Get Back Here You Brat

One of the most cited reasons for the use of a shock collar is to get reliable recalls from a dog. It can be very challenging to come up with an alternative for a dog which is as, or more reinforcing, than doing whatever it is the dog is choosing to do rather than return when called. So people quickly choose to use other options for changing behavior and those are using punishment or negative reinforcement. If you’re not a trainer, don’t worry about all the training lingo. It’s helpful to understand it, but I think it’s enough to keep in mind that dogs will repeat behaviors they are rewarded for and will get better at behaviors they repeat.

Nibbles came to live with us just over a year ago. He spent a few months too afraid for us handle him. He’s over that now and is one of the most affectionate and engaging dogs in the house. But Nibs like to chase things. He likes to chase things he can see and things he can only smell the track they have left behind. When we went for our daily walk in the woods as soon as I unclipped the leash it was his cue to bolt. His body vibrated in anticipation of being able to run off and my calling him seemed to mean nothing.

On our walks it’s not that big of an issue. I like my dogs to have the opportunity to run in the woods and most of the time they either stick with me, or check in regularly. But Nibs also likes to chase joggers and bikers going by in front of our house. I knew that if I was going to stand a chance of getting him to come when I called him when he had a bike to chase, I’d need to get him to come to me when there wasn’t. He knows what to do when I say come and wait. He can perform both when there’s nothing else of interest around. I know that before we decide to use punishment with a dog we need to be sure that the dog knows and can perform the behavior we are asking of them*. I worked on ways to make it more likely that Nibbles would come when I called him at the start of our walks, where he was more likely not to come when called.

I used two leashes so that the sound and feel of a leash being unclipped ceased to be the cue for being able to race off. Haha Nibs, that’s when my bigger brain comes in handy! Well, except for the time I dropped the second leash and he took off dragging it along with him. That’s what fast reflexes will get a dog. I started going for walks before breakfast and using super good food treats along the way. When Nibbles didn’t come when I called him I took all the dogs and turned around and walked away from him. Running in the woods is fun and all, but it’s better with company. As a matter of course I give dogs treats when leashes come off. This keeps them sticking around for that, though in Nib’s case was not enough to counter the allure of the possibilities awaiting in the woods.

Here’s a video of where we are with his recall now.

Once I packed the camera up we joined Nibs and Sunny on the trail. They were running back down the trail to find us.

*When you are working with a dog with fear based behavior challenges you MUST factor in that a dog is not coming to you because they are afraid to do so. Don’t even consider punishing a dog for this.


28 comments so far

  1. Fluffy Tufts on

    Very useful advice!

  2. sara, oreo & chewy on

    Love your idea of treats whenever the leash comes off. Simple, yet brilliant.

    Oh yea, and the running in the opposite direction when your dog doesn’t come really does work, even though every bone in your body is telling you to run after the dog. They really should teach that in basic dog training courses.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I also hand out treats when I open doors or gates I’d rather not have them rush out.

  3. heather on

    Strange, my girl is “Brat Dog.” Can’t say she has reliable recall; not that we have off leash spots that are legal. Her reactivity has greatly improved, but not quite to where I’d want to let her run. However, the more I can work her and show her to come back to me–>the less she feels the need to react.

    So, watching you with Nibbles really helps. I can figure out where to tweak things with my own brat. And reminds me our progress will come if I’m consistent and give it regular practice.

    What huge progress the two of you have made in a year. (Although, I know it’s been pace by pace.) One can see just how much happier he is. Funny that he and Sunny pal together.

    I like that you “cued” his release, so it gave him something other than the “click” of the leash to focus on. Really gets him to focus on you.

    Love the two leash trick. We’ve suggested people use that with dogs who like to “take over” the leash on their walks. Poor pups look so confused when things don’t work anymore!!


    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Heather. We’ve still got work to do, but I was pleased to get here with him. One of the reasons Nib’s behavior is important to me is because he and Sunny are my two dogs who are most afraid of people and it’s a dangerous combo. Without Nibs around Sunny has a solid ‘wait’ on cue. But it becomes less stable when he has another dog moving toward a trigger. I am comfortable walking Sunny on his own around people, and being able to manage him, but when another yappy little dog is sounding the alarm and chasing something, it’s upped the ante as far as distractions go, for Sunny.

