Teaching Your Dog to Come

Teaching Your Dog to Come

The recall, or teaching your dog to come to you when you call, is arguably the most important thing you’ll ever teach your dog. Undoubtedly, you want your dog to come to you when you call every time, not just when he wants to. It takes time and commitment to teach your dog a rock-solid, come-no-matter-what, reliable recall, but it’s well worth the effort — it could even save your dog’s life.

The Name Game — The Foundation for the Recall

The name game is a fun and easy way to not just teach your dog his name, but also to teach him that when he hears his name, good things are going to happen for him. This sets your recall training off to a great start, because he’ll already be motivated to come to you before you even start teaching him to.

The First Week

The first week of recall training is all fun and games. Fifteen to twenty times per day, you’re going to associate your dog’s name with treats and fun. Every two days, you’ll raise the criteria for reward.

First 3 days: Call his name, and no matter what he does, go give him several treats, repeating his name before each one. Repeat 15 to 20 times per day.

Next 2 days: Call his name, and only give him the treats if he (at least) looks at you. If he doesn’t look at you, say “Too bad!” and make a big deal about going to and giving the treats to someone else, like another pet or family member — you can even pretend to eat them yourself! Repeat 15 to 20 times per day.

Next 2 days: Call his name, and only give him the treats if he comes to you. If he comes before the fifth day, have a big stinkin’ party with lots of praise, smiles, treats, and some play. If not, do the “too bad” routine as above. Repeat 15 to 20 times per day.

By the end of the week, with very little effort, you have a dog whose name is just as good as his conditioned reinforcer.

Get the whole family involved in the training process by having each member call your dog five times a day. Your dog will get the benefit of lots of reinforced repetition, and one person won’t get stuck with all the work.

Adding Commands

Now that your dog is happy to come to you when he hears his name, it’s time to start adding some formal commands. As usual, the commands themselves aren’t that important, but being consistent is. You’ll probably want to teach your dog a verbal command, like “come,” “here,” or “front.” Your dog’s name should precede a verbal command, i.e., “Rover, come!” You might also want to teach your dog a “come” hand signal and a “come” whistle. To jumpstart the acceptance of each command, start each of them off with a week of the name game, with the new command filling the role of the name.

Set Your Dog Up for Success

It’s always important to try to set your dog up for success in training, but it’s of utmost importance in training a reliable recall. Don’t put your dog in the position to make the wrong choice by calling him if you have no way to back it up. If your dog is allowed to fail to come to you when you call even a few times before he’s reliably trained, he might always think that the recall is optional, rather than required. The dog needs to know that the first time you call, every time you call, he must come to you.

Failure Is Not an Option

There are a couple of ways that you can make sure your dog doesn’t fail. The first is not to call him if he has the option not to come to you, especially if you already have the idea that he might make a choice other than coming to you. The second part of the equation is making sure that when you do call him, you have a way to enforce your command, like a leash or dragline.

Until he’s in the habit of coming to you, no matter how far away he is, or what distractions are going on around him, don’t give him the freedom to fail. If he’s in the position to “flip you the paw” when you call, don’t waste your breath or dilute the power of your command by calling him repeatedly. Every time you call and your dog doesn’t come, it reinforces his idea that the command is optional.

Slow Is the New Fast

Don’t be in a hurry to get your dog unencumbered by his leash or dragline. Spend a few months getting him reliable before giving him too much freedom outdoors, even in your own yard. Freedom outside is no different than freedom in the house; it’s a privilege to be earned, and he probably hasn’t earned the privilege of that much freedom yet. He’ll earn more freedom depending on his response to your commands.

If you’re so addicted to leaving your dog free in your yard that you can’t give it up for recall practice try this: every time your dog is out in the yard (or in the dog park, or anywhere else that you might have him off leash), call him for cookies at least five times for every time you call him to bring him in. If he’s already in the habit of ignoring you when you call, spend a week or two approaching him and giving him treats, and also giving him treats every time he approaches you.

If he responds promptly and reliably on a long dragline 10 feet away, give him 20. If he’s doing well at 20 feet, give him 50. If he’s doing well at 50 feet, no matter what the distraction, drop the leash. If after two or three weeks he’s still responding promptly and reliably with the leash dragging, it’s time to gradually wean him off the leash by cutting a foot or two off the length every week until you’re down to nothing attached to the snap.

If at any time his training backslides, and he doesn’t comply with a recall command, don’t hesitate to put him back on a held line for a couple of weeks before weaning him off again.

