Problem Solving Recalls

A dog struggles to figure it out
By Karen B. London PhD, August 2014, Updated June 2021

One day, Marley showed us a limitation in his problem solving ability when he failed to come when called. He just looked at me, cocked his head and stayed exactly where he was. That’s not like him, because he has a good recall. This was definitely not a matter of him being distracted or refusing by choosing to do something else rather than responding to my cue.

His recall may not be proofed in every situation yet, but at our house, it is rock solid. If he is able to come, he will do so when told. When I say, “if he is able to come,” I mean that if he can figure out how to get to me, he will head that way immediately. This time, he literally did not know how to reach me, even though he was standing in our backyard and I was only 20 feet away.

That 20 feet was not on the ground though. I was above him on the upstairs balcony, which does not have access to the ground floor. To respond to the cue appropriately and come to me, Marley would have had to run away from me to go through the backdoor downstairs, run through the house, up the stairs, through the hallway, into the master bedroom and exit through the sliding glass door to the balcony. I suspect he was unable to figure out that there was a way to come without running directly to me.

To help him solve this problem, we broke it down into three smaller steps. My kids called him to come inside and reinforced him for that. Then my husband called him from the top of the stairs, and also gave him treats. Finally, I called him from the balcony, and this time he was able to respond to my cue and be reinforced for doing so.

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It will take him additional practice to be able to do the entire recall from the backyard, into the house, up the stairs and onto the balcony, but he has progressed already. He can complete this complex recall in two steps now instead of three, and I expect that he will soon be proficient at the task which once completely befuddled him.

Has your dog ever struggled to come when called because of confusion about how to reach you?

Photo courtesy of the author

Karen B. London, Ph.D. is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression. Karen writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about canine training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life