      I’m going to have to go back to working on Sunny’s ‘wait’ behavior with Nibs as a distraction. It never ends!

  4. Ashley on

    Love it… I want my dogs to want to come back ! Shelby my Japanese chin mix has a solid recall now which is great when she reverts back to her reactive stages. Working on her recall also helped build our bond and her confidence which made her less reactive. she learned to trust me to keep her safe instead of taking matters into her own hands …. The double leash thing is brilliant by the way!!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for reading and commenting Ashley. They keep us on our toes! Nice that your chinX has got that recall going. I still have work to do with Nibbles but I love seeing him come blasting back to me more often than not.

  5. jan2bratt on

    I have only recently begun reading your blog and this is my first comment. Wanted to say I appreciate your point of view and your tips. My dogs are not fearful but I like learning all I can about training. I just got a new year and a half old dog in Sept. and am working on training her, especially on recall. She does great except when she doesn’t;-) I’m lucky that I have my own 40 acre property in the country, I call it my dog park. So when she does run off she is still home, and she returns very quickly but not necessarily when I have called her. I want her to not chase the deer or my llamas or the neighbors animals. I know she will improve with familiarity and with work. I love having a young dog again! My other two are a 15 year old Border collie and a 12 year old Golden Retriever, both rescues in the past 2 years. Lost my 14 year old Pit Bull in June, had him since he was born. So I was ready for a young dog again! And this is why I need to refresh my skills in dog training. So thanks for your blog!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Glad you found the blog Jan and thanks for sharing your family story with us. It is nice to have young dog energy around. One of the tricks with livestock chasing is to never let the dog discover how much fun it is. My dog Annie, a cocker discovered fish chasing this summer and couldn’t quit. It’s legal thank goodness and not likely to get her shot. At least my border collie just herds animals to me.

  6. engineer chic on

    Wow, Nibbles is doing great! I am someone who did/does use an e-collar for recall training. It is definitely not the best choice, but the only one I was aware of at the time to ensure compliance.

    Have you ever looked at the collars that have a vibrating feature in them (like a pager), if so -what’s your thought on using the vibrate mode as a physical stimulus when verbal stimulus isn’t working? Our e-collar has that function and I’ve toyed with teaching it as another cue for COME. It would let me keep my “security blanket” of a remote way to get his attention when a squirrel or something more powerful than my voice is present. I haven’t used the correction in so long I wonder if he still knows what to associate it with. But a buzzing/vibrating sensation isn’t painful, so it could be used as another form of communication. Thoughts?

    • engineer chic on

      Hmm, that’s clear as mud … What I’m trying to propose is:
      Train S to know that “pager-vibration-feeling” = “Come” so that if he’s in a situation that a verbal command doesn’t work, I have another way to communicate with him.

      So the word and the vibration feeling become interchangeable (neither are bad, both mean the same thing). But since its 2 different forms of communication I’ve given myself a backup if one mode doesn’t work. Like if we are at the beach and he starts chasing seagulls, or in the woods and he is facing off with a hissing possum.


      • fearfuldogs on

        You could certainly have two cues for the same behavior. What will you do if he doesn’t come after the second cue?

        The reason that dogs usually don’t come when called, when they would do so in another situation is because there is a competing reinforcer (i.e., something better to do than come). The cue at that point is inconsequential, it’s the reinforcer that’s keeping the dog engaged in doing something else. You could have 20 cues and the dog still wouldn’t come.

        If the dog finds the vibration aversive (he doesn’t like it) and comes to you when he feels it, because it stops when he comes, it’s a negative reinforcer, not a cue. The dog learns that in order to avoid the nasty vibration he needs to come when called.

        You are thinking about changing what is happening before the behavior you want, but it’s the consequence of the dog’s behavior that is going to either keep him facing off with the possum or running back to you.

        This is exactly what I am working on with Nibbles. Coming when I call, regardless of what else tempting is out in the world. It is a very challenging behavior to get reliably because chasing stuff is so reinforcing, and it’s difficult to proof the behavior with real possums 😉

    • fearfuldogs on

      Good questions. The higher quality ecollars have a range of stim levels, some over 100. The ones sold in most petshops usually have 3.

