
Sometimes I don’t actually have food with me (this is a rarity – if we are working in a distracting environment where I will probably need to call my dogs, I definitely like to be prepared by having something delicious accessible), but if there’s no food around, I “pay” with a stick tug/toss or something else wonderful and exciting. Every time I blow the whistle, forever, it will be a promise to my dogs that something tremendously interesting and wonderful is imminent for them.
Yes, I said it – I NEVER wean off treats or put an emergency recall on a variable reinforcement schedule. I will pay my dogs, handsomely, for this behavior for the rest of their lives and am happy to do so. I have no illusions of my dogs “wanting to please me,” when the opportunity to please themselves by chasing deer, rabbits, gophers, or any of the plentiful bears in our area, presents itself. My dogs want to please themselves, and in order for their emergency recalls to be reliable, the whistle should be a consistent signal of impending doggy hedonism.
Often, I try to look around me for environmental “jackpots,” really exciting things for dogs like squirrels, sticks to chase and tug, or gopher holes to sniff. Even a pile of deer poop to sniff can be a powerful reward for some dogs! I’m constantly scanning for VGT (Very Good Things for dogs) in my environment. It’s a game I play in observation – can I find these things before Cuba and Mokie? If so, as soon as I spot one, I will blow my whistle and excitedly approach the gopher hole or chase the squirrels with the pups. I suspect my dogs are convinced that the whistle miraculously makes squirrels appear occasionally. Last weekend, the whistle magically made a box turtle, something neither had seen before, appear for Mokie and Cuba. Their tails wagged with nearly manic happiness as they scented this new, odd reptile, who quickly retreated into her shell. (Sorry, turtle!) I rewarded the turtle as well for her part by placing her in the pond after the dogs had a brief sniff. They both looked at me with curious anticipation, wondering what other tricks Mother Nature and I had up our sleeves for the next surprise “organic” jackpot.
In case you haven’t noticed, Mother Nature is a consummate jackpotter – that’s why dogs love Her so much!
I’ve also been known to hide rewards in the environment in advance – a favorite toy nestled in the lowest branch of the tree, simply waiting to fall from the sky at the sound of the whistle. You can make this even more exciting by depriving the dog of that favorite toy for a bit in advance, so they haven’t seen it in a couple of weeks. An icy bowl of cold, clear water at the end of a trail head after a long, hot, hike can even make a wonderful surprise “jackpot” for a dog who is hot and thirsty.
My final piece of advice is…
As you’ve probably discovered, training an emergency recall takes time, commitment, and dedication. It is also a fragile thing, easily ruined or devalued if it does not predict reliably wonderful consequences for the dogs. If you have family members who will not be consistent in their application of the emergency recall and the subsequent rewarding protocol, it is perfectly fine to keep your recall a secret between you and your dog. Clients often teach their dog an “everyday recall” that all members of the family can use – a simple “Touch” followed by the presentation of a hand target works well. This “everyday recall” is an operant behavior and thus, can be maintained on a variable schedule of reinforcement once taught. Your emergency recall, however, must always be paid to maintain the conditioned emotional response of happy, enthusiastic, and rapid return upon the sound of the whistle.
I hope this emergency recall series has been helpful for you, dogster readers! Have any of you started the training process? How are things going with your dog? What signal did you select? What reinforcements have you used? I’d like to learn more about you and your dog’s recall training and progress in the comments.
Until next time, dogsters, happy training!