Question: My pup responded well to our recall training in the park, was fortified with high quality treats like meatballs, and behaved in ways that made us so proud. That changed when a cute older man in the park started giving milk bones to all dogs. Not only did our dog not come back when called while he was feeding her. In the next few weeks she also rarely came when we called her in other contexts. My question is how dogs learn and why their training seems to be falling apart. What can I do to prevent such setbacks in the future, and how do I know when our dog really “got it” so I can be sure that she’ll come back no matter what?
Reply: Most people have experienced some variation on the recall training fiasco, and these dog training setbacks can be very daunting. The situation at the dog park was less of a situation where a dog’s recall training was falling apart and more of a situation where a dog was asked to do something it hadn’t been trained to do. Responding appropriately to the cue of coming to you when there is nothing particularly new or interesting to distract you is completely different than coming back to you when someone else is feeding your goodies.
What you learned, courtesy of the attending man at the park, is that if your dog is being treated by someone else, your dog does not have a reliable callback and does not know how to come. Additionally, the dog appears to have learned that even if he called, the dog doesn’t have to come, which may explain why their recall worsened (let’s not say “fell apart”!) And why he didn’t come when he was in one too other case was called situations.
The real secret of dog recall is that there are 100 steps to teaching a dog something so that it can do it any Situation. Step one to teaching dog calling back may be to call your dog from a meter away in your living room with nothing going on but you and your meatballs, and step 100 will call your dog to come, when he’s 500 feet away chasing a deer.