In my conversations with other dog owners, I've been noticing a pattern.
Owner: Hershey absolutely will not come back to me when we’re outside. He just turns his ears off, especially when there’s another dog around.
Me: Oh, sure. We can fix that. To start, we’ll need some fabulous snack like hot dogs or roast beef…
Owner: <guilty giggle>
It brings back memories. I remember being told years ago not to feed my dogs “people food” lest it reveal my weak moral fiber, and I remember the sneaky pleasure of finally getting permission from a bona fide dog trainer to just go ahead and pull out the cheese. What a crime it is that we’ve been told not to use our most powerful motivator when training a dog to do a really difficult behavior. Coming when called when off-leash seems to be the gold-standard behavior in this category. It’s what owners really want, sometimes it’s what they need for their dogs’ safety, and it’s many dogs’ lowest priority when they’re off having a good time.
Just like us, our dogs are making micro-decisions all the time. Split-second cost-benefit analyses. Consider these three theoretical scenarios, all of which involve getting you to leave your house.
- Your best friend invites you to a pizza party on an evening when nothing else is going on. You drop everything and rush out the door.
- You have friends over for a barbecue and your great aunt Martha calls you up to come over to clean out her gutters. You groan, dawdle, make excuses, and show up reluctantly. She scolds you for your tardiness.
- A man carrying a gun breaks into your house in the middle of the night. You flee in terror.
Maybe you can see where I'm going with this. When most people recall their dogs, let's be honest: it's normally a great aunt Martha scenario. Am I right? You're at the dog park or in the back yard gardening, holes are being dug and squirrels are being hunted, and you call your dog to come inside. Where NOTHING fun is going on. And when he finally drags himself over, he is scolded for his efforts.
Or maybe you see yourself in the armed robber scenario. Many of us - myself included - were taught to use pain or the threat of pain (like a remote shock collar) to motivate our dogs. By golly, it works if you want a dog to vacate whatever he's doing in a panic.
But here's the thing. This is a long game we're playing with our dogs. Think past this one play, this one recall. You're not just getting a behavior today; you're establishing a pattern that will last years. Who's the person on that theoretical list whom you hope to hear from again and again? For whom would you do anything in the middle of the night, even if it were a tedious or inconvenient task?
Do you want to be great aunt Martha, an armed robber, or the person with a gravitational pull over your dog?
Those of us with dogs who will do a rocket recall have simply put to use a fancy technology: we throw pizza parties every time they come to us. And by doing so, over time, we teach them that coming to us - in fact, racing towards us - regularly results in a party of such epic proportions it simply cannot be missed. So on those rare occasions where we forget our treats at home, or the dog is tearing toward a busy street on the heels of a cat, the split-second cost-benefit analysis is already tipped in our favor.
Bottom line: you can nag or scare your dog into doing the same behavior that you can simply pay him for. It's a matter of motivation. You just have to set aside your aversion to using food in training and make it worth his while.
Recall is one of my favorite behaviors to train. Our dogs race to us at a moment's notice, even away from rabbits and UPS delivery guys. It's a behavior months in the making, but I didn't invent the technology. It's simply my dogs' brains on cheese.
There are few behaviors more rewarding to train.