Mar 11

Come When Called

If your dog does not come when called, you don’t have a dog……author unknown.

There is nothing more frustrating than trying to chase a dog that plays “keep away” when you are calling it to come to you. This post is a bit lengthy, as it is actually a chapter I am working on for an e-book.  But since the weather is already turning warm in some areas of the country, and people are anxious to get outside with their dogs, I wanted to go ahead and share a few tips on improving your dog’s response to the come command (also commonly called a “recall”).

Real World Versus Show Ring

In the show ring, the dogs sit quietly, totally intent on watching their owner, then fly toward them when they hear the command “come” or “here.“ They then sit beautifully straight in front of their owners, and even swing around to heel position when asked to do so.

These perfect “recalls” rarely exist in real life, even when a show dog is called outside of the show ring. Why? First of all, the conditions are rarely the same. When we are calling our dogs to come, in the real world, they are usually busy doing something else, not waiting patiently for our command.

Also, in real life, we usually are not standing still with our arms at our sides (see photo) when we are calling our dogs, so the "recall" that our dogs are taught in many dog training classes does not resemble the type of recall we need when our dogs are off-leash in a different type of environment.

How can we improve our dogs compliance to this most important of requests?

First, consider what the word “come” now means to your dog. Have you called him to you when you are going to do something unpleasant to him, such as clean his ears or poke a pill down his throat? We have all done this, but unfortunately, this is one reason that some dogs hesitate before coming when called, and sometimes will not come at all.

Three Easy Rules To Remember

The number one rule is…your “come command” should always mean something wonderful is about to happen. If your dog has already decided that coming is optional, why not change the word you use? The word “here” is a very good one, and most of us cannot say this word without a cheerful tone to our voice.

Speaking of which…rule two is…always call your dog in an upbeat tone of voice, even when you are panicked because he is darting away in a dangerous place. If you yell like you are furious, he may be afraid to come to you. If you keep your tone high and upbeat, he is more likely to choose coming over running. As he begins to come in to you, “bridge” that time between when he made the decision to come, and the time he reaches you, by praising him “that-a-boy, yes, yes, good boy” so that he realizes he is doing the right thing, and also so that he remains focused on coming in to you, and is hearing lots of positive feedback while coming in.

Rule three pertains to managing the circumstances. If your dog is in a position where he is very unlikely to come when called, such as off-leash playing with the next door neighbor’s dog, do not even call him. He does not need more practice ignoring the recall command. In this case, simply go to your dog, take his collar and snap his leash to it. Many dogs, such as Beagles,can become so intent on sniffing something that they will not hear you even if called in their own backyard. If you can tell your dog is on an “intense sniff”, simply walk over to him and snap a leash to his collar, as opposed to calling him to you. Until your dog has proven that he can respond to your command reliably, he should not be expected to come off-leash. Calling him when you know he is not going to come to you is just giving him practice in not coming.

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Train in Reliability

Remember the 21-28 day rule? It takes 21-28 days of daily repetition before sometimes becomes automatic behavior, so you must work consistently on all recall exercises for a month’s time before you can start expecting reliability around distractions. If you skip the weekend, then your training month starts all over again, because good habits are only formed with daily repetition for 28 days.

Also it is important to realize that dogs “pattern-train” easily, but they do not generalize well. For example, recall exercises practiced in the living room are not the same to the dog as recall exercises practiced outside in the backyard. Recall exercises outside in the yard are not the same thing to the dog as the exact training exercise practiced in the park. Once your dog understands what you want and starts responding to your recall command, then you must vary the locations in your daily practice. If you want a dog that comes when called in the backyard, then a month’s practice in the backyard should start producing a reliable recall. But if you want a dog that responds under distractions, then you must make an effort to consistently

Okay, how do we train in reliability around distractions? Start by walking your dog on his regular leash. Let him get a little bit ahead of you, then say “Fido, Here” in your most cheerful voice, and run backwards, away from him. If needed, you can hold a treat at his nose level as a lure to pull him towards you (but if he will come without the food treat, then do not use it). When he is just a step or two away from you, you can pull the treat upwards if you wish to lure him into a sit in front of you, or you can simply praise and pet, then take off walking again, repeating this several times during each walk.

After your dog is doing well on a regular six foot leash, or his retractable leash, then change to a longer leash, such as a 15 foot cotton web long line. Let him get further away before you call him. As he becomes reliable with distance, you can progress even to a 30 foot leash, and add distractions by having someone bounce a ball or hold another dog on leash nearby. You can also go to an open area and let your dog play fetch without holding on to the long line, just let him drag it so he feels as if he is off-leash, then call him. If he should not come, you can simply pick up the leash, take up the slack and give a quick collar correction (do not pull him in like you are reeling in a fish, simply give a very quick tug as you repeat the command, so that he “wakes up” and realizes that you are calling. Run backwards while clapping your hands if needed to encourage him to come when further away.)

