Does your dog glance at you with the equivalent of a canine grin and trot off in the other direction when you call him? Don’t feel too badly, some owners might consider you lucky to have a dog that even acknowledges you with a glance! Unfortunately, it is uncommon to see a dog who bounds towards his owner when he has been called, especially when faced with enticing distractions like other dogs. But fear not, because teaching your dog to come when called is really quite easy.
Since most people seem to be most successful teaching their dogs not to come when called, let’s quickly go over the two don’ts of teaching a reliable recall:
1. Don’t call your dog when you are about to do something he doesn’t like (like leaving the dog run). Don’t worry, eventually you can do this, but not until you have established a strong understanding in your dog’s mind that running to you when called is most likely to result in something great happening!
2. Don’t call your dog using his recall cue or command word (such as ‘come’) when he is off leash unless you are as close to 100% sure as possible that he will respond. Instead, try and get his attention by just clapping your hands and kneeling or go and get a hold of him. You don’t want your dog to learn to ignore you when you call him to come, so don’t use this word it until you have really taught your dog what it means and have practice (a lot!) in controllable environments (such as your living room, yard, at training class, etc.).
Now for the fun part, the Do’s of Reliable Recall Training:
3. Play the ‘Gotcha Game’ many times throughout the day. Reach for your dog’s collar and grab it while you give him a treat with your other hand. Within no time you will have a dog begging you to grab hold of his collar as opposed to playing keep away when someone reaches to get a hold of him.
4. When your dog is playing in the house or dog run, encourage him to run back to you to check in often. Again, don’t use your recall word, just use your voice to encourage him and then reward him for responding and release him to go back and play. This way, calling your dog doesn’t mean the fun is over. It is just a minor and pleasant interruption in his playtime.
5. For the time being, go and get your dog when you are ready to leave the dog run instead of calling him (back to number 1 in the Don’t list).
6. Control the resources in your dog’s life. This means take all the things he likes, including your attention, toys and food and use them to get him to want to do what you want him to do, in this case to come when called. Think of the law of supply and demand, if things are always available they are likely to decrease in value. So, for the next few weeks (at least) you are going to give yourself a real edge in teaching your dog by asking your dog to do something for each valuable resource. For example, if he walks over to you for an ear scratch simply stand up walk a few feet away and call him to you before you satisfy his itch. Pick up all those toys from the floor and use these now valuable items to get your dog to come to you (and sit and down and walk nicely on leash).
7. Hand feed your dog for at least one week. If you are a very busy person then try to hand feed at least a few pieces of kibble (dry food) from each meal. The value of this exercise cannot be overstated. Hand feeding is by far the best way to get your dog to think of you as the source of all good things.
8. Teach your dog that quickly heading towards you is a great thing to do. Reward him when he does so, even if you haven’t asked him to. Then, ask him to come from a few feet away and give him a reward for each success. If you live with someone or have friends come over they can gently hold your dog while you walk farther away and then call your dog.
9. Start to ask for more for less, this is done in two ways. First, by increasing what and/or how much you ask for. You should move farther away (to another room or down a longer hallway) and/or ask him to sit once he gets to you. This way your dog is doing a number of things for one reward. You should also ask more for less by randomizing when and what your dog gets as a reward. Giving your dog a scratch behind the ear, a bit of verbal praise or the same type of treat each time he comes is the best way to teach him not to do so. Keep things fun by keeping your dog guessing about what he may get from you and when. You may call him three times in a row and praise him each time he heads towards you. The fourth time you call him you might reward him by tossing his favorite toy for a quick game of fetch or giving him his favorite food treat.
10. Start to call your dog around greater distractions. In real life you want your dog to respond to you even when around enticing distractions, so practice around them. Again, enlist a family member or friend as a training assistant. Ask them to hold something enticing (for example, a food treat) in a closed hand. They should not give this to the dog, but they should allow the dog to sniff it. When the dog is distracted by the food, you call the dog. If he doesn’t respond (he likely won’t) you walk up to him and show him what you have (this should be a piece of food as good as if not better than your assistant’s). Basically, you are saying to the dog, “Too bad, you could have gotten something great from me.” Try again. When the dog is really interested in what your assistant has, call him. Chances are this time he will run to you. Praise him, and have your assistant follow him. When he gets to you have your assistant give him the treat she had as well as you giving the treat you have. Practice this in all different areas of your home, apartment hallway, and any other safely confined area you can find and pretty soon you will have a dog who sees the value in running to you when you call.