Can You Hear Me Now?

cocked head cropA woman stands in the middle of a park calling her dog. The dog, oblivious, continues to play with his friends. The woman calls out again, this time more loudly. No response. Finally, in a fit of frustration, she screams at the dog, grabs his collar, and drags him away. What’s happened here? Did the dog really not hear his owner calling?

Although it might seem like it, little doggy earflaps did not snap into place, sealing the dog’s inner ear canals. In this case, the most likely explanation is that the dog had learned through experience that when Mom calls at the park, it means it’s time to leave. Why would he possibly respond? (If Mom were smart, she’d start by practicing calling the dog to her at the park when nothing interesting was going on, rewarding him with a quick game of tug or something else he likes, then releasing him. She’d gradually build up to more interesting situations.) In this type of scenario, the dog is actually being conditioned that the word “Come!” means, “If you return to me, you can kiss fun goodbye, because your furry butt is leaving.” We see the same type of scenario when a dog gets out of an open yard gate and is happily racing around the neighborhood, having the time of his doggy life. Why come when called? It only means going home, and possibly even being yelled at. (Never yell at your dog once he’s come to you; he did what you asked.)

Another type of seemingly “selective hearing” can happen when a dog is emotionally over threshold. For example, two dogs get into a skirmish. Adrenalin and other stress hormones flood their systems. The dogs are in “fight or flight” mode, heavily invested in the former. In that extreme state of arousal, although a dog can still physically hear, it’s not likely he’s going to pay attention. His attention, of course, is laser focused on the matter at paw. When dogs fight, owners often scream their names, but I’ve never seen one stop and turn around as if to say, “Sorry? I was a bit busy tearing into Buddy here, did you need me for something?”

While there’s not much we can do once a dog is over threshold other than getting him out of the situation as calmly as possible, conditioning can help. Instilling a rock solid recall—building from a simple come when called in the house to one outdoors with heavy distractions—takes time, but is worth every minute of effort. Monitoring your dog’s body language and behavior go a long way toward allowing you to step in and successfully call your dog to you before he gets into trouble or goes over the edge of arousal. With steady practice and good observation skills, you won’t have to wonder, Can you hear me now? You’ll know, because your dog will respond.

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9 Responses to Can You Hear Me Now?

  1. CBandy says:

    I love your posts, this is such a simple topic but so SO important. I find a lot of folks don’t realize that once your dog returns to you it’s too late to be mad (even if you are)- just be super happy that they’ve returned and if it didn’t happen on the first “come” command, maybe do some more training!

    Thanks for being such a great resource.

  2. Very well written! It’s exactly like with our children (and horses as well for that matter.) I always enjoy your posts even though I don’t always leave a comment 🙂

    Have a great day!


  3. So very true. I remember from my dog psychology course our trainer saying your dog has to want to be with you.
    We are so proud of Maggie, her recall is instant, even when chasing that magnificent rabbit all those years ago. Cheerios breakfast cereal was Hubby’s training tool. Lots of praise and reward, then lots of praise, not so much food reward, just more fuss.

  4. Jade says:

    My childhood dog occasionally got out and would blissfully ignore our calls, running a couple more houses down the block as soon as we were getting close enough to grab him. I realized what my investment in training and agility classes really was with my current dog when he slipped out the open garage door once. I ran out to find him and as soon as I saw something furry in a bush down the block, I called. He came running back to me as fast as he could, tail wagging. I largely attribute this to agility and other games we like to play such as hide and seek (I hide while he stays, then he seeks me out on release). Play games with your dogs!

  5. Sue says:

    This was interesting to read as I am in the throws of dog park recall training with my younger dog. She can be a defiant brat, sometimes gets “grounded” for infractions (back on leash), but as time goes on, she realizes there are yummy treats and good girls dished out every time she comes back, she is slowly learning.

  6. Evelyn Haskins says:

    It is so sad to see this — people teaching their dogs that until Mum has screamed they can ignore her 😦

    It’s like the mothers who teach their kids that if they want that sweet/toy they’d better throw a tantrum, because Mum is going to wait for the tantrum before she’ll buy it!

  7. Great post, I always start my training with helping people to make sure their dog is being trained to look to them for permission to do what it is they want. Eye contact is very important, if your dog is not looking at you they are not paying attention.

  8. Can be very scary, too … saw a woman with two off-leash dogs heading across a semi-busy street today … one oblivious to her calls. When she finally caught him she stared the dog down and wagged her finger in his face — “You come when I call you, hear me?” I wanted to ask “how’s that working out for you?” but minded my own business.

  9. Chris says:

    Which of your books should I get …because I have a Shiba Ina rescued at 9 mths and is now 3 years old. He only responds to a recall command when HE wants. He kind-of looks at me then looks away. I close the patio door and before I can turn around he is already through the doggie door and right beside me. ???
    I have tried just about everything I can think of.

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