Three Keys to Coming when Called

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

Dog trainers like to say that coming-when-called is an odds game. If you called your dog right now, what are the odds he’d come? Would you place a bet on it? How much. Now, what if your dog was outside, or playing with another dog, or sniffing a lamp post?

Our job, yours and mine, is to stack the odds in our favor, to make it so we’d be willing to place a big bet that our dog will come when we call him every time anytime. Here are the keys.

  1. Use a clear and consistent cue. I say “Stella, come!” (My dog’s name is Stella). I call it in a clear-throated voice, loudly. There’s a bit of lilt and lyricism to the call. It’s strong but not intimidating. I think of coming when called as an invitation not a demand. Avoid having a conversation with your dog. Don’t repeat the cue over and over. Don’t give multiple cues.
  2. Watch to see if your dog moves toward you. As soon as he does, start smiling, and praising him. Cheer him on as he comes to you (but don’t repeat the cue).
  3. Reinforce generously. Use the highest value reinforcer you can think of and give more than one treat (I recommend 3-4 in sequence). Then, if possible return your dog to play or whatever it was he was enjoying before you called him.

IMG_5680Repeat the process often, at different times, and in different places. In the early stages of training (all stages really) help your dog win the game. Set up your training so that he can succeed. I taught Stella coming-when-called using games. The process was fun for both of us, and easy as a result. We also mixed up the games to keep them interesting. I call Stella to me often when she leasts expects it and I reinforce it with a variety of things: food, play, access to fun activities. (See: Psyching Out Your Dog).

Practice throughout your dog’s lifetime to keep the behavior strong. It’s a powerful skill for keeping your dog safe from harm. But really, it’s nice just to show off that your dog is under some sort of control. How cool, right? My bet is that you’re going to love seeing your dog running towards you with that big goofy grin. Yeah, I’d put my money on that any day.

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA teaches dog training in Houston, TX

Human Centered Dog Training

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

Yes, good dog training is mostly about teaching the human. And, there’s absolutely no shame in that.

All the stuff our dogs do, their behavior, is largely influenced by their external environment. Some would say behavior is driven exclusively by the dog’s external environment. Sure, our dogs have internal experiences, like pain, hunger, illness, etc. and those play a role in behavior.

stewie-houston-sun-dogStill, our dog’s external experience is key. Dogs walk, run, lie down, chew, poop, pee, bark, and jump – all in their in the physical world, our homes and neighborhoods. How the environment responds to those behaviors determines if the dog keeps doing that stuff, and if so where, when, and how. Here’s one example. My dog lies down and stretches out. He’s learned over time that areas in which the sun is shining provide him warmth. He seeks those areas out more often. The environment (angle of the sun) has influenced when and where he lies down. The world is always teaching our dogs which behavior is reinforcing and which is punishing. Right?

What does all this have to do with us humans? Everything. No doubt we are the most important players in our dogs’ environment. Every day we determine when they eat, where they sleep, when they are let inside or outside, what opportunities they have for social interaction (with humans and nonhumans), and how they live their physical, mental and emotional lives in general. Nothing influences our dog’s behavior more than we humans do. Nothing.

Of course our dogs think (and feel). They may not muse and contemplate. Those processes involve verbal language. But our dogs are expert observers, constantly assessing the world around them for potential danger or sources of pleasure. Our job is to line up the feedback we give our dogs (when they eat and when they have access to other pleasurable activities) with what they are doing. That’s called reinforcement. Our dogs remember, and memories of reinforcement (and punishment) guide their behavior. We call that learning. Harnessing this process is the most natural way to train dogs. It’s the natural way all animals learn.

We humans are the most important player in our dog’s world. But, there’s a down side to this. Whether we intend it or not our dogs are always learning from us. The only question is are they learning what we want them to or are our actions teaching them the wrong lesson? Here’s my short list of stuff we should avoid doing around our dogs (this is not an exhaustive list).

  • Yelling, Hitting, Choking, Shocking: teaches the dog that we are dangerous – may lead to them avoiding us or aggressing against us.
  • Lying to our dog with our actions (being inconsistent): teaches the dog that we are an unreliable actor in their environment – will lead to unreliable/ inconsistent behavior from the dog.
  • Misusing food / bribing / giving food at the wrong time: teaches the dog that they get food for doing wrong things (like begging at the table) – can lead to the dog only responding to us when we have food.

Noticing the mistakes we’ve made with our dogs is actually a good thing. Don’t ever let anyone shame you about the choices you’ve made. Just use the information to make better choices from here on out. Our dogs can learn. But, so can we. We learn which of our actions work and don’t work just like our dogs (learning by doing). We also learn by watching others model behavior (imitation), by listening, and by reading. So we’re actually in really good shape. We can learn to:

  • Be better observers of our dogs – notice when our dog gets stuff right and how to reinforce behavior we want him to do more.
  • Set our dogs up to succeed – creating opportunities to do the things we want them to do more and then providing reinforcement that strengthen those good choices.
  • Put those great behaviors “on cue” – teaching our dogs to do what we want when we ask it.
  • Be consistent – making training a lifestyle of good behavior and reinforcing experiences throughout the day and not just when we have a treat bag on.

Houston-Dog-Trainer-Stewie-CuddleSuccessful dog training hinges on our human behavior. That’s big, maybe even a little scary. But it’s empowering too. I call it human-centered dog training – teaching humans how to teach their dogs. It’s a two species process – always. That’s a lot of brainpower and lots of heart working toward changing behavior, even reversing the most troubling behavior problems. We are learning together with our dogs, learning cooperation – humans and dogs not in conflict but on the same team – making choices with each other – finding better ways to live with each other – looking together for that warm spot in the sun.

