The Bay Area is such a lovely place to live with dogs. We have access to acres and acres of parkland and open spaces to wander, plenty of dog-friendly businesses and services, and we live in close proximity to several of the most progressive-minded and talented dog trainers in the country.
It is precisely because we have it so good here and because the standard of training and care that Bay Area dogs receive is overall so high that I am quite surprised when I see an unpleasant interaction between a dog and his human. Just the other day I witnessed such an encounter at Point Isabel that inspired me to write this piece.
I’d just parked and was about to let Zou Zou out of the car when I couldn’t help but notice a woman shrilly shouting her dog’s name repeatedly, in an unpleasant and antagonistic sing-song nagging tone: “FIdooo, FIdooo, FIdooo, FIdooo!” On and on she went, she must have said the dog’s name at least 15 times in under 30 seconds.
Her tone became increasingly irritated in the following 30 seconds and expanded into a running monologue about what a bad dog Fido was, punctuated with more shrill cries of, “FIdooo get over here NOW!” Finger point and all.
Fido was a lovely, young, neutered male, bully-breed mix, I’d say still in his adolescence, perhaps somewhere between twelve and eighteen months of age. He had a big silly grin on his face and he wasn’t running amok or wreaking havoc. No, Fido was calmly wagging and visiting with other dogs who were romping or passing by in the vicinity. He was simply staying out of grabbing range of his exasperated human, who was eager to leave the park. Fido clearly wasn’t ready to go. Or he didn’t want to be caught. Or both.
Finally he reluctantly approached the nagging woman with his head down, moving slowly and cautiously. “Good boy, Fido!” I thought to myself. He came back to the woman of his own accord! Granted it wasn’t a timely recall, but he was just having so much fun at the park and his “mama” did have quite a sour facial expression and tone. Who could blame him for not wanting to return to her? When I saw what happened next it all became crystal clear.
As Fido approached the woman she swooped down, bent over at the waist, and grabbed Fido on either side of his face with both of her hands. Then she went nose to nose with him and told him off in no uncertain terms. Poor Fido!
Fido’s owner had just committed the cardinal sin of dog trainers everywhere! She had punished her dog for coming back to her voluntarily. Oh dear. A dog must never be punished or chided for coming when called, even if the recall was slow or late. When a dog comes to you, you must at least be pleasant, or, even better, reward the dog for doing so (assuming you wanted the dog to come to you and want him to do so again).
When you interact with a dog (in other words, give him feedback) your actions are likely being associated in the mind of the dog with his last behavior. Even though this woman was obviously scolding the dog for ignoring her request for several minutes, in Fido’s mind she grabbed him and got ugly with him as a result of his coming to her. No wonder he stayed away so long! He was avoiding an unpleasant experience.
Sure, Fido’s recall left something to be desired. There was certainly room for improvement. There are ways to tighten up his response time and speed. However, when you start you’ve got to work with what you’ve got. If you want your dog to come when called you must reward the behavior when it happens so it will be repeated. If you reward heavily and often, the “coming when called” behavior will increase in frequency and likely in speed as well. Recall (the immediacy and speed with which your dog returns to you when requested) is a barometer of your relationship with your dog. If you are not happy with your dog’s response to coming when called, it’s time to take a look in the mirror.
Unfortunately Fido’s mum also just widened the chasm between fun and training too. At SIRIUS® our puppy curriculum is taught primarily off-leash, with many of our recall and other obedience drills practiced right in the thick of puppy play. Our goal is to blur the line between training and play so that in the dog’s mind it’s not ever a choice between having a blast with pals or responding to a human request. By stopping play briefly with a quick drill on manners and/or basic behaviors such as sit, down, come, wait, or settle; then rewarding good performance with a food reward and a quick game of tug or fetch; and then being released back to play, our canine students learn that training is just as fun as romping with friends.
This type of training incorporates the human equation into all the things dogs love rather than making training and play mutually exclusive. It also provides an excellent foundation in training to help students avoid park scenarios like the one described above.
Now, back to Fido. Overall he was a very good boy. Think of all the things he did right! He was friendly and polite with other dogs, stayed near his owner in general, and he did come when called… eventually. So Fido’s mum has plenty of good material to work with.
Hopefully she’ll read this article and next time she’s at the park she’ll practice some fun recalls right in the middle of her visit to the park and reward Fido with a big smile and a friendly scratch behind the ear or pat on the rump before, much to his surprise and delight, releasing him back to play a bit longer as part of the reward for coming when called.
And hopefully you’ll do the same.
Kelly Gorman Dunbar is Director of the Center for Applied Animal Behavior, where she recruits and trains the instructors for the Dunbar family business, SIRIUS® Puppy & Dog Training. She is the creator of the SIRIUS Sniffers scent-detection program, and is in the process of bringing the French sport of cavage (truffle hunting) to the US. Kelly is also Founder and President of Open Paw and consults on various matters.