      You want to be clear about how the collar works. Certainly one could teach a dog that a particular sensation, one that was not painful or unpleasant was a cue to perform a behavior. But there’s no reason why that would need to replace a verbal cue, unless the dog was deaf or too far away to hear their handler. Either the dog has a recall on cue or not. Whatever that cue is.

      If you want to use an ecollar to get a recall, when there are distractions, what you will be doing is using it as a negative reinforcer, which means the dog learns that by returning to their handler after hearing the cue, the sensation ends. Whatever that sensation is; vibration, mild shock, or searing pain. If it’s not something that the dog finds aversive enough and the alternative is more reinforcing, like chasing a squirrel, than it will likely be disregarded as well. It’s not a separate ‘cue’. Make sense?

      I am not recommending that you use one or not, just that if you do, it’s important to understand the principle of how the equipment gets dogs to perform behaviors (in your case, a recall). The dog needs to know the behavior they are suppose to perform and they need to be taught exactly what to do when they experience the shock, so they can make it stop.

      There are not many trainers, even those who use them routinely, who use them correctly or humanely. Some will argue that they can never be used humanely. I’m not going to have that discussion. What I think is important is that people understand the potential fallout that can occur if they choose to use an ecollar. It’s easy to stop a behavior by using powerful punishment, but you can also see dogs who don’t really understand what is happening, or why, and so develop superstitious behaviors or phobias to events, objects, or locations, along with not running away.

      • engineer chic on

        The collar we have is one with 100 levels. S was trained so that if he listens on the first command, nothing happens. Second command gets a pulse (at 12, the lowest level he responds to). Third time gets another pulse, at 13. And so on until he starts heading in my direction. Personally, I can’t feel a thing from the collar until I’m at 20 on the dial, but apparently he can. Its a momentary shock (it’s called “nick” on the button) so it isn’t the same as the collars where you keep punishing until the behavior stops.

        I’m still not saying this is a GOOD training method. The way it was explained/sold was that the physical sensation of the collar is like a tap on the shoulder, which breaks the dog’s focus on whatever has their attention. Which is why I was thinking that if the pager/vibrating function wasn’t painful, I could use it for the same purpose.

        You are right that the dog has to be trained to know how to respond to the shock or it’s just painful and frustrating for him. Which is kind of feeding my concern – if my dog obeys reliably and I don’t hit the shock (“nick”) button for 8 months, will the dog remember what it means when he feels it? Or will he think, “What the hell was that? I’m outta here!” 8 months isn’t an exaggeration, I can’t remember the last time I hit that button.

        This is a serious limitation with these collars. You can’t use them to reinforce a behavior or practice it, only punish the lack of the behavior. But if I can use the pager function to “tap the dog’s shoulder” then we could practice with it. Sorry for rambling about this!

  7. fearfuldogs on

    It’s not rambling. If people are going to use these pieces of equipment they should understand how they work. The basics are include understanding what negative reinforcement and punishment do, and the difference between them and a cue. If you understand these you are more likely to come up with a successful plan to work with your dog.

    You CAN use them to reinforce behavior. That’s what negative reinforcement does. They get shocked until they perform the behavior you want. In your case it’s ‘heading in your direction’. You can either deliver a series of smaller shocks or a longer continuous one.

    There is never ‘lack of a behavior’ unless they’re dead. The dog keeps barking at the possum instead of coming when called. They can be punished to learn to stop barking at the possum. It does not teach them what they are suppose to do instead.

    I understand how ecollars are used in training but I don’t use them, so I don’t know how frequently dogs ‘forget’ what to do when they experience the shock but I think your concern that a dog might bolt is valid. I would imagine there are a number of different variables that would contribute to whether they do or don’t.

    • KellyK on

      This is a really interesting conversation about e-collars. I wanted to point out that if all you want is a “tap on the shoulder” signal, there are collars that only vibrate and don’t shock at all. That’s not to say that a dog might not find vibration on their neck weird or unpleasant, but it means that you can’t accidentally shock the dog or have the collar malfunction and get “stuck” delivering a shock.

