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What to Do When Your Dog Loses His Cue: Training Outdoors with Distractions

Please come

"He only does what I ask when he wants to. It's really hit or miss."

"She hears me calling her, but ignores me."

"My dog is very stubborn. He does what I ask when he feels like it."

Dog Hunting In Tree stump

As a dog trainer, I hear statements like these from frustrated and embarrassed pet owners frequently. Believe me when I say I feel your pain. It is no wonder pet owners are baffled when the very same dog that returns when called at home (without fail) will just as quickly disappear into the sunset when let off leash. It appears to be a case of "My dog behaves only when he wants to."

Indoor training with low distractions is very different from training out in the big, busy world. Outdoors you are competing with a myriad of scents, sounds, and other environmental distractions.

What if he doesn't even know I exist?

It is impossible to pay attention to every detail present in the environment. In fact, you would soon be driven mad if you lost the ability to filter out certain stimuli. Consider where you are as you read this article. What sounds are in the background? What is the temperature? What does the room smell like? You are unaware of how much stimulation is around us, until you stop and focus.

Have you ever been so absorbed in a task that the world falls away and nothing else exists but that task? It is very easy to do! This video is a good example of how a system can be overwhelmed with environmental stimuli. Often the result is the inability to see what is right before your eyes.

The dog that seems to stop responding to a cue or signal in an outdoor environment is not ignoring you, at least not in the way the term is usually applied (think teen-aged humans who take procrastination to an art-form level). If your dog "does it at home but not at the dog park," it is likely that the behavior is simply a response to something more reinforcing in the environment.

But isn't that exactly what a teen is doing? Ignoring (usually a parent!) in favor of something more reinforcing in his or her environment? Yes and no. The difference is in the big picture—most teens can see it and most dogs cannot.

Meet Dexter

Mett Dexter

Dexter was four months old when I brought him home from our local animal shelter. He had been relinquished with a sad notation from his previous home: "He is just too much dog."

On many days since then I have found myself nodding sympathetically and agreeing with that description as I experience Dexter's incredible energy level. Dexter loves to work; he took to clicker training like a duck to water. It seemed as if there were no limits to what he could do. He would drop his favorite toys happily to race to me when called. Life was good.

And then adolescence hit.

Let me explain.

I live near a five-acre fenced dog park with a fish-stocked lake in the center. We visited there frequently when Dexter was a pup. With four legs to my two, Dexter had always run ahead of me on the trails, never quite disappearing completely. He would stay in my line of sight, racing through the trees and over rocks to double back and make contact with me.

Until the day he didn't. On that day, we walked along as usual, Dexter racing ahead, and then suddenly he was completely out of sight. I called his name—silence. Not too concerned yet, I kept walking. And calling. And walking. Worry began to creep up my spine.

I am not sure how much time had passed before I finally spotted in the distance a large black dog bounding toward me—with something in its mouth. Oh no! I smelled the object long before Dexter reached me. Dexter had followed a smell to its source—a long-dead fish. Dexter paused to shake the fish dramatically, causing a shower of fish scales to rain down between us.

"Dex-TER! Give me that! NOW!" Dexter continued to wag his entire body, dead fish in mouth, eyes squinty with happiness about the treasure he had found. His long legs pranced in a joyful hound-dog dance. He trotted off a short distance, dropped the fish to the ground, and proceeded to roll on it again and again, groaning with delight. After nothing of the fish remained, Dexter hopped up, shook, and returned to show his affection. His "affection" lingered long after that day, if you catch my drift! (You would definitely have caught our drift had you been near us!)

Hello, world of scent!

Hello, world of scent

From then on, Dexter put me on voice mail, ignoring my calls in favor of following invisible trails of scent, nose to the ground, powerful back legs propelling him forward. This would not be a problem if my own fenced yard were smaller and not full of the tantalizing scent trails of bunnies, mice, squirrels, and chipmunks. With each clutch of quail eggs or nest of baby mice that he found, Dexter was reinforced for his choice to track scent. Finding a black dog in the dark soon became very frustrating. But, more than that, Dexter's behavior was potentially dangerous. If he were to get out of my fenced property, he would be in an area rich with neighboring livestock, chickens, and goats. I knew I needed to find a solution, the sooner the better.

