Is there anything more frustrating than repeatedly chasing after a dog that won't come when called? Does your dog blatantly run away from you? Or perhaps they look up at you, then go back to what they were doing?
Having a dog that doesn't come when called is not only annoying; it's also a huge safety hazard! We think it's critical that you can trust your dog to come back to you, especially in a distracting or potentially dangerous situation.
First, let's talk about why your dog isn't coming when called.
There are a multitude of reasons why your recall might not be working, but let's go over the most common possibilities so we ensure that they don't affect the new training method we'll be teaching you.
- You aren't rewarding the behavior well (or at all).
Ouch! This may be a frustrating realization to make, but is it possible that you're under-rewarding your dog's recall? When your dog does come when called, do they get a quick "good boy" and a scratch behind the ear?
Unfortunately, verbal praise and/or physical affection are not sufficient rewards for coming when called.
For the vast majority of dogs (unless you have a HIGHLY toy-driven dog), food rewards are the highest level of motivation you can use for your dog.
2. Your dog associates recall with punishment.
Contrary to popular belief, this doesn't (necessarily) mean that you have scared your dog or used a physical punishment when your dog did come back to you. Although, it's extremely important to note that if you do catch yourself in the habit of punishing your dog by yelling, spanking, or anything else unpleasant for having a slow recall, you are actually setting back your training process and poisoning your relationship and trust with your dog.
But let's talk about another form of punishment:
Taking away your dog's fun!
If you're always using your recall to call your dog away from their fun (playing with another dog, sniffing outside, etc), AND they aren't being properly rewarding for doing so, your dog is actually going to see the recall as a punishment.
3. You've added difficulty too quickly.
It's really important that when teaching your dog to come when called, you start in a low-distraction, indoor setting, and only increase your difficulty as your dog gains proficiency.
4. You're asking too often.
Even if you're doing a lot of the training right, if your dog hears "Fido, come" constantly, he might eventually start to ignore it.
Let's Teach Your Dog to Come When Called
Now that we've established the big "don'ts" when it comes to teaching a reliable recall, let's get into a step-by-step plan for how to create a great recall with a new dog, or hit the reset button on a failing recall with your existing dog.
Step 1: Select A New Word
*Note: The only exception to this step is if you are starting with a brand new puppy or dog, with no training history.
Otherwise, if you've been using “come” as your recall word, it's likely that to your dog, that word has developed the meaning:
“come when I feel like it”
or “come the 6th time they ask”
or “that word means I'm getting put inside. I better stay away from them.”
So let's start from scratch with a word that will mean “come the first time, every time.”
We recommend a one-syllable word. "Here", "Back," and "Now" are a few of the most popular ones selected by our clients, but feel free to get creative! We've had people use other languages, Harry Potter spells (Accio, in case you were wondering) – you name it! Just make sure it's something you and your entire family can agree on and stay consistent with.
You can still use "come" (or whatever your old word was) as another secondary recall option. Meaning, if you use "come," it doesn't have to be perfect.
Get in the habit of saving your new word – your primary recall -for times that you really mean it.
Step 2: Make an Association
Important: we are using high-value rewards for this training. Kibble, or even training treats, are not high enough. Some ideas include hot dogs, string cheese, shredded chicken, or fish. You want to use something your dog does not typically get, and isolate the reward for this training. This is critical!
Now, let's get started.
This is a one-time step that's going to "charge up" your dog's association with their new word. This is the only time you'll use this many rewards in a training session, so don't worry if it seems like a lot!
The steps are simple, but be sure to pay attention to the details.
1) Say your dog's name, followed by your new word. We start with your dog's name so that they are making eye contact with you when you say the word.
2) Immediately after saying the new word, praise your dog and encourage them to come to you. Do not give up and do not stop praising until they get to you.
3) When they arrive, a high-value reward appears. Deliver the reward immediately when your dog arrives – do not ask for a sit or other behavior.
4) Repeat this exercise 5 times, then take a five minute break. Repeat another 5 times and end the session.
Never, ever repeat your word. Say it once and use your verbal praise and body language to encourage your dog to you.
Isolate your reward. Do not give your dog your chosen high-value reward at any time other than for a recall. After this initial charge-up session, you should only be needing a few rewards per day. Don't overdo it!
