Last week we discussed raising our criteria to include some commitment before presenting the reward. For our purposes, commitment means any forward momentum. Especially early on, we really want to make sure we are reinforcing the choice (or the initiative) to move towards us on the first cue!
Realize, however, that even though I am giving these steps in a sequential order, one week apart, MOST dogs will need extra time on one or more of these steps! Creating the association and cultivating commitment are the most common steps that need extra time. Maybe two weeks, maybe a month… it all depends on your individual pup and the relationship you have already established with him!
Also realize that learning is not linear.
The reality is that Fido will make mistakes, or backslide occasionally. He may also suddenly “get it”, only to completely forget the next day!
Recalls are really the only cue that I never completely wean away from food. If my dog’s "sit" gets sloppy over time, and I have to “re-up” the training on that particular cue, it’s not generally a safety issue. If your recall degrades over time, you better believe that the time you need it most – when your dog is running full speed towards a busy street, for instance – that it won’t be there! Because of the absolute importance of this cue, I make it a point to reinforce with food (the food bowl, or an extra-special treat of some sort) intermittently throughout the life of the dog!
As you are moving into the maintenance phase (i.e., you are getting reliable results at the commitment stage), you can begin to reinforce more intermittently. I tend to transition to the reinforcement being related to the effort my pup puts in. If he lazily saunters my direction, stopping to sniff here and there, he may only get a few kibble. If he bee-lines past the neighbor’s fence-running dog, and comes straight to me, he may get half a cheese-stick (or other equally-valuable treat)!
As time passes, if you find that Fido isn’t committing as well as he was, then you may have spread the reinforcement schedule too thin – back up to more regular reinforcement and/or slightly lower the criteria to boost the intensity of his response, and think about whether there may be any other inadvertent punishers diminishing the behavior. For instance, if Fido is getting older and becoming arthritic, it may actually be painful to recall with any speed, or to climb the porch stairs to get to you (so come down the steps and recall from the ground level instead)!
Training your dog is like training your muscles – if you don’t use it, you lose it. So use that recall frequently in a variety of situations (easy and difficult), and be sure to keep reinforcing for effort. Intentional maintenance will keep your recall strong (and your pup safe) for your pup’s entire lifetime!