Dog Training and Dog Care advice from UK Professionals

Recall - How NOT to train a dog to Come


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The following text is part of an article which was published in a dog training magazine not too long ago:

"It works best when started on very young pups……always call him with ‘Rover come!’ If he doesn’t come on any of these times then YOU GO GET HIM and bring him back to where you were when you called him and then you praise him. NEVER let him get away with refusing to come. This is the most important thing you can teach your dog. When you call ‘Rover come!’ he always comes. No exceptions!……NEVER call your dog to punish him. If he is bad and needs correction, YOU GO GET HIM and give the correction."

It is incredible but clearly true that these old school techniques and methods are not only still being used but they are being promoted and taught too. With all the new information about how a dog’s mind works and, more importantly, how it doesn’t work, this is quite disturbing to see.

While reading the above text, imagine you are the dog, Rover. You hear ‘Rover come’ from your owner and when you don’t turn and run to him/her immediately, they come over and drag or carry you back to where they were. Okay, if the puppy never failed to come then this would never need to be carried out but we all know that it would happen many times during the course of training.

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So, after being dragged back several times, we are expected to believe that the dog or eight week old puppy will consciously think: “Well it seems that if I don’t go to my owner when I hear that command then I will end up there anyway so I may as well save some time and my owner’s effort by just running back myself! Yes that’s what I’ll do, and if my owner starts to sound angry then I had better get over there double quick because I know what will happen if I don’t.”

No, No, NO, definitely NOT! Neither an eight week old puppy nor a four year old, fully-trained working dog is able to ‘think’ like that at all. If they were able to ‘think’ like this then surely we could train a dog to drink from a bucket of water by telling him “Rover Drink!” and when he doesn’t, we hold his mouth open and pour the bucket-full into his mouth, and then praise him! This would not work as you all know, but why not? The principle is the same as the one being used above:
“Come!” (He doesn’t come) Go get him and carry him back and then praise him, either way he ends up in the same place. “Drink!” (He doesn’t drink) Pour water into mouth and praise him, either way the water goes into his mouth. There are two fundamental reasons why neither of these work.

Recall TrainingFirstly, the dog walking or running to the owner is completely different to being PUT there by force. Although the human mind is able to think logically to see a link between the two (i.e. the dog finishes in the same place whether it walks or is carried so the result is the same even if the method of transport is different), the dog’s mind sees the two methods of travel as two completely different situations. The puppy does not even make the connection that the end result is the same either way. All he can ‘think’ is that, in one case he is HAPPILY and OF HIS OWN ACCORD walking to his owner, but in the other, all of his ability to walk or run has been suddenly snatched away from him. In fact his ability to do anything and therefore his FREEDOM has been removed by that person who he is supposed to love and respect enough to WANT TO obey. To make things even more strange for the dog, we are then told to praise him!!!

So, the dog is actually being rewarded and praised for doing absolutely nothing! Surely this must be very confusing? Imagine how you would feel if your boss gave you £100 bonus one week for working hard, and then the next week he tied you to your chair so you could not do a stroke of work all week, and at the end of that week he gave you another £100 bonus for working hard. Confused? I would be! And this confusing ‘lesson’ is the first thing we are being told to teach our puppy aged only eight weeks! Is it any wonder there have never been so many dog behaviourists and counsellors needed?!

The second reason this method does not work is because we are introducing an element of fear into the command. From the very first second you begin training your dog to obey a new command, you have a clear-minded dog with nothing positive or negative to associate with this command as he has never heard it before. As soon as you show any anger or aggression towards the dog, this is permanently imprinted in his memory relating to this command and it is almost impossible for him to forget it.

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These creatures are highly intelligent and it is their own natural survival instincts which won’t allow them to forget anything remotely threatening in a hurry. Before you begin to think that the person who wrote that awful advice would say no aggression is mentioned, I would remind you that it doesn’t need to be overtly aggressive for a dog’s mind to become fearful or stressed. The simple act of picking up a dog (SO unnatural for the dog) or forcing it physically in any way is enough to make a dog feel very threatened and under such stressed, the mind doesn’t accept new messages other than negative ones, i.e. The kind which will make that dog generally feel under stress when hears “Rover Come”.

This is not positive Dog Training, I would almost argue it’s not dog training at all, but unfortunately these methods will at times get results with some dogs. The problem is that a dog which learns through fear or threat of stress or discomfort, will live under that level of stress whenever it is commanded to do anything. This is hugely unfair and uncalled for with so many better ways of doing things available.

If any particular training session contains lots of relaxed fun and/or wonderful rewards then the dog will remember this for a long time to come and this is of great benefit to us. Once you understand this and, more importantly, discipline your emotions and your actions, training becomes much easier. This does not mean you should reward the dog all the time. It does not mean you should reward the dog more. What it means is that you reward the dog ONLY when he does what you want, and you NEVER punish the dog for not obeying the command. You simply take the challenge of your failures upon YOURSELF, as it is YOUR duty to make the dog do what is required without causing stress or fear, and THEN reward. This might take more intelligence, more resourcefulness, more imagination, but then if someone can’t manage that then I would debate whether dog ownership is for such a person!

The best example of the importance of not punishing the dog is found in this very example, of training the recall command. Too many people teach this command to a reasonable standard, and then spoil it when they have nearly perfected it by punishing the dog in some way when he does not recall quickly or accurately enough.

Recall TrainingInstead, all that is needed is a little shaping. If he comes vaguely near you, then reward him. Next time hold onto the treat until he is a little closer and then reward him again. What you should be trying to do is to make it as easy as possible for the dog to understand how to gain the reward. This means taking very small steps and slowing down or going back a stage if the dog ever looks like he is getting confused or disinterested.

There are no marks for how quickly you can train your dog, it is all about how WELL the dog is trained. Of all the commands we teach our dogs, this is quite probably the most important command of all. So take as much time as you need to get this perfect. One day it may very well save your dogs life.

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