Let's talk about dogs: Calling your dog, from the dog's perspective

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The recall (come when called) is the most important cue that your dog will ever have. Notice that I use the word "cue" and not "command." In old style or traditional training, we thought of dog training as commanding the dog to do a specific behavior or to stop doing a specific behavior. A command implies a threat. When I think of "commanding," it evokes a certain emotional response inside me. A command might come flying out of your mouth in a tone that might be intimidating. Tone matters in dogs. It matters a lot.

Cues are signals that begin or stop a behavior. Cues can take the form of anything that the dog can perceive. If your brain is functioning on the "command" concept, the sound of the word will come out of your mouth much differently than if it is thought of as a cue. I see this in my clients all the time. The word "down" comes out "DOWN!" I have to retrain them to use a neutral tone. Sometimes, by simply changing the cue to a silly word like "splat," it will automatically change the way it comes out of the person's mouth, because it changes the emotion attached to it. Interesting.

Cues are fascinating, but let's get back to the recall. Getting a great recall is about building a huge positive emotional response in your dog upon hearing your recall cue. When your dog hears that cue, it should be like a jackpot at Las Vegas. That's what we want to train. Much advanced dog training is about identifying your dog's emotional state at any given time. Dogs have very strong emotional lives. What do we want the dog's emotional response to be upon hearing his recall cue? We want the dog to believe that coming back to you is the best possible thing in the world. To do that, we have to pile on reinforcement each and every time he comes to you. Treats, toys, praise, play ... it's all good.

Problems. We are the problem. How many times have you become angry and frustrated when your dog ignores you when you call them? Your dog knows you are angry. If you lose control and punish the dog when the dog finally does come, what are you training? You are training the dog that it is dangerous to come to you. Dogs live in the present. They cannot connect the punishment to the crime.

To build a really great recall, attach the very best of everything in your dog's life to it. If the dog ignores you, check your emotions, quietly walk the dog down and still reward the dog when they do come to you. Like all cues, the recall is only as strong as its reinforcement history. Make that history deep and wonderful.

Noel Hoffmann, who lives in Putney, is a member of The Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers and The Association of Professional Dog Trainers. Learn more at www.noelhoffmann.com.

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