By: Eileen Koval, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA
The "Come" cue is one of the more difficult cues for dogs to master because it is not only about learning that they are supposed to return to us when they hear the word. They have complete freedom and are expected to give up everything else around them and choose us. There may be great physical distances between us and our dogs, and the smells, dogs, people, and other opportunities around them may be novel and high value. With other cues like "Leave It", dogs are expected to give up one thing. In situations when we may ask our dogs to "Come", there is likely a world of opportunity available to them and they are expected to give up all of it to come to us.
We may not have anything interesting on us such as high value food or toys when in situations when we may need our dogs to come. All we have is ourselves. Why aren't we our dogs' best reward? I like to make "Come" an activity that is inherently highly rewarding to perform because it utilizes a natural canine motor pattern. Then, I develop it into a behavior pattern by practicing it repetitively in varied environments with an increasing level of distractions. Some trainers bring in aversive tools such as a vibration collar, shock collars or whistles to break through any distractions. All of these work to get dogs' attention because they are irritating to them, even if they receive treats after their recall. In the case of whistles, other dogs in the vicinity are also subjected to the irritating sound. It is likely painful for them to hear and perhaps scary to them. This can result in physical pain for dogs who have injuries and tense up their muscles upon hearing the noise. Given these issues, I do not use shock or vibration collars and I do not use whistles unless it is a working dog who is working outside of voice range. A whistle should not be a crutch because a dog is not trained to work through distractions.
The level of prey drive dogs display varies, depending on breed and individual characteristics. Most dogs have an inherent desire to chase -- part of the predatory sequence and a popular part of dog play behavior. Some dogs seem to love to chase things more than anything else in the world, thanks to the natural motor patterns they were bred to perform. I use the desire to chase as the crux of the training to make the activity inherently rewarding to engage in with us. There may be multiple rewarding things available to them in any environment, but if we cue "Come", only one rewarding activity is available to them -- chasing toward us.
The human is the lure in this training method, and the lure is eventually faded away. How is the human the lure? Well, as soon as we turn our backs to our dogs, their natural inclination is to follow us. Our feet, shoulder and body positioning as well as our movement (or lack of movement) cue behaviors from our dogs. Walk away quickly or begin to jog away with your back to your dog and your dog will likely come bolting toward you. This is the speed we want. When we call "Come", we do not want our dogs to think about it or to dawdle on their way over to us. That could be a safety issue if we are attempting to call them away from danger. We want to not only pattern them to "come" to us, but to do so rapidly and without hesitation. Any seconds of hesitation could be a car barreling down the road toward them. These seconds can be life or death.
Play with humans without any toys is generally more rare than food and toy rewards. How often do we get on all fours on the floor with our dogs and play "hand claw" games, wrestle, or "chase me"? In your dogs' mind, we probably don't play these games enough! When I start working with some dogs and owners, they do not have any play relationship other than perhaps "fetch". Play between two dogs or a dog and a human requires a certain amount of trust and connection between the individuals, so that they both always understand that this roughness is just play, not meanness or aggression. This opens a whole new dimension to the relationship and helps satisfy a need that some owners did not realize is there. It also builds value in ourselves as the best reward our dog can receive. If owners find ways to work the food and toys into the human-dog play, their dog may very possibly choose them over any other play mate. You become the best reward!
Working through distractions should progress slowly, as this is a trained behavior. It takes time to develop impulse control. Learning to extract the valued piece of information (our voice communications) when a dog is flooded with information in a highly stimulating environment takes time to develop. I use errorless training, putting dogs in a very low distraction environment and gradually progressing to more and more distractions over time, This creates an extensive history of successfully performing the desired behavior and being heavily rewarded for it every time.
In training scenarios we choose either to increase distance or distraction. Never increase both at once or it may create a scenario that is too difficult for your dog. Either we call our dogs from increasingly further way, or we focus on increasing the level of distraction in the challenges. He should be successful almost every time or the level of difficulty is too great for his present level of training. This takes time and careful planning, but develops a fun and highly reliable recall with SPEED from your dog that he performs without hesitation. You will develop a dog who chooses YOU every time. What is better than that?