Dog Trainer’s Diary – by Carol Lea Benjamin
One Comes, the Other Doesn’t
What to do if your dog won’t come when called.
My herding dog comes. A voice or hand signal will bring her close. If she’s playing with other dogs, enjoying a rich scent, chasing a rabbit, no matter. Call her, she’ll come. She comes quickly. She comes affably. She always has. I’m sure she always will.
‘’The call of the Wild’’
My spitz dog, he’s a horse of another color. He comes sometimes – when he’s on leash, when he’s indoors, when there are walls, fences, barriers, when there is no escape. Now, after a year of carefully planned, highly sporadic training (think: the shoemaker’s children), he has actually come when called in the great, wide, free out-of-doors – a couple of times.
Nordic dogs are not German Shepherds or Golden Retrievers, nor should we expect them to be. Most of them readily learn on-leash obedience work, some more easily than others. But most are considered ‘’runners,’’ that is, a dog who, given the chance, will take off. Many, when indulging in this propensity, will not even bother to turn around to thumb a nose at you as they go. In fact, although it may feel otherwise, their running has nothing to do with you. They were bred to pull or hunt, work which requires long distance travel. They are prone to ranging far from home.
A spitz type dog, his leash dropped or off, might hang around for a while, acting like any other dog. He might play, mark his territory, sniff the air or ground. He might cavort, like mine does, in a charming, expansive manner. Then, most likely, he’ll change. His face will close down. He’ll shut you out. He’ll become Nanook of the North. He’ll hear not your voice but the call of the wild. And in a second, he’ll be gone. He may run only a short way off, just far enough that he feels he’s gone, free, his own dog. If you call him, forget it! Zero. Nada. No way, Jose. He’s busy. When he’s done his thing, without ever noticeably noticing you, he’ll wend his way back. Or, he may take off and be gone for hours, even days, while you die a thousand times. Will he get hit by a car, lost, stolen? If he doesn’t and when he’s good and ready, he’ll return.
I grew up with dogs who always came when called. We never leashed our dogs back then. They’d hang out with us while we played stick ball or they’d come along to the beach and swim, drink water from the fountains, snack on grapes and jelly sandwiches. Whenever you called, there was your dog.
When I became a dog trainer, I worked with many Nordic or spitz breeds that came without argument on leash and in the house, but once outside, they’d take off like SSTs. Just before they left, their faces would change. Their eyes would look Siberian, narrow and remote. They would look almost wild. Suddenly I’d catch myself thinking about Jack London.
But that romance. The reality is that having a dog who will not come reliably is troublesome. It’s not only frustrating; it’s dangerous.
Teaching Your Dog to Come
So I’ve been working with Lefty. Here’s what I’ve done so far:
- I taught him basic obedience, making sure I always kept my role as alpha. Lefty tends to stare, but I do not let him stare himself into the illusion that he is top dog. (This is hard. He’s vain.)
- I use a combination of about ninety-three percent positive reinforcement to about seven percent or less ‘’coercion.’’ Coercion can mean a leash correction, a gentle hands-on correction (pulling legs forward for the down), raising one’s voice. My feeling is, and I have read this as well, that to train a Nordic dog roughly with a lot of negative reinforcement is to lose him. However, many books on these breeds say they should never be corrected in any way. I believe that since every dog is a pack animal, every dog needs to know you are alpha and that you can and will get your way, even if you have to resort to force, as distasteful as that might be to both of you. These charming breeds, like all other charming breeds, can walk all over you if you let them.
- In order to get a dog to come when he’s loose, first he must look at you. Without eye contact, you haven’t got a prayer. So while out walking my ‘’Nanook’’ I occasionally call his name. When he turns to look at me, I praise him and continue our walk. On his own, he began to come when I’d say his name. I always praise him royally for this.
- I sometimes let the leash drag, while still holding my end. Lefty pokes around, dragging part of the leash. When you do this from time to time, if you drop the leash by accident, it doesn’t feel very different to the dog and he won’t take off immediately. Eventually, when out in the country, I began to drop the leash. I only did this in a safe area. Sometimes Lefty would stay close and play. Once in a while, he’s run next door. Sometimes when he ran next door, he’d come when I called, which I do by bending down, extending my arms to the sides and using my sweetest voice. Yelling at a loose dog is not going to make him want to come close, particularly a dog who think he’s in Alaska looking for long lost relatives. On those occasions when Lefty wouldn’t come from the neighboring acre, I would storm over (quietly) and get him. I would do come, come, come all the way home with his leash, praise when I got him close, but not very warmly, and then I would not let the leash drop again for the rest of that day, or, if I was really annoyed, the rest of that weekend.
- I work Lefty with Scarlet several times a week. I have them sit and stay, on leash, then I call them in. He tries to beat her to me. This is good and I tell him so. Once I tied his leash to her collar, let them poke around (in the country) and then I called them. He’s shrewd. He knew he’d have to go where she went. So they came like bullets, right to me. One went on one side, one on the other. Suddenly I was flat on my back on the snow. I do not recommend this method.
- I’m still working, doing recall games and using a long line. Whether or not Lefty will ever be truly reliable off leash, I cannot say. But I am hopeful.
One comes. She always will. It’s in her genes as well as her training. The other comes sometimes. He’s improving, but we could use your help.
Carol Lea Benjamin is a professional trainer and teacher of other dog trainers. She is the author of four books about dog behavior and a recipient of the 1985 DWAA Writer of the Year Award and the 1985 Gaines Fido Award. She has been the author for this column for the past nine years.
AKC – Gazette – January 1988 – pages 24-25
We really wish to thanks Carol Lea Benjamin for letting us share her article with the members of the CFSC.
This article was published in the American Kennel Club Gazette in 1988 to celebrate the recognition of the Finnish Spitz by the American Kennel Club.
The Author’s blog: clbenjamin.wordpress.com