05/24/2013 03:58 pm ET Updated Jul 24, 2013

Teaching Your Dog to Come

There is a great line in a book by French writer Antoine De Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince. In a final exchange between the fox and the Little Prince, the animal reminds him, "One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes ... You become responsible forever for what you've tamed."

I can't say exactly why, but I'm reminded of this quote each time I read about new research being shared on the cognitive ability of dogs from institutions including Duke University and Barnard College.

Back when I started my dog training business in 1989, the general consensus in educated circles was that dogs did not, and moreover could not, have independent thoughts. Though us dog lovers stood by our claim that dogs have both personality and feelings, the naysaying scientist scoffed at us every time.

But times, they are a changin'. At Barnard, researcher Dr. Alexandra Horowitz (author of New York Times bestseller Inside of a Dog) leads a team of budding scientists as they track and record the intricacies of the social, play, and olfactory abilities dogs exhibit in naturalistic settings. Dr. Brian Hare heads a similar team at Duke University, and has published reports on his various theories and findings. Quite entrepreneurial, Dr. Hare has made his cognitive trails available online at, and is collecting data from all corners of the globe. The download options cost between $40 and $140, and provide a list of exercises to determine the degree to which your dog is attentive to and influenced by your hand gestures and expressions.

Have I preformed the Dognition test on my brood? Not yet. I'm not sure I need a series or exercise to convey what I already know -- that each one of my four dogs is brilliant and perfect in his or her own way. Still, it might be fun.

Which brings me to another longstanding fact that science now supports. Dogs are near-sighted. Utterly so. The average dog has the equivalent of 20/80 vision. While a dog's vision is tested on grey strips versus a letter chart, a dog can distinguish lines at 20 feet that are large enough for someone with normal human vision to recognize at 80 feet. While a dog's eyes have decidedly more rods versus cones than a human and a greater visual span (240 percent versus 180 percent radius of human sight), a dog's visual sense is more attuned to motion rather than color or definition.

So how do dogs recognize each other at great distances, and how do their social interactions equate to living with people who cannot keep paced with them? Often a visual example of normal dog interactions can drive the point home faster than a thousand words. To help my clients grasp this, I often bring one of my dogs to my private lessons to show my human clients the subtlety of canine interaction. A five-minute romp can illustrate wonders words can never describe. Dogs run side by side and rarely vocalize to each other unless to initiate play, settle a dispute, or alert to a distraction. They never ever stand still, stare, and bark at another dog -- that would be considered confrontational and bizarre.

A less confident dog will visually look to or reference a more self-assured dog. How do they figure out who is who? Through subtle, but generally consistent body cues exhibited during the early introductions. Once their roles are established -- which can take as little as five seconds or as long as a minute, depending on the dogs -- they exhibit a comfortable camaraderie, mixing play with side-by-side exploration.

The more confident dog does not need to bark at the top of his/her lungs, or assertively chase or pin the gentler dog -- his/her confidence reveals itself organically through their interaction. This is the best model out there for people interacting harmoniously with a dog, versus the authoritative model that asserts one's needs to physically dominate a dog to maintain respect.

The cue "come" is like the human phrase equivalent "huddle!" It's the ultimate invitation to reconnect. An attitude of play and camaraderie will go further in helping a dog learn to come than using fear and intimidation. As dogs are a lot like children who are drawn to fun and play, I start off using treats and toys to create a positive association to the cue "come!"

But there's one missing piece dog lovers shouldn't forget -- a well-researched truth the scientists routinely point out. Dogs are terribly near-sighted. While they're acutely aware of fast-moving objects and can see at 240-degree angles (we can only see at 180-degree angles), they still blur images together until they cannot be distinguished. For a dog who is beckoned by an otherwise still form, the cognition can get skewed.

As no dog is born knowing the definition of "come," they must be taught to associate the word to the action. There is a right way and a wrong way to do this. If the word is used alone, "come," when shouted, sounds more like a loud bark than a direction. "ComeComeCome" sounds more like a distress signal than an invitation to join you. Heaven forbid your voice escalates with impatience or you start chasing your dog to get his attention. In this dramatization, you stop being the loving, kind you that your dog trusts. You've transformed -- through one incorrectly-issued cue -- into a crazed version of yourself. To a dog who knows no better, it seems as if you've been possessed by an imposter. Life can be utterly confusing when you're a dog.

But there is good news. "Come" is an obtainable goal if you match scientific knowledge with a few positive-reinforcement-training tips.

Take a moment to wave your arms above your head. Stretch them high and wave them like you were in charge of directing jets on the tarmac. I know I know it's silly -- trust me; I call this move the "Human Exclamation Point." By pairing the "come" with an easily recognizable and exciting signal, your dog will be able to distinguish you from the background. Whenever I call a dog at a distance, I wave my arm high above my head as I call out its name and yell, "come," generally always running away from the dog to excite its curiosity.

By embellishing your dog's return with treats, toys, and positive interaction, you'll start to notice that not only does your dog return to you, but that he's more than happy to do it!

So, big thanks to the scientists who are just now confirming and normalizing our longstanding belief that dogs, like people, are capable of feeling, thoughts, and a range of personalities. We dog lovers will resist being catty in saying, "We told you so."

Instead we simply extend a hand and a metaphoric tail wag: Welcome!

Stay tuned for my followup post, "Does Your Dog Need Glasses?" where I will explore confusing phenomena, ranging from leash aggression, stair and car resistance, to poolside reactivity. Each of these things has one thing in common -- near-sightedness.

For more by Sarah Hodgson, click here.

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