      There might be situations where a vibrate cue works better for the dog than a voice cue. But I think in most of those, it would be simpler and easier to fix the underlying problem with how you’re using voice cues. Like, for example, if you say your dog’s name frequently in conversation, it loses value as a cue. Or if you use a cue that sounds too similar to another cue for the dog to know which one is meant. Both of those could be fixed with a physical cue, but they could also be fixed by making the vocal cue clearer. The same way, if your dog is getting out of earshot quickly, the solution to that might be training them to stick closer to you or keeping them on a long leash most of the time. (Dogs have pretty good hearing, so I’d be nervous letting a dog get out of earshot.)

      If a dog were hard of hearing, but not totally deaf yet, it might make a ton of sense to start training with both verbal and tactile cues, so that when his hearing goes completely, he’ll already know the meaning of the tactile ones.

      • fearfuldogs on

        Thanks for that info Kelly. Dogs being shocked by accident or more than intended does happen.

        Setting it up so that the cue is easier for the dog to understand and remains relevant are good points.

      • engineer chic on

        You know, I just remembered that I have dummy-prongs for the collar we have (plastic nubs that screw in place of the metal ones and don’t deliver a shock because they aren’t conductive). I will have to try that!

        S isn’t deaf or even hard of hearing. My personal hang-up is that if he ever took off chasing a chipmunk or something on an off leash walk, and if he got lost, he is gone forever. He is deeply distrustful of strangers and I feel he’d become a coyote snack or die alone before he would approach a stranger or allow himself to be captured. So, if I can’t get him back (which means get his attention off a chipmunk) the outcome is horrible.

        We have trained with lots of distractions in our own yard, at the dog park, and in the ball fields nearby but none of those are as exciting or as fast as a chipmunk. I use chipmunk as the example because its probably the most exciting prey he’s ever seen. Fortunately, my fear of losing him makes sure we practice off leash recall in lots of places and the magic word is only spoken when I mean it (we spell it out the way other people spell cookie or walk around their dog).

        Maybe it’s a mental block for me, but having no back up plan for if my voice doesn’t work is too scary (it’s like putting a freshly cleaned and unloaded gun to my head, I know nothing will happen but I still wouldn’t pull the trigger). But disabling the shock feature and training him to respond to the vibration … That might work and its something we can practice.

  8. Lynn on

    I’m just back from taking my neighbor’s geriatric old pooch to the vet after my reactive dog, Jasmine, attacked her (goodbye $320). We were outside, practicing recall, ironically, while I was doing yard work and she was playing and running around with Tulip. We’ve been making progress on Jazzie’s lunging and barking at cars and people when she’s on the leash, but this off-leash aggression is fairly new, and has been directed (so far) at a couple of female dogs. I’ve been careful not to let her near those dogs, and she’s been OK with this one in the past. I assume it’s stress or fear-related aggression, but I must say it really looks as though she enjoys a fight. Almost as bad is that Tulip, my fearful dog, started to join in today, although she backed off when I yelled at her (something I very rarely do). I don’t want to use an e-collar on Jazzie, but she gets aroused so fast I need something to get her attention. I’m almost certain it’s a bad idea, but I’m feeling pretty stressed out myself right now. I’ve never had an aggressive dog before.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Sorry to hear this.

      An aroused dog can redirect onto something near them when they experience the shock unless they have been proofed with distractions with the collar.

      You are right that there is an element of ‘enjoyment’ to fighting. No one would play hockey otherwise I suspect. Fear and aggression are linked in the brain.

      I know the sinking feeling of having a dog who bites. I had to get used to a new level of management that I never had to think about before.

    • engineer chic on

      So sorry to hear this, you must feel terrible right now. I am not a trainer, so take this with a grain of salt, but the class we took S to had a LOT of reactive and dog-aggressive dogs in it. It was sort of odd being there because S loves other dogs, he is just petrified of people. But if you haven’t tried this, you may want to call around to different training places and see if they have a class for dogs with issues (something with positive reinforcement). I was surprised to see how many dogs were at our big group sessions, there is definitely a market for it and hopefully a skilled training facility near you has recognized it.

