By Jacque Lynn Schultz, C.P.D.T., Companion Animal Programs Adviser. National Outreach and Pamela J. Reid, Ph.D., ASPCA
How to Teach Your Dog to Come When Called
The most important lesson you can impart with your pet is to train your dog to come. A dog that responds immediately and consistently when you call them can enjoy freedoms that other dogs cannot. Such a dog can play in the dog run, hike with you in leash-free parks, and keep out of trouble in almost any situation. Even if you never plan to have your dog off its leash, things happen. Collars break, leashes slip, gates or doors are inadvertently left open. When an accident happens, having a reliable “recall” on your dog could very well save their life. While this article can’t cover all the different exercises that contribute to dog recall training, I’ve outlined a couple of fundamental ones.
A Fundamental Rule
Whether you’re teaching a young puppy or an older dog you’ve rescued from the shelter, the first step is always to establish that coming to you is the best thing they can do. When your dog comes to you unprompted, acknowledge that you appreciate their attention. You can do that with smiles, praise, affection, games, or treats. This ensures that they will continue to “check-in” with you on a frequent basis. In addition, when you call your dog and they comply, similarly lavish them with what they value most. NEVER call your dog and do something they don’t enjoy, like bathing them, clipping their nails, scolding them, or even ignoring them. When you have to do something they don’t like, refrain from calling them; simply go and get them from wherever they are. They should always trust that something wonderful happens when they come to you.
What should you do if you call your dog and they don’t come right away? Renowned animal trainer Kathy Sdao uses the parable of The Prodigal Son to teach the importance of always rewarding your dog for coming to you. If you recall, the story is of a father with two sons. He divides their inheritance between them and the youngest son squanders his wealth on wild living while the eldest son stays home and tends the farm. Eventually, the young son runs out of money and returns home. The father, rather than chastising the son and turning him away, greets him with open arms and calls for a celebratory feast, proclaiming “my son was lost but now is found.” Remember this story the next time your dog comes to you, regardless of how furious you feel. They were lost but now have come. The only way your dog will continue to come to you when you call is to always greet them with open arms and a celebration.
The Name Game
Your dog can’t have a good recall if they don’t recognize their name. Teach your dog to turn and look at you whenever you say their name. Begin this in a quiet place, just as the kitchen or living room. Be sure there are no distractions to compete for the dog’s attention. Say their name in a clear voice. If they turn to look at you, immediately say “Yes!” and pull out their favorite toy or toss them a tasty treat. Pay attention to them for a minute or so; then do nothing. Wait until they lose interest in you. Then repeat the sequence. If they don’t turn and look when you say their name, don’t repeat it. Instead, turn and leave the room for a few seconds, or run to a corner and play with the toy yourself, or make a display of eating their treat yourself (choose the treats wisely – cheese or wieners are good!). They will learn that when you say their name, something fun is going to happen and that if they don’t pay attention to their name, they’re going to miss out. Do this 3-5 times at any one time, but practice it many times over the course of a few days. Gradually introduce distractions: practice in different rooms in the house, in the yard, on walks, and at the park; practice while the dog is engaged in various activities, such as playing, chewing, grooming, sleeping, etc.
My favorite game takes advantage of the dog’s desire to chase. Few dogs can resist the opportunity to chase their owner running away from them. The inclination to chase can be strengthened by holding the dog back until they become desperate. The desperation intensifies the dog’s desire to chase to the point that the dog runs to the owner as quickly as possible. You need two people to play this game effectively. Play in an enclosed area because the dog needs to be off-leash. Have your assistant hold the dog by the collar (a buckle collar, not a training collar) or by hugging around the dog’s chest. Jump up and down in front of the dog, engaging the dog by waving a favorite toy, teasing with an enticing treat, or nudging playfully. After grabbing the dog’s attention, take off running away from the dog, calling their name and encouraging them to come. You should run as fast as you can, without looking back at the dog. Ideally, the dog struggles to follow you while your assistant restrains the dog (while egging the dog on). After a few seconds of struggling, the dog is released to chase. When the dog catches up to you, reward them with play or treats. The restraint feeds the desire to chase so the dog’s response is intense. The dog may need to experience this game a few times before catching on. If the dog isn’t inclined to chase you, try dragging a toy along the ground as you run. I like to drag a plush toy or a furry mouse toy attached to a leash or rope. You should only need to do this a few times. Make sure you run directly away from the dog without turning or looking back. Facing the dog will cause most dogs to slow down or lose interest in the game. I always start this game by saying “are you ready?” After a few repetitions, dogs just need to hear that phrase and they come running in anticipation of a chase game. Eventually, the game becomes a “back-up” recall. If you call your dog and they don’t come, say “are you ready?” while you turn and run a few steps. Your dog will be with you in a flash!
At the Park
Never allow your puppy or dog to be off-leash at the park until you have taught them to come when called. Fit the dog with a line (a lightweight one for puppies and small dogs) at least 20’ long. Walk along, while holding the end of the line. Allow the line to drag along the ground between you and the dog. Anytime they check in with you unprompted (when you haven’t called them), praise and reward them, either with a tasty treat or a quick game. In addition, watch for opportunities when you think they are highly likely to come when you call. You don’t want to set them up to fail, so avoid calling them if they are sniffing a particularly enticing smell, saying hello to another dog, or playing with some leaves. When you think it’s a good time, call them in a clear and inviting voice (“Dog’s name, Come! or Here!). Turn and run away from them so they’ll be inclined to chase you (take small steps if they’re a tiny puppy!). When they catch you, lavish them with praise, play, and/or treats. Be generous with your rewards!