Be sure to reward with things that your dog really likes. If it is a squeaky toy or ball, then incorporate these as rewards, instead of depending on just food and/or praise. Many dogs really love silly, upbeat talk even more than they like food treats or toys. Know your dog, and use motivators that he finds valuable.

Another easy exercise to instill a positive response to a “here” command is the “come and get it” game. Practice in a confined area, such as your kitchen or hallway indoors. Show your dog a treat, then say “get it” and toss it a couple of feet away (not too far away, make sure he can see it.) As he takes the treat say “good” and then quickly say “here!” showing him that you have another treat for him, which you give him as soon as he arrives, just after you again give praise. Make absolutely sure that your verbal praise marker (good! or yes!) comes BEFORE the treat. In this way you are conditioning your dog so that eventually the verbal praise can be used alone. In the beginning however, coming to you should pay off every time.

Here's another tip, as your dog catches on to these recall exercises, then start reaching down and touching his collar as you say "good" and give the food treat (or toy, whatever the reward is) after you touch the collar. Practice "collar holds" even as a separate exercise, reach for your dog's collar, while saying "good, gooooooood boy". The reason you want your dog conditioned to believe that when you reach for his collar it is a great thing is because if he gets away from you on leash, then when he comes when you call, you will want to be able to reach for his collar without him trying to play "keep away".

Repeat several times in one session, and do several of these sessions a day the first week. The following week, play the two person recall game .Each person has small treats, about the size of a Cherrio™. One person holds the dog by the collar, while the other person gives the “Fluffy, here!” command, luring the dog in with a treat. Then they hold the collar while you give the command. Quickly go to variable reinforcement, varying the types of treats you are giving and not giving the treat each time, so the dog never knows what is coming. Dogs trained with these simple exercises quickly can go to playing “hide and seek” in the house, where you can go around the corner and call him when you are out of sight, rewarding him when he arrives, and eventually you can go into another room and call him. This type of recall practice is very practical, as you may not always be in the dog’s line of sight when you need to call him in “real life.”

Make sure that neither you, or any children in the dog’s life, play “chase” games with the dog. Dogs who are allowed to play “catch me if you can” will certainly be the hardest ones to convince that a “come” or “here” command should be heeded.

Also, make sure that your bond with your dog is strong, and reward your dog with a smile and praise anytime he looks towards you, even if you have not called him. Your relationship with your dog will be a strong factor in whether or not you will be able to get him to come when called off-leash. Also, keep in mind that certain dogs have the instinct to run in their genetic make-up, so they may never be able to be trusted off-leash outdoors without a special training collar (such as a Siberian Husky--it is difficult to “take the run out” of a sled dog.) Many of these dogs have high prey drive, meaning they will chase and sometimes even kill small animals, hence the responsible thing to do is limit off-leash exercise to a securely fenced area. One tip to getting these dogs to come within a fenced area is to mimic the noise and actions of “prey”. Some toys, when squeezed, make a high pitched squealing noise that sounds almost like a bunny in distress. If you squeeze this type of toy, then run away from your dog, the high prey dog’s chase instinct will kick in, bringing him to you.

Repetition is key! Remember that it takes 21-28 days for a behavior to be conditioned to the point of an automatic response. In order for your dog to start coming automatically, even in the presence of distractions, you need to practice positive recall exercises such as those in this article for a period of about four consecutive weeks. If you have followed the rules we have outlined, and have positively reinforced your dog when he comes to you, then it should eventually become an ingrained habit for your dog to fly in to you when he hears the word “here”. This type of response takes some work on your part, but it is well worth it, as achieving a reliable recall may actually save the life of your dog someday.

(c) 2001-2011, Melanie Schlaginhaufen, all rights reserved. May not be reprinted in full or in part without author's permission. For reprint permission, use our Contact form.

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Comments (2)
  • Joni

    This is great advice! So important a concept, even if the actual words sometimes differ. :-) The concept of "your “come command” should always mean something wonderful is about to happen" is so vital. Just last night, I was commenting (in my head and to myself...no, I'm NOT too deranged!) that Libby sure was not "obedience trial ready", but she sure came to me. :-) And she even sat...but it was very sloppy! But...UNIMPORTANT in the grand scheme, because she came to me happily, waiting for a treat (thank goodness I had one!). This concept has even saved one of my puppies lives, as one time we were out walking on leash and one of the older puppies we were walking got away from us. We were not too far from a fairly busy highway. We called her a time or two, "Charlotte! Come, Charlotte!" with no result, but then I added the kicker. I said, "Charlotte, LOOK!!!" in a bright, enthusiastic voice, and she came right back to us! LOOK is what we teach our puppie...

  • Melanie S  - Joni's post/look!

    Joni, that was so smart,yelling "Charlotte, look!"

    I have had some "come emergencies" where I picked up a rock and said "cookie!" and it worked.

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