Common mistakes in training recall and ways to fix them
As the weather gets nice, I see an increase of people at Central Park during off leash hours. In addition to the Regulars, there is an increase in Irregulars; people that only go to the park on the occasional weekend or when the weather gets nice. Through hours and hours of observation, I've come up with a list of the biggest mistakes I see people make that hurt recall.
Mistake #1: Punishing the dog
Many people use punishment in recall without realizing why it's not working.
Rex was having a great time smelling a dead squirrel, his favorite thing ever. Julie, his human, calls him over. Rex decides to walk over, but gets distracted by another smell. Julie calls him again. Rex is very intrigued by the smell and decides to track it for a while. It doesn't lead to anything, but he finds a ball, his favorite thing ever. Rex plays with the ball, when Julie comes running over. She apparently wants to play Keep Away, his favorite thing ever. They play this game for the next 10 minutes, til Rex gets bored with the game. Julie calls him, and Rex happily walks over. Julie grabbs his collar and shakes him while yelling "NO!" over and over.It can be frustrating for a dog to continuously ignore his recall word. Hitting or yelling at the dog makes it worse. In the above example, Rex has no idea why he was yelled at. Julie is upset because Rex didn't run over to her when she asked. Dogs pay attention to what they DO, not to what they DON'T do. The last thing that Fido did was run over to his human when she called, and he was punished for it. The connection he's probably making is when Julie yells "HERE" she actually means "I'M GOING TO SHAKE AND YELL AT YOU". Next time, he'll be sure to stay away from Jill when she calls him.
It's also common to unintentionally punish a dog for recall. If the only time you call your dog over in the dog park is to put the leash on and go home, they'll quickly make the connection that coming to you means the end of a good time.
Rewards are the best way to get your dog to want to come to you. Giving your dog a delicious treat is a great motivator for getting your dog to come to you. If your dog is more play motivated, you can run away from your dog to entice your dog to play a game of chase, or use a ball to engage in a game of fetch. Practice rewarding your dog for coming to you several times before you actually want to go home your dog, so your dog learns that coming to you does not mean the end of a good time.
Mistake #2: Calling at the worst time
If you've ever given a speech in front of a large group of people, you know that it's much different than when you practiced the same speech at home. Why? Well, you're comfortable at home and there are less distractions. You can easily ignore all the variables when at your home because you've seen them before and you know how to block them out. When you're giving a speech in public, you have a harder time not paying attention to all the people looking at you. It takes time to master the skill completely and some have an easier time than others developing this skill.
It's similar to training recall. You can practice hundreds of time at home, but it's completely different when you get outdoors. There are so many new distractors outside that it can difficult for a dog to ignore them and come to you. If your dog is engaging another dog in a wrestling match, it's probably not the best time to try to call your dog over. Even dogs with great recall will have a hard time ignoring a squirrel to listen to their owner's cue. You can eventually build up to having a dog that listens to you despite the distractions, but understand it takes a while to get there. You can set you and your dog up for succes by asking your dog to come over when she's less distracted. Let her run around and greet other dogs for a while, then call her over to engage in a game or to introduce her another dog she missed. You'll find her more receptive to coming to you if she runs and blows off steam before you ask her to focus on you. Similarly, don't expect her to want to stop playing chase with her new friends just because you're late for work and need to leave the park. Try to get her attention before or after she engages in something, and try to leave the park with plenty of time to get to wherever you're going next.
Mistake #3: Giving the wrong kind of reinforcement
I already mentioned that reward is the best way to get your dog to listen, but the exact kind of reward depends on your dog. Food is usually a safe bet, but this isn't always the case. Some more active breeds will prefer play over food. My dog's ultimate reinforcer is the frisbee. She loves food, other dogs, chasing squirrels and pigeons, but will ignore them all if I have a frisbee in my hand. I used this to my advantage when training her recall, and I was more successful using fetch than I was just using food.
Try reading your dog's body language when you're giving a reward in all situations. Your dog may love getting petted when it's just the two of you at home, but does he love it as much when you're in the park? Probably not. If your dog will sit at home for a biscuit, but ignores you in the park, it's time to invest in better tasting treats. If your dog is chasing everything in sight, a game of fetch might be the best thing for him. Find what works best for your dog.
Mistake #4: Inadequate mental and physical exercise prior to going to the park
Taking a dog to the park is a great way to burn your dog's energy. They can run, wrestle and play with other dogs, or just simply smell everything and enjoy the freedom. However, relying on the park to drain the dog's battery can cause some problems. After sleeping for most of the day, going straight to the park can cause overstimulation. The dog gets to release all her pent up energy from being on the couch all day and tries to do everything all at once. Your dog might fixate on things (dogs, squirrels, smells) or display annoying behaviors (barking, digging, humping) all while ignoring you. She might be so into running around that she ignores you and can get lost. These behaviors usually cause the human to not want to take the dog to the park on a regular basis, which makes the dog's behavior more likely to continue.
This is an easy fix: begin draining your dog's battery BEFORE you take the leash off. Go for an hour long walk, then go to the park. That'll get rid of some pent up energy and she should be less rambunctious around other dogs. While you're on the walk, work on training. This teaches your dog to listen to you around distractions and you'll be setting yourself up for a successful park run. Go to the park regularly, so the dog (and the human) gets consistent exercise.
Mistake #5: Giving up
After trying in vain to get their dog to come to them, I've seen people give up. Giving up means telling your dog that the word "HERE" doesn't have any meaning. If you've said "HERE" multiple times and the dog didn't respond, it's time to re-evaluate your strategy. Are you asking for it when they're distracted? Did you train this behavior before taking off the leash? Are you being consistent with the wording (HINT: "COME" and HERE" mean the same to native English speakers, but have a totally different meaning to your dog)? You can take a break and try again when your dog is in a better position to respond. Don't assume the dog can't be trained. There are countless examples of dogs (and other animals) responding to human cues. It's less likely that the dog is an anomaly, and more likely that the human hasn't figured out the best way yet.