Do not show your reward. If you're using food, the food is not visible and is not in an outstretched hand. If you're using a tug toy, the toy is hidden in your arm or behind your back. Your dog is coming to you, not to the food, not to the toy. The food or toy is a surprise reinforcement at the end. I cannot emphasize the importance of this!
Increase your reward value and eliminate as many distractions as possible if your dog is not showing extreme interest in this game by the 5th or 6th repetition.
Step 3: Build On Your Training Indoors
It can be exciting to start seeing progress in your dog, but don't jump the gun and start testing this outdoors or in high-distraction situations. Think of it as your dog learning a new language. We have to get them proficient in the classroom before we throw them in the middle of a foreign country and ask them to be proficient there. Artificial scenarios first, real life later.
So once you've done your one-time association creation step, it's time to start building on that association in as many indoor contexts as you can.
Here are the steps:
1) Prepare some high-value rewards. If there are bags crinkling, smelly things being chopped, etc, your dog is likely going to be close by. Before starting step two, wait until your dog gets bored with you and wanders away.
2) Hide your rewards somewhere not visible to your dog – when possible, have them somewhere other than a treat pouch or pocket. (A high shelf or countertop can work well.)
3) We will start this with your dog in your sight, and not doing something exciting (eating a bone, etc). Like we practiced in step 2, say your dog's name, followed by your recall word. Pause for three seconds to give your dog a chance to start coming to the sound of that word.
4a) If your dog hears the word and immediately comes running to you, that's fantastic! Praise them the entire time they're running towards you, and after they arrive. Reward immediately upon arrival.
4b) If your dog hears the word and doesn't come to you (they'll likely be looking at you, but not sure what to do), don't panic! The association isn't strong enough yet. Do not repeat the word. Instead, praise and encourage your dog to come to you and still reward and praise when they arrive. Do not give up. Keep encouraging your dog until they come to you.
Once you are consistently getting the response described in 4a, you can begin testing this in these indoors scenarios with gradually increasing difficulty:
1) Start with the same as #3, but with your dog out of sight, in the next room.
2) Out of sight, further away than the next room.
You're ready for the next step when you'd be willing to bet $100 that your dog will come to you when you call them, indoors.
Step 4: Take Your Training Outdoors
Yes! It's time to work outside now! We are starting with light distraction – the outdoors is distracting enough. That means, for right now:
- Don't try this at the dog park.
- Don't try this when your dog is in active predation (running after a deer, squirrel, etc)
- Instead, try this when your dog is sniffing the ground or casually wandering away from you.
Depending on your individual dog, you may have found that your dog finds most things outdoors to be more interesting than you are. Don't take it personally! There are a million sights, sounds, and smells that most dogs are naturally inclined to check out, and that's not a bad thing! We're not asking your dog to turn into robo-dog; we're asking them be able to check back in with you when you ask (and sometimes even when you don't!)
So, here are your steps:
- Hook up your dog to a 30' long line – here's our favorite one.
- Let them go do dog things.
- Once your dog is a little bit distracted, say their name, and your recall word.
When you do this, one of three things are going to happen:
1) Your dog comes racing to you immediately.
You praise them heavily the entire time they're running towards you, and present a hidden reward upon their arrival. Yay!
2) Your dog looks up at you, but doesn't immediately recall.
This is totally normal when you're first taking your training outside! Your dog is figuring out what the word means in a new context. Do not repeat your word, but instead praise your dog and use your body to encourage them to come to you. Still reward as if they did it perfectly. (This will pay off long-term, I promise!)
3) Your dog ignores you completely. Whoops!
If this happens, it's simply information that your dog wasn't ready for that level of distraction. Do whatever you have to do to get your dog to come to you – you may have to initially reel them in on the long line and then praise them the rest of the way. And guess what? You are still going to reward your dog. If they finally come to you and nothing happens (or something unpleasant happens) they are even less likely to come to you next time. Then try going to a less exciting outdoor area (a concrete driveway will usually do the trick) and trying again, or go back to indoor work for a few days if they're really struggling.
Need More Recall Help?
If you enjoyed this instruction, but would prefer some extra help (including video tutorials, additional instruction on working with even more distractions, and/or teaching a whistle recall) you'll love our Recall Redefined online course.
It's self-paced, easy to follow, and will leave you and your dog with a recall you'll be proud of.
Check it out here.
Questions? Feel free to contact us, and we can set you up with virtual or in-person training, or provide a referral near you. Happy training!
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