When Good Recalls Go Bad, Part Deux

Welcome back, dogsters! I hope everyone enjoyed the weekend. Jim, Mokie, Cuba, and I certainly did. We got all the sunshine I'd been wanting and...


Welcome back, dogsters! I hope everyone enjoyed the weekend. Jim, Mokie, Cuba, and I certainly did. We got all the sunshine I’d been wanting and lots of hiking, swimming, and recall practice opportunities. Speaking of, let’s get back into talking about recall, the holy grail of pet dog behaviors! The last time we met, we’d discussed some reasons that a recall may fall apart. Today, we’ll continue trouble-shooting recall breakdowns.

Reinforcement Value for Coming Not High Enough

In other words, and I mean this in the nicest possible way, your “treats” (rewards/reinforcement) are, well, yucky. Don’t get me wrong, they may be perfectly lovely treats, but your dog, for whatever reason, does not find them rewarding enough for the behavior you’re trying to train in the environments where you expect/need to build reliability. I see this a lot – owners will reward their dog with a pat on the head. Many dogs don’t actually like this, and even those that do may not find it a suitable reward for recall. Mokie loves snuggling at home but if we are out in the “real world,” she does not want to work for physical touch (she will work for food, greeting opportunities, sniffing opportunities, chasing opportunities, sticks to fetch, etc.). Other times, the dog is “rewarded” with a few pieces of dry kibble or a hard biscuit. You must use the best reinforcement in your arsenal when practicing recall – this behavior is a life saver and should be rewarded richly and consistently with things the dog finds especially exciting.

Humbling, aren’t they?

Damaged Relationship

It’s not uncommon for dogs to respond more reliably or enthusiastically to select individuals within the family while paying substantially less mind to other family members. Response usually directly correlates with reinforcement history. In families where one or more individuals is liberal in their use of positive reinforcement, the dog tends to respond more reliably to these individuals in general. In families where one or more individuals in liberal in their use of negative reinforcement (which usually goes hand in hand with positive punishment, the removal and addition of “bad things happening to the dog” as a consequence of unwanted behavior), the dog generally responds fairly well to these individuals if one condition is present – the handler can physically control or manipulate the dog. They may walk well on a leash, and come instantly when in the house. But remove the leash, the containment, the threat of intimidation, and the dog frequently will not choose to return to these people reliably and enthusiastically. I’ve seen the opposite as well – the dog actively tries to escape these individuals for fear of punishment.

The good news is, dogs are very forgiving. Damaged relationships can be fixed through conscientious use of reinforcement, simply “becoming the source of good things,” (play, food, even a ride in the car!) works wonders. If the dog is actively fearful of a particular family member, it’s a good idea to get help from a qualified behavior professional. Building your dog’s trust will help all of your training proceed more rapidly, smoothly, with more fun and less stress for you and your dog!

Next time, we’ll discuss yet more ways that good recalls can go bad. Until then, happy training!

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