Dog Trainer Michael Baugh specializes in behavior related to fear and aggressive dog behavior in Houston, TX.

Seeing it From Your Dog’s Point of View

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

Phenomenology is one of my favorite geek words. It’s the study of subjective experiences, how another individual perceives the world from his or her point of view. It’s also the philosophical study of other being’s awareness of self. Think about that for a moment, and then let your thoughts wander to your dog. Think just for a moment, but not too long. Pretty soon you’ll circle back and realize all we can really know is our own experience of self and the world around us. I don’t want us to get that far, though.

DSC00587Those of us who love dogs have all contemplated phenomenology. Chances are you’ve looked at your dog and wondered what is he thinking or how does he feel about this or that or does he love (specifically, does he love me)? We humans are natural storytellers from as far back as our cave drawing days. We try to answer those questions about our dogs and sometimes not too well. We think we know what they know or what they feel and we tell it like we see it. Maybe we’re right, but chances are we’re not. That’s the thing about phenomenology. How do we know for sure what what another being’s (our dog’s) private experience is?

Short answer: We can’t. Slightly longer answer: Of course we can try. We should try.

You don’t have to know me very long to know my personal point of  view on “training” dogs. Teaching and learning are keys to opening a door between two beings – us and our dog – thinking, feeling, living beings. What better way is there to learn who our dog is than by pushing that door wide open? Let’s be present and aware of what our dog is doing and how he responds to what we do. We know from experience (and the great work of behavior scientists) that dogs learn from the feedback we provide them. And yes, we are learning from the feedback they are providing us (their understanding or misunderstanding of us is evident in their behavior). So, here we are, Dogs and humans in a steady exchange of information – learning the world as the other perceives it. We could call it a phenomenological approach to dog training.

As long as we’re geeking out let’s talk about the philosopher Martin Buber. He brought us the ideal of the I-Thou relationship between two beings. These are genuine connections in which the individuals see or strive to see who the other really is and how the other sees his or her existence. It’s a short hop to phenomenology and what Psychologist Carl Rogers referred to as a phenomenological approach to counseling and teaching (see, I didn’t make it up). At the root of all this, of course, is empathy.

Let’s get back to our dogs. We can start to experience how our dogs feel and think by watching how our they interact with their world. We just need to stop – stop and be with them – stop and notice them quietly. Stop talking for a moment. Set aside all those commands and ideas of what he should or shouldn’t be doing. Just watch. Who is your dog? What is important to him? Given the chance, how does he begin interacting with you? This takes a fair bit of patience sometimes (not always). It also requires that we dig a bit into our own empathy reserves. Can you imagine? Can you relate? Give phenomenology a test drive – see the world as your dog might – imagine yourself as your dog imagines himself (whoa).

I forgot to mention something else about Martin Buber and the whole I-Thou thing. We go into this process humbly. Neither being is above the other. That was a big deal for Dr. Rogers in counseling and teaching, too. We meet our dog on equal ground – just two living, thinking animals in a common space and time. Cesar Milan and the other “show ’em who’s boss” trainers are spinning at the thought of this. But, give it a go. It might do you and your dog both some good. What’s it like being you? What must it be like for your dog to be him? Open mind. Open heart. I-Thou.

How different is it now to think about training? Could we take a phenomenological approach – we and our dogs meeting on a level playing field – learning together – from each other – interested in each other – equally? As equals. Heresy? Nonsense. It’s thrilling. Fun even.

Hello dog, I’m bipedal and take great pleasure from things I see and here. Dog: quadruped – enjoys smells that to him are like symphonies and Cezanne’s.

Human: speaks but also has facial expressions and other non-verbal communication.

Dog: communicates nonverbally but also vocalizes.

Predator: Dog – check. Human – check.

Emotions, including joy, fear, anger, sadness, and excitement: Human – check. Dog – check.

Wanting and seeking good things / pleasure: Humans and dogs – check and check.

Avoiding pain and other crummy stuff: Yup. Both of us.

It’s a bit ironic that the dog trainer’s hero, Dr. Burrhus Frederick Skinner, frequently disagreed with and publicly debated Carl Rogers. Skinner is the one who showed us how to influence another being’s behavior by providing or withholding reinforcement. Folks back in the day (most especially Rogers) thought the approach was sterile and non-feeling. The irony here is that it’s exactly this approach that fuels communication with our dogs in the real world. It takes little more than a few minutes to realize that what we call training sessions are actually conversations. We are showing our dogs how we’d like to live with them, reinforcing their behavior. But aren’t they too showing us what they want and need? Don’t they reinforce our behavior? Let’s meet, dog and human, and work this out. I-Thou, indeed.

And what about that question of love I so deftly left behind? Phenomenology. Seeing the world as you see it. Understanding the idea of another being’s self as you understand yourself. Does my dog love (specifically me)? Can we know for sure? I’ll save us both the disappointment of the short answer. My hope is that the longer answer, the real answer, lays out on that level playing field, the place where we teach and learn with our dogs, equally engaged and connected if only in the moment. Love and hope, they are so closely related. Maybe it’s best if we keep both always at hand, inextricably bound to our own sense of self, and our own perception of the world. Let those help us tell the story of our dog, and the love and hope we trust he must also feel.