  9. Lynn on

    Well, thank you both for the sympathetic understanding, which helped more than you might think. I’ll look into training in group classes. We’re also going to call a behaviorist near us for a consultation at home, and we’re figuring out an affordable fence. No more exploring rabbity woodland or pastures …. Sad.

    The trainer at the shelter Jasmine came from said that once a dog has engaged in aggressive behavior, it’s pretty much for life. But I just saw a picture of a reunion of some of the dogs rescued from Michael Vicks, actual fighting pitties, and they looked calm and happy, all sitting together. Any opinion on whether she might get past it? And do you think negative “training” is ever effective? If something works in the heat of the moment (like my yelling at poor Tulip when she was over-aroused), won’t it somehow stick that the behavior is unacceptable?

    • fearfuldogs on

      All dogs have the potential to be aggressive. That they are or not will depend on a combination of a genetic predisposition and environmental influences. My border collie, an incredibly tolerant dog, snapped at a vet removing stitches from his paw. The conditions were right for him to behave aggressively. He has not since behaved aggressively at the vet clinic and he’s been getting routine chemotherapy treatments. The techs love him. But should conditions exist which cause him to be stressed, by pain, restraint or fear, he might snap again. My cocker doesn’t require much for her to behave aggressively. My collie can tolerate more.

      Behavior can help us predict future behavior, but it’s not quite so cut and dry. What we can learn from aggression is not that a dog can or will be aggressive, but what conditions cause the behavior to occur. We can then manage the dog to avoid those conditions. Dogs under stress may behave very differently than they might when that stress is removed. No doubt that while living with Vick those dogs were stressed. In any population of animals there will be some who are resilient enough to recover and not be permanently effected negatively by their experiences. There are others who will be. Basing our handling of dogs on the best case scenario, meaning that dogs will recover, is dicey. This leads people to use methods and techniques that may be too stressful for some dogs.

      Better to err on the side of caution and avoid adding stress to a dog’s life whenever possible. Punishment adds stress. Some dogs will be fine with this. But unless we know that they WILL be (and that comes from observing the animal over time) we need to be careful.

      By negative training I assume you mean punishment. And of course it can be effective. Animals learn to behave in ways so as to avoid being punished. But whether or not that information ‘sticks’ depends on other factors. If conditions exist which are likely to cause the inappropriate behavior to occur and the outcome is reinforcing for the dog, then the punishment you provide in the form of yelling at the dog, may not outweigh the alternative option available to the dog. Can you ‘up’ the punishment to outweigh the alternative? Depends on the behavior you are dealing with. Unfortunately what happens with the use of punishment in the form of shock is that it is just continuously increased. The dog, in a state of arousal, has a decreased sensitivity to pain, for one thing. Their body is experiencing the pain, but their brain isn’t factoring it into the decision making process.

      Or the dog experiences the pain and stops, but they have not put two and two together and understand what we want them to understand. Some may associate the pain with things in the environment. There are dogs who when they experience the shock may not stand in a particular location again. I had a dog who for weeks would not walk down the road toward a neighbor’s house a 1/2 mile away because he was shocked by their sheep fence.

      If we need to use punishment to stop a behavior for one reason or another we should be aware of whether it’s a stop gap measure to manage that situation, or are we using it for educational purposes and expect the dog to learn from it. If the dog continues to perform the inappropriate behavior after being punished, we need to assume that they are NOT learning from it and find an alternative treatment. This treatment usually involves the use of systematic desensitization and counter conditioning and teaching an alternative, incompatible behavior which is acceptable to the dog. By acceptable I mean it is one which the dog feels ok about. Teaching a dog to sit quietly while a scary toddler pets them is not an acceptable alternative behavior. Grabbing a toy and having you throw it, might be, when a child is around.

