Thursday, January 22, 2009

Can We Actually Make a Dog Come When Called?

Many of us start off really well when we begin teaching puppies to come when called. We play happy recall games, giving the cue, clapping hands and running away to excite a chase. We give lavish attention and throw treat parties when the pup follows and the recall cue becomes one of the most fun words the young dog knows. From a sound sleep, up they leap upon hearing it. Yet, what we meticulously establish can be destroyed so quickly that we are left wondering what went wrong with the dog. What went wrong usually has nothing to do with the dog. It is us who ruin this most important cue and we do it in a couple of ways.

Recall and end the fun or deliver some nasties:
Dogs have their own thinking, feeling experience of life. There are things they enjoy and things they don’t. When we use a recall cue to end the former and deliver the latter, the cue becomes a warning to the dog that her response to it will not only end the fun, but it may give her a case of the nasties. Many of us are aware of this so we make every attempt to refrain from such foolishness. We don’t use our precious recall cue to end a dog’s fun or when we must trim nails, give a bath, or pull some tag-alongs out of his fur. Ouch! We can actually be impeccable with this strategic self-control and still ruin the cue in the other ways.

Consider the cue an edict from the king:
Many canine educators and guardians hold the opinion that you must “make” a dog do what you “command.” Any refusal is seen as willful noncompliance. When our request becomes a sovereign decree, we will not suffer delay or what we think to be refusal. We can quickly feel irritation, frustration and eventually, even anger. Our feelings can be heard in the sharpness of voice and seen in the clenching of teeth. Some of us give a hard look. Fists fly up on hips and we adopt a squared and rigid stance. We repeat the cue with contempt for the challenge. And even if we offer no overt signs or gestures, our feelings permeate the electromagnetic environment. Through it, dogs are immediately aware of our emotional state.

The truth is that our introduction of aversive experience (whether realized or intended) is the very reason why most dogs don’t come when they are called. A prompt or a cue is a request for a particular posture or activity. A command is an edict from the king. When we stop using words of absolute power, we will be a lot more aware of our role in helping a dog to interpret our communications and willingly provide the responses we expect. We will assume responsibility for any failures, reasoning how to fix our mistakes and keep moving forward. We build the energy of partnership and respect when we ask.

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