Getting your dog to come to you when you call her is a fundamental obedience goal, and it can even save your dog’s life. But it’s sometimes hard to teach; here are some tips to make it easier.
Three important things to know: Your dog needs to understand what she’s supposed to do, and why it’s worth her while to do it. After that, it’s a question of drilling it under gradually increasing levels of difficulty so that the response becomes as automatic as a good driver’s response to seeing brake lights in front of her.
Your dog needs to know what she’s supposed to do — this is the easiest part, but you should have it clear in your head. Many people practice from a sit-stay, call the dog straight to the front of the owner, and ask for a sit again. But when they actually put it into action, what they really want is for the dog to come from amusing herself in the park or the yard, and to come into the house or allow the owner to put the leash on her. These second scenarios are different enough that your dog might not understand that this is the same exercise. Think about the main situations that you want to call your dog to you, and practice in the same (or at least similar) situations. If your dog tends to get out the front door, practice calling her from the walkway to the house; if your dog doesn’t want to come in from the backyard at night, practice calling from the yard to the door (put her on a longline if necessary to be safe).
Your dog needs to know why she’s supposed to do it. Dogs do behaviors that will pay off for them (or allow them to avoid something unpleasant). Dogs seem to do a clear cost/benefit analysis when they decide whether to come to you, so coming to you needs to pay off as well as or better than not coming to you. Start with easy recall challenges and generous, fabulous rewards — really good food treats, favorite toys, and invitations to start favorite activities. You can call your dog and offer chicken, cheese, bacon, a favorite ball, a walk, a car ride, or a game of tug.
Coming will not pay off better if you call for something your dog doesn’t like, such as a bath, time alone, crating, or nail clipping (these can often be turned into something your dog does like, but that’s another column). It will not pay off better if your call ends something your dog enjoys, such as playing with another dog, eating something she found, or even sniffing something very interesting. This doesn’t mean that you can’t call your dog from something she’d prefer to be doing; it just means that you need to practice calling her from easier distractions first, teach her that coming to you pays off well, and then really reward her generously when she does come to you from a big challenge.
Note that we often have a higher expectation of our dogs than we do of ourselves. Most of us do not jump up and start running toward a family member who calls us; if we’re in the middle of something, or suspect something unpleasant (like a complaint or a chore), we often say “What do you want?” or at least “Just a minute!”
Some practical tips are:
• Start a short distance from your dog, in a pretty boring environment.
• Move away from the dog, because dogs are attracted to retreating objects and people.
• Squat or kneel down, because dogs like to come to people on their level.
• Use a high-pitched, pleasant voice and short, quick sound like “come-come-come!”
• If necessary, start by showing your dog that you have a fabulous reward.
• As soon as possible, practice calling your dog without an obvious fabulous reward, but then produce one as soon as the dog gets to you. Have treats on a nearby table or in your pocket.
• Mark the moment of decision. When your dog focuses on you and starts moving towards you, use a clicker or a marker word like “Yes!”
• Use a longline (15-to-35-foot leash or rope) to make sure your dog is safe when working outside. Don’t use the line to pull the dog to you; the dog needs to learn to come on her own.
Keep in mind the costs and payoffs from your dog’s point of view, and practice frequently, and you will see a huge improvement in your dog’s recall.
Stacy Braslau-Schneck, MA, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA, and CAP2, of Stacy’s Wag’N’Train in San Jose, serves Willow Glen, San Jose, Silicon Valley, and Santa Clara County areas. www.WagnNTrain.com.
Each month, this column is written by a different trainer or dog professional. If you’d like to contribute, contact Editor@BayWoof.com.
Main article photo by: Photo by Kzenon / iStock