Coming when called is a behavior that dog owners almost universally desire. A great recall means the difference between participating in a lot of fun activities – such as romps on the beach, playing at the dog park, hiking off-leash in the woods, competing in dog sports – and sitting on the sidelines. We get asked about it so often that we have a class, Come This Way, devoted to building and maintaining this skill!
It is also the behavior that dog owners take for granted in their new puppies, or inadvertently punish by making simple mistakes. Building a strong recall means avoiding these common pitfalls and maintaining a specific, positive association in your dog’s mind to his recall cue.
My Name = AWESOME!
Imagine how most dogs react when they hear a potato chip bag crinkle. They stop what they’re doing and come flying into the room! Hearing that sound is the highlight of their day. THAT is the response you want to your dog’s recall word.
The response to the crinkle sound is so strong because the potato chip bag almost always means a salty, oily, tasty special snack, and it definitely never means playtime is over, nail trimming time, or some other form of discomfort.
Recalls always need to be a positive experience for your dog. Be sure not to call him if you have to do something he doesn’t like. Common examples of things that are punishing to dogs include bringing him back inside when he’d rather be playing in the yard, calling him to groom him or trim his nails, and calling him only to pat him on the head (which most dogs don’t enjoy, but that’s a different topic).
I mean, seriously. Imagine you’re having the time of your life at a sports game or concert when your phone rings. It’s your best friend. You answer the phone, and he frantically insists you meet him outside. You rush out of the building, away from all of the fun and excitement, and meet him across the street. He pats you on the shoulder and says, “Thanks, pal! I can always count on you to show up when I ask!” Then he walks away.
How likely are you to answer the phone when your “best friend” calls you next week? Not very likely.
Don’t be “that guy.” Make sure that coming to you is always worth your dog’s while.
Get Started: Train Your Dog to Come When Called
You need to use the highest value treats possible for recall training. If you want a brilliant response, you need to provide a brilliant reward.
Remember that your dog determines how valuable a particular treat is to them. You have to figure out what your dog prefers. For dogs in our Day School program, we frequently use string cheese, hot dogs, and liverwurst for most recall training.
If you try to do this work using kibble or store-bought dog treats, you’re wasting your time with all but the most food-motivated dogs.
Next, pick a particular word that you’re going to use as your dog’s cue to come when you call him. If your dog has a history of ignoring you, I recommend you choose something other than his name.
Consider “come!,” “here!,” “hurry!,” or “tacos!” Be sure it’s something that comes naturally to you in the heat of the moment. I’ve had some clients use some cute phrase, but when their dog charges out the front door and is racing toward the street, they default to screaming “COME!!!”
(On that note, practice in an excited and loud tone of voice. You’re not going to whisper or casually say your recall word – you’re going to call it loud, possibly even yell or scream it – and tone matters to dogs. Practice with the tone that is going to come out of your mouth when you’re scared that your dog isn’t going to listen to you. Teach your dog that particular tone equals lots of treats!)
Start pairing that word you’ve chosen with the really delicious treat you picked out. Say “come,” take a piece of the treat out of your pocket, and give it to your dog. Repeat that a dozen times.
Next, practice that in different places – in each room of your house, in the yard, and out on walks. If training inside is “easy,” and training anywhere outside is “too hard,” open your front door and practice. For most dogs, that is initially a mind-blowing distraction!
Mistakes to Avoid
One huge mistake dog owners make is constantly “testing” the value of their dog’s recall by calling, calling, and calling. This allows the dog to practice ignoring them.
If that sounds familiar, this is the easiest thing to fix because it’s all about controlling your behavior (your mouth!) and has nothing to do with teaching your dog. Only call him when you are willing to bet me $10 that he will come the first time you call him, and don’t repeat your recall word.
If your dog does not come when called, you need to go get him. And if you can’t go get him, then your dog is in a situation he should not be in! His level of training does not match the amount of freedom you have provided.
If you’re having trouble catching your dog, leave a short leash (4-6’) with the handle cut off dragging from his harness while he’s loose in the house. Use a longer leash (20-30′) in your yard or at the park. If your dog starts playing “keep away,” or if you don’t think he’ll come, calmly step on the end of the leash and reel him in. When you do catch him, reward him with a treat for “allowing” himself to be caught.
Another mistake is showing the dog a treat before they have returned to you. I want to be clear: at no point are we luring our dogs by showing them food while they’re at the opposite end of the dog park. Take the treat out of your pocket only after your dog comes to you, after you pick him up, or after you take hold of him by the harness or collar. That way, your dog will learn to do these behaviors even if he isn’t sure that you have a reward.
Don’t Take Puppies for Granted
When puppies are very young, under 3-4 months of age, they seem to know they are totally dependent on their mother dogs or human family for security. After that period of time, dogs are hard-wired to start exploring more. They will experiment with how far away they are comfortable being from you.
Of course, there are exceptions. I know some dogs who were getting lost in the woods at 2 months old and some adult dogs who wouldn’t get more than 10’ away if their lives depended on it! But what I’ve described is pretty typical for most dogs’ development.
So, it’s important that you spend some time building value for coming when called right away. It is so much easier to build a recall during that period of time where they keep an eye on you. Don’t wait for your puppy to start testing his independence. Start young!
Photo credit for this blog post goes to Smiling Wolf Photography.