Teaching a Reliable Recall

Young puppies have a natural attraction and following instinct that keeps them with the pack and safe. But around five months, the flight-instinct period arrives, taking dog owners by complete surprise when the puppy who wouldn’t stray two feet from their side yesterday is now in hot pursuit of every squirrel, person, dog, butterfly, and falling leaf in the vicinity. Teaching your dog to come to you when you call is a systematic process that takes repetition, time, and commitment to perfect.

Keep a Leash On

All early formal recall training should be done on leash — 6, 20, or 50 feet — and retractable lines and leashes all have their place in the training process:

  • Use 6- to 20-foot leashes for short, controlled recalls and group recalls.
  • Use retractable leashes for recalls away from distraction and solo recalls.
  • Use 50-foot draglines to gradually get reliable, off-leash recalls.

Leashes and draglines ensure success while your dog is building the habit of “rocket recalls.”

Fido, Come!

When you call your dog, your tone of voice should indicate to him that you’ll be happy to see him when he gets to you. Call him the same way every time, with his name first, followed by your recall command. Every time he comes to you, you should be able to touch him (or even better, grab his collar) before he gets his CR/treat. After he gets the idea that he’s supposed to come to you every time you call, have him sit when he gets to you, before you grab his collar and CR/treat. There are several different ways you can practice recalls for lots of reinforced repetition in a short amount of time. Always play recall games when your dog is motivated, and quit while he still wants to play.

Solo Recalls: With your dog on a retractable leash, let your dog watch you toss a visible treat, like a piece of breakfast cereal, several feet in one direction. Send your dog to go get it, and then call him back to you for another treat. Send him again in the other direction, gradually increasing the distance of the thrown treat.

Dual Recalls: On a retractable or long (at least 20 feet) leash, have a partner hold your dog by his collar. Take the leash by the handle and spend a few moments paying attention to your dog — really loving him up, petting him, praising him and then saying his name, followed by treats a couple of times — before running away to the end of the leash. As soon as you turn around, call his name three times, followed by your recall command, “Fido! Fido! Fido! Come!” — enthusiasm is critical! When he is straining to get to you, have your partner let him go. Praise him as he’s coming (you have the leash to make sure he does), and CR/reward when he gets all the way to you.

Round Robin Recalls: Three or more people can play. Spread out in a circle 20 or more feet in diameter. Your dog should be dragging a line long enough to reach all the players. One at a time, call your dog and give him treats when he comes. If he decides the game is to run from person to person getting treats, only the person who calls him should pay any attention to him or reward him; everybody else should look at the sky. Use the dragline to enforce the recall if necessary.

Strolling Recalls: When you’re out walking your dog, wait for him to lose attention on you. Back up several steps quickly and call him to you, reeling him in like a fish, if necessary. Praise like crazy and CR/treat when he gets to you.

Body Language

Whether or not you use hand signals to call your dog, the physical picture you present to him when you call him, and when he gets to you, can have a major influence on the success of your recall training program.

Hand Signals

All of the hand signals that you teach your dog should be visible from a distance, but this is of particular importance with your recall signal, because your dog is more likely to be some distance from you. One to try, and that is instinctive for most people, is a big sweeping motion of your right hand, starting out at your right side and then sweeping in front of your body, with your hand landing on your chest. In the teaching phase, keep the leash in your hand as your hand is sweeping in front of your body to help draw your dog in.

Play the name game with your signal for a week to start (obviously, your dog has to be able to see you give the signal before you give him the treat). After that, or in slightly more distracting training venues, call your dog’s name to get his attention, then give your signal, and follow immediately by a verbal command (if he knows it), and enforce the command with leash help, if needed.

Posture Counts

Your body posture during the recall is important, too. You want to present a welcoming rather than intimidating picture to your dog, but you don’t necessarily want to have to squat to get your dog to come to you for the next fifteen years. If you have a shy dog, you may want to turn your side toward your dog when you call instead of facing him, but for most dogs, a relaxed, completely upright posture works just fine. When your dog comes to you, keep your hand(s), with your treats, close to your body, so he has to come all the way to you to get them. Keep your hands in the middle of your body and raise them slightly as he gets to you to lure him into an automatic sit. If you have a small dog, squat, rather than bending over, to give the treats. Big or small, most dogs will actually be pushed away, rather than drawn closer, if you bend over to meet them.

What to Do in an Emergency

There may come a time when your dog is on the loose. Maybe someone left the door open, or he slipped his collar, or he somehow got out of the yard. No matter what the reason, you have to get him — now.

