When you make learning fun, you get an enthusiastic student. In this game of Find It (or I call it ‘Go Get It’), I am training our family dog, Sam, with lots of positive reinforcement to sit, stay, release, get it, come (recall).
So often dog owners want to know why they can’t get their dog to come every time he is called no matter what he happens to be doing or where. “He can be stubborn.” “He has a mind of his own.” “His breed is like that.” These are all reasons I’ve heard people use.
The truth is if your dog is not behaving in a way you want him to behave, it is a clear indication that either he does not know what you want him to do (the criterion for reinforcement is unclear) and/or the reinforcer for the right behavior isn’t strong enough or delivered fast enough to compete with the reinforcers available for doing something other than coming to you. When given a choice, animals will generally choose the behavior that produces the most valued outcomes. For example, a dog may know a sit cue (he’s done it a million times in the past) but he may choose to ignore it sometimes because the outcome is of far less value to him than the competing reinforcers at those times.
Here are just some reasons why your dog may choose to do anything BUT come when called:
1)There is a weak history of reinforcement associated with you. Think about it. How totally awesome do you make the experience of being at your side? Does your dog see you as the giver of all good things?
2)There is a strong, established history with competing reinforcers from the environment, which are more valuable to the dog than what coming to you offers. It’s really tough to compete with the value of rabbit or squirrel. And if you call and call your dog in this situation, you will be further weakening the cue to come because a cue that doesn’t reliably predict reinforcement loses its value and thus its reliability to predict behavior. Very often the word ‘come’ takes on the meaning of ‘keep playing, go sniff the flowers, and only when there isn’t anything more reinforcing to do, then come to my side.’
3)If your dog doesn’t come to you reliably when called, why set both of you up for failure by calling him back to you at a time when you can predict he more than likely won’t come (like when he is in pursuit of a squirrel or playing in water).
Instead, let your dog play until he is good and tired and you can predict that the chances are high that he will come when called (and you can then have a party when he does choose to come to make that choice totally awesome). Of course the other suggestion is to work on teaching the ‘come’ cue reliably by starting in an environment without distractions and systematically building on the distractions.
4)Your dog can not reliably predict that every time he comes when called it will be worth his while. As an example, maybe you have a history of letting your dog outside just before you have to leave and call him inside to be locked up. Your recall cue may be associated with a loss – the loss of his freedom, the loss a toy, etc. Maybe you sometimes punish your dog when he comes back to you after taking chase. You may try to trick your dog into coming by luring him with a toy or something of value but after a couple of times, he has you figured out.
5)Not coming to you results in a bigger pay day. Maybe if he doesn’t come, it results in you chasing him – and what dog doesn’t like to be chased?
6)There is a strong dependency of confinement whether to a leash or to a space that teaches your dog he only needs to pay attention when under your tether. Think about the mischief children get into when their parents go out of town or when they go off to college. The solution is more work systematically generalizing the skills from one setting to another.
These are some of many reasons why your dog doesn’t come when called – and none of them have to do with being stubborn or headstrong. What they all have in common is the poor use of strategic strong, consistent reinforcement on your part to teach your dog that coming to you is absolutely the best choice for him.