Why punishment and nagging are not the best options

There is a tendency to punish or scold a dog for not responding to the cue to come when called. The problem with that solution is that a punished cue may then become a threat, or poisoned.

Repeating the cue over and over may result in Dexter becoming immune to the sound, a process known as habituation. If you have ever lived near road traffic, you know that eventually you become habituated to the sound and no longer hear it. It is not that the noise disappears. The way your sensory system responds to the noise changes.

The strongest reinforcers produce the strongest behaviors

At one time, Dexter had an established and rock-solid history of coming when called. The cue for this behavior had not changed, nor had the environment itself (other than suddenly becoming extremely interesting to Dexter), but Dexter's response to the cue had. Had Dexter become stubborn? Hardheaded? Independent?

Those colorful labels (and other stronger phrases) made me feel a bit better when I uttered them, but they did not describe Dexter's actual behavior. As a dog trainer (someone who is supposed to know better) I had to set my frustration and anger aside and take an unbiased look at the behavior itself. I needed to examine closely:

  • Dexter's current behavior
  • Dexter's opportunities to practice that behavior
  • The triggers to that behavior
  • The reinforcers for that behavior

As I did this training work with Dexter, there were two tools that helped me interpret both Dexter's behavior and my reactions: the Matching Law and the Relative Value (and Choice) Theory.

The Matching Law states:

"Given two behaviors, each on its own reinforcement schedule, respectively, the relative behavior equals the relative frequency of reinforcement available." - Richard Herrnstein

If my dog finds something in the environment reinforcing, and I want him to do something else, I must give him an alternate option that is at least equally reinforcing, or, better yet, more so.Translated for my situation:

"We are surrounded by reinforcers—they are everywhere, competing for a dog's attention. If my dog finds something in the environment reinforcing, and I want him to do something else, I must give him an alternate option that is at least equally reinforcing, or, better yet, more so."

The Matching Law revealed flaws in my frustrating examination of Dexter's choices. My conclusions were largely based on my own internal belief system about dogs:

"Dexter should come to me when I call him because I called him and that's that. I am the person and he is the dog. I am the one in charge here. He must think I am a pushover."
"Dogs live to please. My dog must be either spiteful or not very smart."
"He KNOWS this—he has done it a million times before. He is really, really stubborn."

What was true was that Dexter was not interested in me and what I offered at that particular time. I would have to increase my attraction and up my offer.

The Relative Value (and Choice) theory states:

"A rat is more likely to eat, given the opportunity to do so, than it is to press a lever. Different kinds of behavior have different values. These different values determine the reinforcing properties of the ensuing behavior." - Premack

There are many examples of relative value and choice in our society. Some people choose the life of a drug dealer over that of an entry-level worker at a bank, attracted by the fast money despite the very real risk of imprisonment or physical harm. A burger and French fries topped off with a soda becomes easy dining when hunger pangs hit driving home, even though there are healthier choices to be had. 

When Dexter chose to follow a scent rather than return to me, he was operating under the rule of relative value and choice. His assessment of the value of his choices places tracking higher in value than returning.

ABC: the antecedent to the behavior, the behavior itself, and the consequence of the behavior

Picking up a scent

Setting aside my emotions, my preconceived notions, and my "Dexter should…" thoughts, I examined the behavior for what it was: behavior. After all, there are laws governing behavior. Using those laws, behavior can be increased or decreased in frequency. I took a close look at the behavior itself, leaving out my assumptions about what Dexter might be feeling or thinking. I examined the behavior, and what came before and after it:

Antecedent (A)—I call out "Dexter, come!"

Behavior (B)—Dexter has his nose to the ground, following an intriguing scent

Consequence (C)—Dexter continues to sniff the ground

Wait! Is the antecedent to this chain of events really my cue (calling out "Dexter, come!")? No. I know it is not because the cue was effective at one time; nothing has changed about the cue. The cue is not the problem in this chain.

A closer look tells me the antecedent for this chain of events is actually:

A: Dexter's nose is to the ground

And the behavior and consequence:

B: I give the cue "Dexter, come!"

C: Dexter continues tracking the scent (the most reinforcing option to him at that moment).

The most reinforcing option to Dexter at that moment was now clear to me. All I had to do was reverse the formula and give Dexter an equal or better opportunity for reinforcement—then practice, practice, practice that new behavior.