It is common for people to fail to appreciate small steps toward the desired behavior. Suppose you call your dog and he comes running toward you, but before he makes it all the way, he gets distracted and stops to check out an interesting smell or to urinate on a bush. He will be much more likely to keep coming all the way to you if you praise and encourage them as soon as they start moving in your direction. Call them and, as soon as they look at you, praise and cheer them to continue. Then, if they should stop, you can give them feedback with an “uh uh” or a “hey” in a different tone of voice (displeased or surprised). When they look at you, smile, call them again, and praise them as they do. Reward generously when they arrive.
5 Reasons Your Dog Won’t Come When Called
The “come” cue – also known as a recall – is one of the most important commands to teach your dog, both for their safety and your peace of mind. Because you understand this better than your pup does, few things are more frustrating than when they won’t come when called.
This basic command isn’t always easy to teach, and there are a variety of reasons your dog won’t comply. They don’t represent “misbehavior,” but rather a lack of successful training. Punishment and getting upset won’t help, as veterinarian and animal behaviorist Ian Dunbar points out in DogTime; the answer lies in consistent teaching, patient repetition, and positive reinforcement.
Understanding the reasons dogs don’t come when called helps you reverse disobedience and train your pooch to obey this important cue. Here are five common explanations:
Your Dog Doesn’t Know the Command
An obvious reason your dog doesn’t come when told to is that they don’t know what the word means. Sadly, many dogs think the command to come is an invitation for a game of canine keep-away. Does it mean that you are about to do something unpleasant but necessary to the dog? Does “come” mean the end of a good time? Does “come” mean the dog must come each and every time he is called? Sophia Yin, DVM, MS, explains that a basic problem in training is the assumption that a pet knows what a word means and then muddling the command by repeating it again and again and mixing in other words in the face of disobedience. While the command you want to teach is “come,” you might be saying, “Come. Come. Come! Spot, come here now! Now! Get over here! Come!”
You Haven’t Practiced Enough
“Come is the command people practice the least,” dog trainer Sarah Wilson says on CNN’s website. The cue should be practiced multiple times every day and in increasingly complex situations. If you haven’t taught your pup to come reliably when there are no distractions, there’s no chance they’ll obey when there’s a ball or a squirrel or an appealing scent pulling at their attention. Teach this cue in stages. Start in your home with no distractions, then go outside without distractions, then add in some minor distractions, and then practice at the dog park or another safe, less familiar place. Also, start by calling your dog to the things they want most, such as meals and playtime, and then work your way up to less enticing reasons for them to come to you.
You Made the Command Irrelevant
If you fail to offer positive reinforcement consistently to your dog when they come to you on cue during the training process, you’re not providing the necessary incentive for obedience. Praise them, offer physical affection, and give treats immediately after they do what you want them to do, when you want them to do it. Also, if you just give up after unsuccessfully calling your dog, they learn that there’s no reason to listen.
You Created Apprehension
You may have set it up so that your dog becomes fearful in response to the “come” command. If you create apprehension about going to you, your dog won’t be eager to come, Dunbar says. This mostly happens as a result of calling your dog when you’re mad because they’re doing something you don’t want them to do. If “come” is associated with anger and followed immediately with a scolding or punishment, you establish the command as a negative.
“Come” Means the Fun Ends
Your dog will be hesitant to come if they know it’s always the least appealing option. If you get in the habit of mostly beckoning when it’s time to perform grooming tasks they’re not too fond of or to leave the dog park, they won’t like following the command. Call to them for the fun stuff, too, and find ways to make the unpleasant things better. For example, when leashing your pup to leave the park, take a moment to play with them, have your dog perform a trick to get a treat, let them keep the stick they found and allow them to explore their environment on the way out, rather than becoming strictly business, recommends Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA, on QuickAndDirtyTips.com.
Getting Your Dog to Come When Called
While it may be frustrating when your dog doesn’t comply with your recall cue, it’s well worth the time and effort to train them. Training your dog to come makes everything easier, and it could save their life one day.
Begin with the dog on a six-foot lead. Let them get interested in something and then call, “Bobbie, come,” in an upbeat voice while running backward, away from the dog. As you are running, hold a treat at the dog’s nose level to serve as a lure. When the dog is a few steps away, raise the treat up a bit while telling the dog to sit. After the dog sits, reach out, grab their collar, and reward them with the treat. When the dog has achieved perfection at this level in a variety of environments, graduate to using a 15-to-30-foot line or retractable leash. (Do not use retractable leads on crowded sidewalks or busy streets.) Increase the difficulty quotient by employing an assistant to distract the dog with food, toys, or another dog. As the recall improves, there will be no need to run backward or give a treat every time, but the command itself always should sound upbeat and welcoming to the dog. When you get unhesitating compliance 100 percent of the time when using a long line, begin off-leash training in confined areas. If the dog begins to tune you out, take a step backward and begin using light lines like a light nylon cord until you get compliance. One of the crucial components to a great recall is a strong bond with your dog. Have you encouraged your dog to frequently check in with you whether they are on a leash or off? Reward eye contact—even if it’s with little more than a smile. Disappear from your dog behind the garage or a tree and make them seek you out. Insist they request permission before they are allowed to bound off-leash, and end the fun when they choose to forget you’re there. Be persistent when teaching this command. The perfect recall will not only get you to work on time, but it may also one day save your dog’s life.
For more information, check out the helpful articles and tips in the Petfinder.com dog training section.