  10. Lynn on

    Thank you so much for taking time to explain. We’re working on counter-conditioning with Jazzie for her leash-reactive problems, but I was wondering if a shock when she’s actually attacking a dog would make her averse to approaching that dog. Like your dog, for many weeks she refused to cross a stone wall in the woods after we all got stung in that spot, so she’s swift to interpret things. A shock collar would be only a stop gap measure to go with more positive training. But I doubt I’ll use it. For one thing, I really don’t want to chance another attack, so it’s better to restrain her. And I really don’t want to hurt my girls. Thank you again for taking so much time.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      I’m happy to do what I can. Punishment is always just a ‘stop gap’ measure in a sense. We use it to end behavior. If it does, we move on to teaching the appropriate behavior. When we are dealing with behaviors which are caused by a strong emotional response, it’s best to try to change the emotion, and we can’t punish fear out of a dog.

  11. Mark on

    I think what I have to contribute might be useful. One comment on GPS units for dogs that are runners, and the other on e-collars.

    ” My personal hang-up is that if he ever took off chasing a chipmunk or something on an off leash walk, and if he got lost, he is gone forever. He is deeply distrustful of strangers and I feel he’d become a coyote snack or die alone before he would approach a stranger or allow himself to be captured. So, if I can’t get him back (which means get his attention off a chipmunk) the outcome is horrible.” – engineer chic

    I have two dogs currently. I use an e-collar on both. One is a runner – known to escape and take off for that long wander. The other is still young, and loved chasing deer. Would STILL love chasing deer, but he is good enough now that he will usually NOT do so when told not to, and when he does he will stop halfway across the field (belatedly obeying the command, but in sight), instead of 5 miles away.

    The GPS collar unit is GREAT! The runner is a hound. She is moderately well trained – but sometimes will still choose to escape the fenced backyard, when she can do so without being noticed, and go for a long distance sniff and wander. So, she wears a GPS unit. If you can afford an e-collar, you can afford the similar GPS unit. Works like a charm, so long as you have cell-phone reception. When she goes, I can go to where she has gotten to.

    As to the e-collar – I have learned a GREAT deal from this blog, the author’s book, and another, similar book, “Control Unleashed”. The positive methods, and the idea of focus, have been extremely helpful and useful. However, the e-collar has also been useful for me. I use it on the lowest setting I can – to get the dog’s focus back to me when they are having a distraction problem. When the distraction is too urgent – for instance when another dog has entered their space aggressively – I don’t use it. Ditto when they are happily greeting people (They are both exceedingly friendly, to the point of rudeness, and I can’t train strangers how to use calming signals, because by then it is already too late! So I try to stop the run and greet behavior.) I did buy a higher-end model, so I do have a range of shock available. My model also has a “beep” mode – that you could use like a clicker if you were diligent – for a positive note.

    Ultimately, I think Ms. Jacobs’ positive methods are best. Since my time for training is limited, using both positive and negative allowed me to get results more quickly. I also agree with Ms. Jacobs that the dog needs to know what to do first, before using a negative technique. These dogs knew the appropriate behavior, but were having distraction issues. I was reinforcing that I wanted their attention NOW – more like an extended lead snap. Positive reinforcement comes first in our training. But the e-collar has been useful. For instance, the runner above used to bolt when released from lead. I never thought of the two-lead solution, another example of what I have learned from reading Ms. Jacobs! But, the e-collar served as an extended lead. It took one mild bump from the collar to establish that off-lead was not what it used to be. So long as she knows I am there, I can get her to come on command now. Having established that, we have gradually improved her behavior over the past year or so. I don’t think I have used the e-collar on her twice in that time.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for your comment.

      I think it’s important for people who may be thinking about using e-collars that they understand that the ones routinely sold in pet shops typically have only 3 settings for shock intensity. The lowest setting may be too low and the next setting up may be too high. Don’t buy one.

      The first step to using an e-collar is to train all the desired behaviors using positive reinforcement. If more people were able to do this they likely wouldn’t need additional pieces of equipment for training. Before we use punishment to stop behaviors or negative reinforcement to get behaviors, we make sure that the dog knows and is fluent in the behavior we want. When teaching recalls dogs remain on leash or long line when the shock is introduced as a consequence so that the dog can be shown the appropriate response for ending or preventing the application of it.

      I share this info not as a primer for using or encouragement to use a shock collar but because if people ARE going to use them they should do their homework and know what they are doing. I am also not directing my comments specifically to you Mark, but rather as a general contribution to the discussion of this piece of training equipment.

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