Saturday, November 07, 2009

Teaching Tips: Training your dog to come from distractions

People often tell me their dogs won't come when called or if they do, it is only when there are no great distractions. Living in the country we have lots of bunnies, deer, and other wildlife ever tempting our dog friends to chase and leading to potentially dangerous outcomes. Here is an excerpt of an email I sent to the adopter of one of my recent foster rescue dogs (his name is not really Spot):

A bunny or deer running is tough for any dog to resist. It takes lots of practice - practicing correctly - to train a reliable recall with the competing attraction of chasing prey. The best thing to do is to practice lots of happy recalls every day. When you are walking you can back up and call him - "Spot come" - in a pleasant voice. Make it sound inviting and fun and when he comes give him a treat and some affection and then go back to walking. Do that both during the structured training walk time and during the free walk time. Do it in the house any time. Go to a different room or just back up a few steps where you are. Always use the same cue "Spot come" and always make it a rewarding experience. As you practice increase your standards. Expect Spot to respond quicker and come faster. The finish should be that you put your hand on his collar as you praise, pet and give a treat. That teaches that he has to come all the way to you and be touched. As you increase your standards save the best treats for the best responses. For lesser responses still praise him, but make it clear to him that it is better when he responds quickly and/or moves faster to you. Dogs can only learn if the communication is clear. [This is a very important point for all training. It won't work to always say "good dog" for any feeble attempt and job well done. You must make it clear to your dog when one "answer" is better than another or he will never learn to do it better.] Never call Spot to punish him or he will learn that coming is bad. If he does not come when you call, go get him and make him come to you either by guiding by the collar or with the leash. Be nice, but make it happen. Try to have lots of repetitions of happy recalls that end with you touching his collar, then giving him a hug and/or treat, telling him he is wonderful and going on about having fun. Before you go for a walk call Spot to put on his leash. It's another chance for him to come, have his collar touched and then be rewarded with something he loves. Anytime you are going to do anything fun that you know Spot enjoys - sit on the couch, go to bed, eat a meal, go for a ride in the car - call him "Spot come", touch his collar, then invite him to the activity. All of these repetitions will teach him that coming when called is a fun and rewarding exercise and it will also create a habit. Habits help dogs respond automatically, without question - the brain doesn't think about it first. It takes lots of practice doing it right, lots of repetitions. That is how you get a dog that you can call off a deer.

Today's photo is of one of my old rescue dogs, Winston. He definitely needed LOTS of training when he came and seeing him come when called always brings me joy. He is living with good friends now and I'm sure they appreciate the training he received while he was here. Rescue dogs my need more time to "unlearn" past bad habits, but it is well worth the time to teach them!

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