The Infamous Recall And The Vending Machine
By Adam Silverman, DPS’ In-House Dog Behavior Consultant
We’ve all been there before. Desperately, you call your dog to return to you while they run in the completely opposite direction towards (insert dog, squirrel, bird, etc). Where did you go wrong? You were sure to use food rewards and start training in a low distraction setting. You followed the book, trainer, or YouTube video. And yet there goes your dog, acting as if his/her name and the command you worked so hard to teach are part of some foreign language. As a colleague of mine has put so aptly, your dog is “currently not available for conversation.”
Do not be discouraged. I’ve been there. I train guide dogs for the visually impaired and one of the most important behaviors for the dogs to master is the recall. As you can imagine, it’s not very fun or safe to chase down a dog when you can’t see anything. The dogs must be trained to reliably return to the handler on command in a variety of situations. I started out probably much like you. I used food rewards and my dogs came to me most of the time. However when it mattered most, (i.e. when the dog was playing with another dog or toy), my dog was often unresponsive.
Defeated, I would sit down in a chair in the dog play yard. And shortly thereafter, a curious muzzle would miraculously appear. What is this? Do I reward this or not? Well I decided to and I’ll tell you what. My dog started coming back to me more often than he had ever before. Before long, my other dogs caught on, and I was getting frequent “drive bys” multiple times in a play session. I had become a vending machine, a takeout window. I quickly added a cue word, “come,” as my dog galloped towards me, and I started lavishly rewarding him when he arrived. I soon stood up and repeated the same process, again only commanding my dog to “come” once he had already chosen to charge towards me.
Pretty soon I stopped rewarding him when he returned without my asking. Instead, he was only reinforced when I gave the cue, which in this case was the command, “come.” I was still playing the vending machine, but there weren’t any more free lunches. The “come” command became the dollar bill required to drop the delicious treats I kept in my food pouch. Needless to say, it wasn’t long until I had developed a formidable recall, one that was able to withstand greater and greater levels of distraction.
I asked myself why there was a difference in commitment from the dog, After all, I was using the same food rewards as before. I soon came to realize that by associating the word “come” with the dog’s own desire to run to me, I was developing a command that when given, actually reminded the dog of his own feeling of wanting to return to handler. This is an important distinction. I was working from the inside out, instead of from the outside in. And as a dividend, I was seeing a huge leap forward in my relationship with the dog. I could tell that he felt more connected to me, and vise versa.
So next time you’re yelling frantically at the top of your lungs, sit down and wait. Your dog will eventually check in with you, and that’s your opportunity to reward. Remember that a reward is only positively reinforcing if it increases the likelihood that the animal repeats the behavior. If he’s not returning to you, you need to up the reinforcement (i.e. better treats or hot dogs). This is how you develop the recall. Don’t be the pack leader, don’t try to bribe or beg. Be the vending machine, and make ’em pay up.