The problem seems simple enough. They want to be able to get Working Cocker Milo’s focus and attention on them when the are out.

When the eight-month-old has his head under a hedge or down a hole, when he’s playing excitedly with other dogs, he goes deaf.

Attention has to be earned

They want Milo’s prompt attention and to focus on them when they call him.

Anyone with a Working Cocker will know that, without training and repetition, he will freelance with his own breed-specific behaviours.

My own Cocker, Pickle, does what I call ‘Pickling’. He runs about sniffing with tail wagging, intent on a scent. He is bred to be focussed on the job, and sniffing is the job he’s bred for – whether picking up the scent of a fallen bird or drugs.

The result of a combination of things

It’s interesting how so many cases start off sounding like a simple problem. Once I start questioning it opens up other things that seem insignificant in themselves, but that contribute to the overall problem.

With Milo I quickly found out that when they call him in from the garden, if he’s ‘busy’ he will come when he is ready.

I also found out that there was nothing ‘in it for him’ to come when called. They had stopped using rewards of any kind a while ago.

It was the same with other things they might want him to do. By nature he is calm and easy going and probably this is why Milo’s giving them his attention in his own good time rather than straight away hasn’t impacted on them.

The other thing is that they leave his food down – so food rewards will have less value anyway.

Undoing old habits and building new habits

Now they will call him many times – either when he’s coming anyway or when he’s not got his attention on something else.

In the house.

In the garden.

Multiple repetitions.

They will make it worth his while. This could be with food or it could be fun.

I suggested they build up an instant response to a whistle, always pairing it with something specially rewarding. A whistle hasn’t been associated with ‘I will come when I’m ready’!

Practice makes perfect.

Constant rehearsal is the answer whilst never calling or whistling when he’s not going to come. It’s a waste of time and simply teaches him ‘come’ is optional.

For now on walks they will use a long line. They can drop it for him to play with other dogs.

How will they make it worthwhile for him to give them his attention?

What is the competition?

If it’s a vole under a hedge or a rabbit down a hole, then because of his single-minded nature he may well not hear anyway. Eventually when that whistle has been prepared properly, he will know that something very good will happen and it will get through to him.

With Pickle I would probably have a toy soft animal and immediately he looks at me and gives me some attention, I would squeak it and throw it! I would initiate an exciting game, pop the long line and continue playing.

Calling and immediately putting the lead on and stopping play would be a deterrent to coming.

If Milo’s playing with other dogs, again it depends upon how well the whistle has been prepared whether they are ready to use it. Stand on the long line, whistle and then, lifting the line, maybe go for a run with him. (Unless he’s a dog that would die for food, which Milo isn’t, the reward should be relevant. Think up something!).

The reward should be relevant

So, no more rehearsing ‘wait till I’m ready’ and lots of rehearsal of ‘I’m coming! What have you got for me now?’.

Finally, use variety. Different foods, toys and games. Keep him guessing. You can never compete with nature for variety, but you can do your best.

It goes without saying that as the walk should be Milo’s walk, his needs for sniffing should be fully indulged. When lockdown is over, scent work classes would suit him perfectly.

Feedback two weeks later: “..the past couple of weeks have been completely different, he has come in every time we have asked – since we spoke 🙂 we always have a little something in hand ready too. We have introduced his food through the kong, which he absolutely loves too. He has got so much better at listening to the point that he is off the lead, we have made so much progress in two weeks it’s been amazing.

NB. For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete ‘report’ and is always written with permission of the client. If you listen to ‘other people’ or find instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog it can do more harm than good. Click here for help