At a recent training session, I was talking with a client about the skills we would be teaching his dog. When I mentioned the recall (come when called), he said that wouldn’t be necessary. He explained that he already takes his dog out to a rural area in back of his housing development and lets him run free, and the dog always comes back when called. The dog, by the way, is a 5-month-old, active breed puppy. I did my best to explain why it was still important to teach the skill, but to be honest, I’m not sure I changed his mind.
I can understand why someone would think it unnecessary to teach a dog something the dog already knows. I do believe the man that his dog came back when called. I’m sure they have a strong bond. But there is a difference between a dog complying with a request, and complying with a request regardless of what’s going on in the environment. Your dog might look at you when you call his name, or come to you when not much else is going on, but would he do those things when he sees another dog in the distance? What about when a squirrel runs by?
To get compliance under any circumstances, a skill needs not only to be understood, but to become a conditioned reflex. This means that when your dog is sniffing the grass and you call him to come to you, he doesn’t mentally weigh, Hmm, smelling this lovely pee left behind by my poodle girlfriend, or coming to you? Think I’ll stay right here. It means that regardless of what he’s thinking, your dog’s body automatically starts to move in your direction when you call him. I won’t lie; it can take quite a bit of training to get to that point. Once a skill is learned, distractions need to be added incrementally at a level the dog can handle. The skill also needs to be practiced in a real-life setting, rather than only during training sessions. I find that all too often those last two components are left unaddressed by owners, and sometimes even by trainers who instruct the owners to just keep practicing on their own. Building a conditioned reflex definitely takes some time and effort, but it should be the end goal of all obedience training.
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