What if your dog’s recall is so good that she comes before you call her?
The little movie featured in this post shows the myriad ways a smart dog can mess up your plans.
The Original Goal: Film That Recall!
This post brings together a lot of ideas I like to explore. Among them are cues, offered behaviors, and stimulus control. And like many of my posts, this one features an unintended consequence. I’ll explain.
Zani has a great recall. Bragging material. Even though she is getting older and her gait is wonky, she’s a nice example of a hound who comes when she is called.
I’ve been wanting for a while to get a video or two of this “miracle” of training. The most impressive recall videos demonstrate low latency (a speedy response) while dealing with high distraction. No problem, I think. Zani’s recall is that strong. I’ve been calling her out of play, away from other dogs, and away from varmints for years. I can film that.
So when Zani fails to come indoors when Clara and I do, it seems like the perfect opportunity. She’s involved with something in the yard. I think, “Aha! I can call her with her “real” recall cue and record it!”
But I don’t have any high-value treats, so I’ll need to go into the house and come back with some. Don’t misunderstand; the food isn’t a bribe. I’m not going to stand out there and wave food at her to get her to come. She will respond to her verbal recall cue whatever the circumstances. I’m getting the food to keep the reinforcement topped up so she’ll also come the next time.
Here’s the plan.
- Zani is involved in something in the yard and doesn’t come in the house when first invited.
- Eileen goes into the house to get a great treat.
- Eileen comes back outside. She has her phone ready to take video.
- Eileen calls Zani.
- Zani comes with Eileen filming.
- Zani gets the great treat.
And that’s how it worked for the first couple times. But the videos had flaws that made them unusable. I filmed poorly, or she slipped. Something went wrong. But I kept at it.
The Problem: Dogs Notice Patterns
Dogs are known for paying attention to us. In my experience, dogs who can earn treats for behavior around the house get very attentive.
Zani is a great example of this. She is a brilliant little problem solver. Let’s rewrite my list of events from Zani’s point of view.
- I’m barking in the yard.
- Eileen goes into the house.
- Eileen comes back out holding the camera.
- Eileen calls me.
- I go to her.
- I get something great.
Question: What is the immediate predictor that a recall will be reinforced with something great?
Answer: Eileen gives the verbal recall cue.
Question: But what happens before that?
Answer: Eileen comes out the back door holding up her phone.
Bingo. Why should Zani wait for me to call her when she already has an excellent predictor of reinforcement?
It didn’t take but a couple times for Zani to learn the pattern. She started running toward me as soon as I came out into the yard holding my phone. Before I called her. She ruined my movie! I’m supposed to call her before she comes. Otherwise, it can look like she is randomly running to me.
Now, it’s moderately interesting that one of Zani’s recall cues is me coming out the door holding a phone up. But there’s nothing earthshaking about it. It’s behavior science 101. All creatures with a nervous system (and maybe some without) are wired to notice predictors. Antecedents and consequences drive behavior.
The really interesting thing about this is the human response. We are biased toward cues that we give deliberately, especially verbal ones. Some of us refer to them as commands, as if they were inviolable. We think of environmental cues as somehow less important or less real. But here’s a hint: the dogs don’t.
As much as I might get frustrated with Zani’s strangely cued recall, it’s just as impressive as if I called her. My little hound will turn away from something that is very exciting in order to run to me for the likelihood of reinforcement. But it doesn’t feel as potent or valid because I’m not verbally cueing her or using hand signal. That’s so silly, but that’s a human for you.
I’ve had several epiphanies about behavior science over the years. The first and biggest one was about reinforcement. But the next one was about cues. Do you remember the first time you heard someone use a cue that wasn’t a description (in English or another language) for the behavior? Did it startle you a little? It did me. “Wait, you can’t use that word because it doesn’t mean….oh.” That was the first step for me to get that dogs don’t understand language the way we do. Despite interesting research about areas in their brains that correlate with ours, we can’t assume that they understand word meanings or syntax. Humans always hear the meaning of the word behind the sounds. In fact, we can’t un-hear the meanings. But it is still only fair to assume that dogs have to brute-memorize the sounds.
So to them, there may not be much of a difference between “see Eileen come out the door with a phone” and “hear Eileen make a certain sound.”
Should there be a difference to me?
I’ve written recently about my lack of focus on stimulus control. I’m a bit self-deprecating about it, but it is a choice. In most cases, the behaviors I ask my dogs to perform are useful even if I haven’t asked for them. But I do think it through in each case.
You’ll notice in the movie that I reinforce Zani for coming to me even though I haven’t called her. That was a decision point. I could have discouraged that developing recall cue by not reinforcing Zani for coming unless I had actually called. Instead, I considered: Is it a good thing for my dog to interrupt what she’s doing because something in the environment suggests that it’s a great time to run to me? Is there a reason that might not be a good thing?
In my situation, it’s almost always a very good thing. So I reinforced it. But there is a circumstance in which stimulus control on a recall would be desirable. That would be in some kind of accidental situation where my dog was loose and ended up on the other side of a busy street or another hazard from me. If my dog comes running to me when she sees me appear and there is something dangerous between us, she could get hurt.
As much as we like 100% guarantees, we rarely get them in life. I weighed the probability of that dangerous situation against the benefits of a dog who comes “before I call her.” In my case, the default recall provides enough benefits that I’ll take that small risk. I can also train a different behavior that I can cue during a rare emergency. But for me, it’s great to have a dog who will turn away from exciting things to check in or come to me on her own. Others who take their dogs into lots of situations off leash might decide differently.
By the way, I trained Zani’s recall by 1) giving her something fabulous every time she recalled on cue; and 2) giving her something good-to-fabulous when she came to me in many other situations. Pretty straightforward. That’s why I love training recalls.
How about you? Do you reinforce “offered” recalls? Got any interesting cues, deliberate or accidental?
- Doesn’t Intermittent Reinforcement Create a Stronger Behavior?
- Safety Behaviors: Down at a Distance and Recalls
- Stimulus Control, Or Why Are There Seven Shoes on the Table?
- Stimulus Control, Or Lack Thereof
Thanks to Erin Topp for helpful suggestions about this post.
Copyright 2019 Eileen Anderson