Get Your Dog Back

If your dog is hightailing down the street, just about the worst thing you can do is chase her. Dogs are fast, way faster than people. Just when you think you’ve got her, she’ll dart just out of reach again. Unless she stops to investigate something or potty, it’s very unlikely that you’ll catch her. What you need to do is use her own psychology against her and get her to come to you.

Get her attention and run in the other direction. If she likes to ride in the car, either get in yours or enlist the help of someone else to drive slowly up to her, open the door, and invite her in for a ride (hey, a ride around the block is still a ride). Try sitting, or even better, lying flat on your back on the ground. Most dogs just can’t resist their natural curiosity, and have to see what their person is doing lying on the ground. If all else fails, grab a box of dog biscuits, and calmly walk her down enlisting the aide of any willing passerby to help.

Don’t Get Mad

Although you are likely to be some combination of frustrated, angry, and scared when you do get your hands on your dog, you can’t let him know that. If you take out your frustration on him, scolding him or even physically disciplining him, he won’t understand that you’re punishing him for taking off. In his mind, getting caught is the wrong thing to do, and he’ll be harder to catch next time, guaranteed. When you do catch your dog, it should be the best thing that happens to him all day. Give him lots of praise, treats, and play, even if you have to fake it. If you don’t have treats on you when you catch him, bring him home, praising him all the way, and take him right to the refrigerator and get something really special for him. This memory will make him easier to catch in the future, but you’re not going to let him get away again, now, are you?

What Not to Do (or How to Teach Your Dog Not to Come)

It’s startlingly easy to teach your dog not to come when you call. Have you allowed your dog opportunities to ignore your recall command, or called her to do something she doesn’t like? If so, it’s not too surprising that she doesn’t respond reliably.

Reality Check

Do an honest assessment of your dog’s recall history so far. Have you made it your habit to call her from the yard to stick her in her crate and go to work? At the dog park, do you call her to put her in the car and take her home, ending her fun? Do you call her to punish her for something she did wrong, or to cut her nails, or do other things that aren’t, in her opinion, going to be fun or rewarding for her? Is your tone of voice angry or harsh? Are you scowling at her when you call? Have you given her multiple chances to ignore you without consequence? If your recall habits are poor, your dog’s will be, as well. It may be time to cut your losses and start over.

There are some dogs who, by virtue of genetics, individual temperament, or long-standing habit, cannot be taught a reliable recall with the motivational techniques described here. These dogs require very careful management, and perhaps a recall taught with a remote collar for safety.

When to Change Commands

If your dog regularly ignores you when you call him, or is less than 75 percent reliable at responding to your first command, consider starting recall training over from the beginning with a new command. Be more careful about letting him get away with not coming when he’s called, and making sure you’re setting him up for success. Be prepared to give him plenty of repetition and opportunity to practice the new command.

Adding Distraction

Once your dog knows what her recall command means and is responding reasonably reliably, it’s time to start challenging her with distraction. By helping her overcome distractions and respond correctly in spite of them, you improve both your relationship with her and her reliability.

Using Distractions to Your Advantage

When you start adding distraction to your dog’s recall-training program, take a gradual approach. You want to challenge your dog without completely overwhelming her. It’s not a “gotcha” game; it’s a process of building on small successes. Whenever you introduce a new distraction, it should be at a distance or intensity that she has a reasonable chance to make the right choice to come to you without your help to make her come. Of course, you will help her when she needs it, by way of a quick pop on the leash (or several) toward you, repeating until she gets all the way to you. Even when you have to help, praise her all the way. If using a retractable leash, the procedure is call, brake, pop toward you, release the brake to let the leash in, brake, pop, release. If using a regular leash, pop, then try to gather up the slack as quickly as she’s coming so you can help her if she veers off course.

Anything your dog is even remotely interested in can be used as a distraction, and you should make an effort to include a wide variety of still and moving distractions. You’ll call her away from some distractions, and she’ll have to pass others on her way to you. Food, toys, dogs, other animals, noises, and kids (especially running or playing kids) are all likely candidates to use as distractions, but be creative and use your imagination to come up with good distractions for your dog. Call her name to get her attention if she’s focused on the distraction; then use your recall command and give her just a few seconds to respond before you help, if necessary.

Be the Better Deal

When you introduce distractions in your recall training program, there should always be something better than the distraction for your dog at the end of the recall. Why should he come away from interesting or exciting distractions for something boring or dull? Would you choose a saltine over a hot fudge sundae? Neither will your dog. There might be times you can use the distraction itself as the reward. He wants to go say hi to the kids at the park? Okay, but he has to come to you first; then you’ll release him to see the kids. Over time, he’ll get the idea that the fastest way to what he wants is to do what you want first.

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