It was such a beautiful day yesterday, that I decided to take my two Berger Picards on a long walk. It was a safe area, so I let them run around off-leash. They were having a great time exploring their surroundings. They’d wander a distance away from me, check in and, if they felt they were too far, they’d come closer. They made sure to stay within view at all times. I was standing there, watching them, when I saw a man walking in our direction. I wasn’t sure if he was a dog lover or if he might be afraid of two 70 pound dogs running loose. Not wanting to inconvenience him, I called the boys to come to me. Upon hearing my call, they both spun around and came running back. The man watched in awe and said to me, “Wow, that’s impressive. I wish my dog came running to me when I called him.” I smiled and thanked him. But as I walked away, I couldn’t help but think that I should’ve have suggested that “wishing” wouldn’t help his dog have a better recall.
Training any behavior takes time, dedication and consistency. I sometimes carry treats with me. My dogs don’t know if I have treats or not. On this particular occasion, I had a stick of cheese. When I called to them to “come” and they did, they each got a piece of cheese and lavish praise, thereby reinforcing the behavior. If I hadn’t had a treat, they still would’ve received praise.
One well-known experiment proved this theory. In the 1890s, Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov was curious about salivation in dogs. He wanted to study if there was anything besides food, that would cause a dog to salivate. He predicted that dogs would salivate in response to food being placed in front of them. But he also noticed that they would actually begin to salivate when they heard the footsteps of the assistant tasked with feeding them. He tested the theory that other stimuli, not just food, would cause salivation. He placed a small test tube in the cheek of each dog to measure the saliva they produced. He quickly discovered that any object or event which the dogs learned to associate with food would trigger the same response – increased salivation. The dogs had been conditioned to respond to the stimulus they associated with food.
As we learned from Pavlov’s dog conditioning experiment, once a neutral stimulus (such as praise) is associated with a positive stimulant (such as cheese), the neutral stimulus will have the same value as the positive stimulant. This is not to say that you should ever stop training your dog. Think of it as riding a bike or learning a new language. Sure, once you learn, you may always be able to do both, but if you don’t practice you will almost inevitably become rusty as time goes by.
I remember reading somewhere that amateurs practice until they get it right, experts practice until it can’t go wrong. Yes, proficiency comes with practice and repetition. Wishing your dog will come when called will not have the desired effect. Take every opportunity you can to reinforce desired behaviors. Always praise your dog for obeying you, no matter how insignificant the behavior may be. Remember that any behavior that is rewarded, will be repeated.