The method we’ll be using to teach this behavior is through classical conditioning – reliably pairing a neutral stimulus (the sound of the whistle) with something the dog loves (treats, toys, etc.). Initially, your dog will not even need to do anything to earn reinforcement – he simply has to hear the sound of the whistle.
Before you begin, make sure you have your super-fabuloso-double-whammy-delightful reinforcement prepared, in ample quantities. Also, decide what your signal will be – my whistle signal is two short blasts on the whistle followed by a single, longer blast.
I’m going to break out these exercises by week. Some dogs will need more or less training at any given stage, so let your dog, rather than these arbitrary guidelines, determine the pace at which you progress through the exercises.
- Stand directly in front of your hungry dog. Blow your whistle (or give your verbal cue), lightly grab your dog’s collar or harness, and immediately begin feeding him really great treats. I like the term “fine dining” Leslie Nelson coined in her great video Really Reliable Recall, which means you are going to give your dog many small treats in rapid succession while telling him how fantastically brilliant he is. Yes, I know he didn’t actually do anything, but for now, you’re just teaching him that the sound of the whistle means a celebration is happening in his honor where you are and that it would behoove him to attend.
- Feed your dog for at least 15(+) seconds, continuously. You can either set a timer or mentally begin singing your “ABC’s” in your head and feed until you reach “next time won’t you sing with me.” Yes, this is a long time – don’t scrimp or be stingy, this behavior is a life saver! When you’re done, set your treats aside until it’s time for the next repetition.
- Practice this 3-5x a day.
- Practice in every room of your house. If you are going to do this in your bedroom, place your treats in the bedroom in advance of the recall session so that your dog doesn’t see you bring the treats into the bedroom. Your treats and your dog should enter the room separately, preferably separated by at least fifteen minutes time.
- Quickly, you will notice that your dog begins to get very excited when he hears the whistle! Congrats, you’ve completed step one, teaching your dog that the sound of the whistle is a VGT (Very Good Thing) for dogs.
This week, you will repeat the steps listed for week one, only instead of standing directly in front of your dog, you will be a few feet away from your dog and eventually, across the room from your dog. The dog should readily move toward you with enthusiasm to receive his treats, which should be delivered at the front of your body. If he does not move toward you when he hears the recall signal, go back to practicing the week one exercises for a bit, and when you resume the “move toward me” exercises, start with your dog only a step away from your front feet. You can also turn your body sideways and run back a few feet, using motion to entice your dog to come to you after you signal. As soon as he catches up, the party begins!
Always grab your dog’s collar or harness before feeding – since this is an emergency recall signal, chances are when you use it, you may need to get your hands on your dog to keep him safe. If your dog does not like being grabbed, you will need to work in separate sessions teaching him that being grabbed by his collar or harness is also a VGT, before you begin the recall exercises.
Once your dog is coming to you with enthusiasm from across the room, you can begin practicing some round robin recalls with other family members, all in the same room, taking turns giving the signal, calling the dog, and fine dining food delivery plus enthusiastic praise when he arrives. Do not practice this more than 5x/session – we want to keep the dog excited and always end this exercise leaving him wanting more.
Stay tuned, tomorrow we’ll talk more about weeks 3 and 4!