During hot summer days when I was young, a little ice cream truck would make the rounds in the neighborhood. All the kids knew the truck was coming because it blasted a silly tinny song we could hear from blocks away. We’d all get excited and run out to the sidewalk, shouting to our Moms to please let us have some ice cream. We were Pavlov’s dogs.
Ivan Pavlov is famous for his study on dogs which documented a type of learning called Classical Conditioning, which is an unconscious process by which a predictive relationship is formed between two unrelated stimuli. In other words, we loved ice cream. The silly tinny song reliably predicted the arrival of ice cream, so we got excited when we heard the silly tinny song. Our response was emotional and automatic, and that’s very powerful.
Our dogs learn these predictive relationships too. What makes your dog’s eyes light up? Does she jump for joy when you pick up the car keys or her leash? Does she come running with tail wagging and a smiling face when you open the food cupboard, or shake a bag of treats? Your dog responds happily and automatically because one event (leashes, car keys, treat bags) is a tip-off that something they love is about to happen (car rides, walkies, cookies).
We can use the power of classical conditioning when teaching our dogs to come when called (recall). Start by choosing a cue. This is the word or sound you’ll use to call your dog. It can be a word like “come” or “here” or a sound like “woohoo!” or even a whistle. To be most effective, it’s best to choose something new.
Next, pair that word or sound with something your dog loves. With repetition, your dog will respond enthusiastically when she hears the cue. Trainers call this a “yippee” response. Sounds simple enough, but there are some things to keep in mind.
The “something your dog loves” needs to be extra special and initially something she’ll only get during your training sessions. Make it something your dog will do back flips for. Cooked chicken, string cheese or freeze-dried liver treats generally work great. She needs to get these tasty treats every time she hears the cue. Every single time.
Don’t let your dog know a training session is about to start. We never knew when the ice cream truck was going to come by. The only tip off was the silly tinny song. The cue should be the only thing that signals to your dog that tasty treats are about to happen.
Our dogs are keen observers and notice when we get the treats out, or put on our training pouch, and they’ll follow us around anticipating getting a goodie. Prepare ahead of time and stash some goodies where your dog can’t get them. When she’s not expecting anything, say your cue, wait a couple seconds and then give her a big spill of treats on the floor. Use lots of praise too. This should be party. When she’s done collecting her prize, go about your day again.
For the first week or so, only practice a couple times a day. Part of the excitement over the ice cream truck was that it only came by a couple times a week. If the truck kept coming back every few minutes, our “yippee” response would have waned to a “ho hum” response.
Once your dog excitedly seeks you out when she hears the cue, you can start practicing actual recalls. Make it easy at first by keeping distractions low and staying close. Don’t destroy your recall cue by doing something your dog doesn’t like after she comes to you. Avoid scolding or ending fun. Keep rewarding, every single time. Incorporate other rewards like a rousing game of tug or fetch. If you want your dog to stop what she is doing and come running to you, make it worth her while. Great rewards build great recalls!