New chain

The reinforcement Dexter received by trailing a scent was obviously of higher value to him than the praise received for returning to me. A quick calculation of how many times he responded to the recall cue versus the number of times he continued to track a scent told me so.

To start effecting change, I decided not to call Dexter's name with the cue ("Dexter, come!") when Dexter's head was down and when he was actively sniffing. Instead, I waited for a moment when his head was up and then called him, lavishing him with praise and cookies when he responded to the cue to return to me. When he did return to me for the praise and cookies, Dexter was interrupting his chain of behavior and making a new one. Keeping in mind that I compete with the environment, I knew I had to make my reinforcement at least match the level of the environmental reinforcers, and hope to exceed that level.

The steps to change

As I worked with Dexter to reprioritize his response, I kept in mind the following guidelines:

  1. Manage the environment to set your learner up for success (start training in a low distraction location, for example, and add distractions gradually).
  2. Reinforce for anything moving in the direction of the eventual behavior.
  3. Use a high rate of reinforcement—keep it moving and keep it fun!

We practiced the recall a few times a week, gradually adding distractions to the mix. Each step earned Dexter a shower of praise and high-value reinforcers (reinforcement increases the frequency of behavior!). His response to the recall cue steadily improved to its former level.

Note that these practice exercises took place in a securely fenced (large) area. As an additional precaution, I taught Dexter an emergency recall using a whistle (three short bursts) for the times when coming when called would be a must. I managed Dexter by training in low-distraction locations.

While Dexter's issue was that he was absorbed by scents on the ground, there are other environmental distractions, including the presence of other dogs, noise, things with wheels, or children playing, to name just a few. The steps to change can be used any time there are distractions present by following the trail to reinforcement. Begin by describing the behavior itself (not what you think the animal is feeling), observe what opportunities allow the behavior to occur, identify the triggers to the behavior, and define what is reinforcing the behavior. Finally, describe what you want the dog to do and work backward, splitting the behavior into tiny, tiny steps.

Another example: My dog pulls on the leash!

puppy in the park

Follow the steps to change for this behavior challenge:

Describe the behavior

    Leash is taut. Dog is straight out in any direction, as far as the leash allows.

What opportunities allow the dog to practice this behavior?

    The leash allows the dog to roam as far out as six feet in any direction.

What are the triggers for this behavior?

    Other dogs, fence posts, places other dogs have marked

How is the dog being reinforced for this behavior?

    Pulling me brings the dog closer to the triggers.

What should the dog do instead?

    Keep the leash loose (J shape at collar)

How will the dog be reinforced for this alternate behavior?

  • Start in a boring place and reinforce ANY looseness in the leash.
  • Keep the action moving by ignoring unwanted responses and rewarding anything moving toward the desired behavior.
  • Introduce distractions very gradually.
  • Carry peanut butter in a feeding tube to reinforce in position and on the spot and to keep training fun.
  • Just as I taught Dexter an emergency recall for training in the real world, teach the dog to target. Have the dog reorient to the target when presented with an unexpected distraction.

What are the triggers for this alternate behavior?

    The leash itself becomes the signal to keep it loose. The dog learns that a loose leash create the opportunity for reinforcement.

What are the opportunities to practice this behavior?

    Each time the leash is attached!

Anywhere, anytime

Training dogs always means that you are in competition with the environment, indoors or out. The Relative Value Theory and the Matching Law are easily verified through real-life training in either environment: the stronger the reinforcer your dog is offered for the desired behavior, the better the odds are that your dog will respond.

If you can determine what reinforces a behavior, you hold the key to change.Multi-step training, always designed to set up the dog for success, takes time and patience. Sometimes the best plan is to use management tools, like controlling distractions—or even fences or leashes—or a combination of management tools and higher-level reinforcers, until the new behavior is fluent. For example, if I leashed Dexter, it would solve the problem of him failing to return when called. However, I have found that it is convenient for me to release Dexter outside to do his business while I stay in the warm doorway and out of the snow!

Long-term, the goal is fluent trained behavior. That ultimate end requires an analysis of the behavior (and what happens before and after the behavior), a talent for discovering your dog's favorite reinforcers, and lots and lots of practice! If you can determine what reinforces a behavior, you hold the key to change. Wishing you success—and fun—in any environment.

Originally published 4/1/2012.


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