Last night, a nameless member of my household 'commanded' Dunkie (our 3 year-old Tibetan Terrier) to 'come,' repeating the command again ... and again ... and again. He wanted Dunk to either stop barking at something unknown outside or was calling him to take him outside to do his business. I forget which scenario it was. Our dog ignored him, and of course, I said something not so kind about our dogs' willingness to tune us out if they are interested in something else.
- Me? Come? I have more important things to do!
But it made me start thinking about dog safety and whether or not there are limitations in using the 'come' command with our dogs. In many of my dog training and behavior books, the notion of teaching a solid 'come' is essential and I couldn't agree more. But as I've written about in other blogs, often after the command is taught and the dog demonstrates that it understands what is expected, people often will stop reinforcing (both positively AND negatively) the behavior. Worse yet, when they call their dog to come and the dog ignores them, nothing happens! Now, I'm not an advocate of punishing the dog and am a strong believer of using only reinforcement rather than punishment in training. So maybe this is a case of where stimulus discrimination is needed and we need to reserve the 'come' command for special occasions of urgency. I'm not sure.
Turid Rugass, in "Barking: The Sound of a Language" describes her experience in watching over a litter of 6 week-old Leonbergers who were old enough to go in and out of the house. When a stranger approached, the mother gave "one short bark" and the puppies immediately ran into the house while the mother stayed outside to protect her puppies. Since these pups are so young, no 'learning' or training had occurred; more likely their brains were hard-wired to recognize a danger signal and respond without question. Their mother simply had to give the alert (or command).
So, how can we use this analogy to our adult canine partners in order to produce a solid 'come' when absolutely needed? One might consider preserving the command 'come' for times of urgent need and train another command for less urgent recall. If you have a working dog, the above issue may not apply to you or even may work against you if your dog is on a 'mission.' However, if you have a non-working dog that is somewhat independent and has a mind of its own like my Tibetan Terriers, they may need stimulus discrimination training to understand when it is essential that they return quickly to your side as opposed to moseying their way back to you.
There is a great post on a forum, Dog Training Central, that provides the rationale for teaching a good recall and ways to go about doing it in detail. Their goal for recall is stated eloquently: "… to receive an immediate response from your dog upon hearing your command, every time, regardless of what else is happening in the area at that time." They also suggest that a reason your dog does not come every time when called is that we owners have allowed them to not comply with our commands without any consequences. The link provides general rules in training the 'come' command and other reasons for non-compliance. It's an interesting read. One section warrants special attention: "General Rules" (also described in many other training manuals), including:
- Don't punish your dog with it returns to you, even if it takes its merry old time;
- Be more exciting to your dog than anything else going on;
- Don't allow your dog off leash in public before it has learned the 'come' command; (Note: I'd have a real problem with this one as my Tibetans tend to be leash aggressive around other dogs that are not restrained in any way.)
- Reward the dog when it comes to create a positive association with its compliance;
I have another idea about stimulus discrimination when using the 'come' command that might help the dog understand when it is essential to come vs. when it is not. It's simple, and I'm actually not sure how it could be trained so that your dog understands the difference. Here's my proposal: After you have taught your dog a solid 'come,' and you have continued to intermittently reward your dog for 'coming' when called, you might introduce another word that lets the dog know it's expected to return to your side. A word I have in mind is 'here!' such as in: "Dunkie, here!" The word 'here' has a different sound than the word 'come' and your intonation may differ between the two words. Similar to the verbal language between a mother and her puppies, my tonal quality would differ as well as the sound, such that Dunkie and Izzy would learn whether or not the recall is urgent.
- Look at me run to you. I'm sure you have a treat for me!
Dog training is difficult at best. I'm probably making even more difficult for my dogs. But it's my responsibility to continue to train my dogs whether they think they need it or not. It will be interesting to see if they will be able to, and willing to, differentiate between urgent and non-urgent recall. The better my dogs and I understand expected behaviors and outcomes, the happier we will all be, yes? And it will be ME, not the dog, that determines whether my buddies 'come' every time.