Why won't my dog come back to me at the park? Is it because he doesn't respect me?
If you own a dog - you know this situation...
You're at the local dog park; you take your pooch off the leash so he can have a lovely unrestricted play... and then when you go to call him back, you get PEANUTS. No dice. Nada.
There you are, calling your dog... she may look back at you, or perhaps not, while she continues off on her merry way. She's probably:
Running off to meet another dog(s)
Wallowing in a muddy puddle
Begging for scraps/treats from anyone who will take notice
Sniffing around bins, barbecue areas, playgrounds, and school bags
Rolling in dirt and filth, or if you're lucky, a deceased bird/rat
Jumping up on other park-goers, much to their expressed dismay!
Commandeering and deconstructing someone else's squeaky toy
Scavenging for trash/tissues/discarded sports tape/possum poop
All of the above, simultaneously!
Regardless of what he/she is doing, the main point is, it doesn't include paying any attention to you. Why?!
There are a myriad of reasons that various sources will use to explain this situation. Some are valid, and quite frankly, some are really unhelpful.
For example, there's a myth that dogs will essentially "refuse to obey" their owners if they don't "respect" them as the "pack leader". This is a real injustice to dogs, as nothing could be further from the truth. We won't go into the full discussion here, but to debunk this theory in two fairly solid words: "science" and "evolution".
In comparison to humans, dogs are simple creatures. They are exceptionally talented and skilled in certain areas, but their spectrum of emotion is much less complicated than ours. They aren't motivated by money, appearances, or ego, for instance. Dogs are driven by basic, honest needs which enhance and facilitate their existence (e.g. food, toys, praise etc.) Essentially, dogs are always just doing the best that they know how to do - there are no ulterior motives. Advanced concepts such as respect, shame, and guilt, simply do not come into the equation. Dogs do what works for them. That's it.
We see the first rule of dog training is to accept (and celebrate) the fact that a dog is a DOG. It seems a facetious comment, but genuinely, many training complaints come from a place where the dog owner has not recognised that the behaviours expected from their dog are actually human, and not canine. Without human intervention, dogs would not need to walk nicely on a leash or refrain from sampling the kitchen bin - these rules and expectations may be considered natural or normal by humans, but by dogs, they are abnormal and unnatural. In fact, from a canine's point of view, these ideas are disadvantageous. Why would you deliberately slow down your pace when you are going somewhere exciting? Why would you deliberately refrain from eating that perfectly good sausage in the bin when it could be your last meal? Are you crazy, human?!
That doesn't mean to say we can't train our dogs to live by our fancy human rules, including coming back on command even when there's a party in the opposite direction. But here's the clincher. As owners, the respect should come from US! It is the dog owner's responsibility to respect the dog's canine intuitive, to take full ownership of the dog's behaviour, and to teach the dog the desired skills. Once we do this (and stop blaming the poor dog), anything is possible. Repeat after me: there is no such thing as a bad dog!
As a side note - it's extremely important during the skill teaching process (and really, during any interactions with your dog) that you come from a place of love, and not fear. Of course you should be a great leader for your dog, but not the kind of "leader" that popular culture has defined within the pet industry. Think of the qualities YOU would like in a leader. You wouldn't like to be governed/managed/cared for by someone who is forceful, tyrannical and frightening... would you? On the flipside, someone who is calm, benevolent, confident, encouraging and consistent would really make you feel comfortable, or even inspired... right? Be that person for your dog!
In view of the above, the reason your dog doesn't come back to you in the park is this: firstly, you probably haven't adequately trained your dog the skill of recall on command. This needs to be practised in a distraction-free environment first, in stages, before coming out into the park where your dog becomes the proverbial "kid in a candy store". Secondly, you clearly are not the most interesting thing at the park (sorry)! Your dog will cast his or her attention to whatever appears to be most important at the time - for a dog, this will usually be the opportunity to eat, explore, or socialise. If you're not entering the park full of energy, with a pouch full of tasty treats, perhaps a fun interactive toy, and an exciting, engaging voice... you're simply not the headline act!
The solution to your problem? EASY!
Have your dog returning on recall in these SIX basic steps:
1. Take full responsibility for your dog's behaviour, and respect him/her for being AWESOMELY canine.
2. Provide fun, short, frequent (daily) recall sessions at home using consistent, positive, reward-based training methods ONLY. It is imperative that you maintain your dog's trust at all times.
3. Start small (e.g. recall over 1 metre) and gradually increase - if your dog can't succeed during your recall practice, the degree of difficulty is too hard, so back it up a few notches and make it fail-safe.
4. Completely avoid taking your dog off lead in high-distraction environments until you genuinely believe he/she will return to you: if you continue to allow uncontrolled situations to occur, it will diminish your training. Choose quiet areas whilst still learning - not "doggy central park" at peak hour. The goal is to create opportunities for success for your dog, not opportunities to fail!
5. Always arm yourself with resources: primarily, a fun toy and some irresistible high-value treats. Treats are not what your dog eats for breakfast and dinner every day (boooring snoooring). Think roast chicken breast, tuna pieces, minced beef etc. If you prefer store-bought treats, go for the natural, ultra-premium types which are super enticing because they are full of REAL meat rather than wheat/corn/fillers.
6. Be the headline act! You wouldn't watch a concert if the lead singer was texting on his iPhone and the band were chatting amongst themselves, would you? Be EXCITING and FUN, project your voice, actively engage your dog, and move around. If you want your dog's attention, you need act like the star of the show!
We're certain that if you put these steps into practice, you'll have a dog who not only returns to you at a busy dog park... but watches your every move!
Let us know how you go, and happy teaching! :)
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