CINCINNATI - The other day someone--let's call her Heather--had a story to share with me. Her dog was in the backyard sniffing in the flower bed, and she needed to leave for an appointment. She went outside and called and called, only to have her dog glance up at her before continuing to do his own thing.
I bet you can predict the rest of the story. Her calling grew louder and louder, with a greater sense of urgency in her voice. Finally Toby started trotting her way. And when he got to her, he was scolded and then brought into the kitchen where she left him alone with a toy for the next several hours.
Heather was pretty frustrated.
“Toby has a mind of his own sometimes,” she told me. “He only comes when he wants to come.”
Truth be told she brought up a very good point. Within her story – and similar stories that you may very well relate to – is embedded this important question:
”What was in it for Toby to choose to want to leave an activity he was engaged in to turn on a dime and come running to her?”
Remember, when given the option, animals will choose to do the behavior that gets them the highest value consequence. From Toby’s perspective: Do you think continuing to smell the flowers or running back to Heather was a better, more valuable choice to make in that moment?
So often we just expect our pets to do what we want them to do, under all circumstances, without spending the time to teach them that doing that behavior when we ask is going to be well worth their effort.
Think about all of the times when your puppy or dog comes to you in the course of the day and what the outcomes are for him.
Do you give him a reason to think, “Oh wow, it was an absolutely brilliant idea on my part to come to your side because….(you fill in the blank)?" If you fail to reinforce wonderful choices--and even worse--apply a punishing consequence, how do you think that will affect your dog coming to you when you call in the future?
Here are my five top reasons your dog may choose to do anything but come immediately when you call:
1. There is a weak reinforcement history from you. Ask yourself – What is the history of experience my dog has had with being at my side? Have I worked to make being by my side a valuable place to be for my dog?
2. You have weakened your recall cue by calling and calling your dog to come at a time when you can reliably predict he will not come to you (like when he is in pursuit of chasing a rodent).
3. Your dog cannot reliably predict that every time he chooses to come when call that it will result in a valued consequence. In fact, you may have inadvertently taught your dog that the cue "come" actually means, "warning: unpleasant things are about to happen." Maybe you punish your dog for coming back slowly. Maybe coming to you results in the loss of something valuable (negative punisher) like freedom or play.
4. Not coming to you results in an even bigger payday. It could be that if he does not come to you right away, a great game of chase ensues.
5. There is a strong dependency of confinement--whether to a leash or a space that teaches your dog he only needs to pay attention when tethered. Think about the mischief children get into when their parents leave the room.
When you really stop and think about it from your dog’s perspective, it is pretty logical that he would choose to continue smelling the flowers, chasing a squirrel, or playing in the dog park rather than drop everything and come running the minute you call.
In my next column, I’ll share some tips for building value for your dog to come when called!
About Lisa Desatnik
Lisa Desatnik said she used "Look at me," training to remind her dog Sam what to do for this holiday photo shoot.
Lisa is always looking for opportunities to strengthen her skills--both for her own pets and to help other animal caregivers through in-home dog training consultations, speaking engagements, written work. She is part of the leadership team for Dr. Friedman’s international companion parrot owner group teaching mini-lessons of applied behavior analysis.