Come When Called Training

If your Dog Won't Come ...

Training a dog to come when called is often referred to as a "recall."

It is ironic that owners go to great lengths to train their dog NOT to come when called, and then complain about it. They want someone to wave the magic wand and have their dog drop everything it's doing, including chasing birds at the beach, digging in the yard or romping with other dogs, and instantly come racing over to the owner. That is PhD level obedience. The first thing we have to do is undo the training the owner has already done, then proceed with kindergarten level obedience before achieving the results the owner desires. So how has the owner so systematically trained the dog not to come when called?

Sabotaging the Training

The worst practice the owner engages in is letting their dog off leash and unattended. Whether the dog is running in the park, romping on the beach or playing with other dogs, the dog is learning that these good times do not include the owner. In fact, it is always the owner who ruins the fun by ordering the dog to "Come." When the dog obediently comes to the owner, his leash is promptly attached and he's on his way home. This is not a good outcome from the dog's perspective so on each successive outing, the dog delays coming when called because by delaying, he is prolonging his off leash fun. When the owner repeatedly calls the dog and he does not come, then the dog is learning that he doesn't have to come - or at least he doesn't need to come until he is called umpteen billion times. The dog has now learned that ignoring the owner is infinitely more rewarding than obeying the owner. This is definitely a lose-lose situation. If the dog comes, he is punished for coming because his off leash fun is curtailed. If the dog doesn't come, he is learning not to come and he is being self-rewarded for ignoring the owner.

Another outcome of the above situation is that the now frustrated owner feels he needs to punish puppy for not coming when called. Because the owner does not know how to punish the dog while it is running away, the owner punishes the dog when he eventually returns. The next time the dog will take even longer to come back because not only does it end the fun but it also now means outright punishment from the owner if he does comply.

Training What Come When Called Means

To many dogs, the command "come here" means, "quick, run the other way!" There are countless examples of how the owner trains the dog not to come by unintentionally "punishing" the dog when it does come. Every time the dog is called to engage in an activity that the dog doesn't enjoy he is learning that the command, "Come here," is bad news. The owner should never call the dog to come and then give him a bath, clip his nails or confine him. Even if the owner's planned activity is not unpleasant for the dog, just the fact that it isn't as much fun as the activity the dog is currently engaged in is enough for the dog to choose not to obey. It's better for the owner to just go and get the dog for these activities rather than ruin an otherwise rapid recall.

Some owners intentionally punish their dog when it comes. Often this is done when the dog has misbehaved (especially chewed or soiled the house). The owner shouts, "Come here. Bad dog!" When the dog arrives, he is punished. After the dog has been clobbered once or twice for complying, not surprisingly, he will be reluctant to do so again.

A puppy or adult dog is always learning whether we intend to teach them or not. Formal obedience training sessions are usually short and infrequent compared to the day to day and minute to minute training (or more appropriately - untraining) we do with our dogs. In order to correct this type of problem the owner must first be aware of how he or she is unintentionally training undesirable behaviors in the dog. One or two instances of "punishing" the dog for coming when called can undermine weeks and weeks of formal training. Owners must learn to incorporate positive training into the dog's life and daily routine. Until the dog is reliably trained to come when called, he should not be let off leash.

The average owner who attends a training class with his or her dog practices the exercises at home on the average of 5 minutes a day. An exceptional owner practices perhaps 15 minutes a day. What happens with the dog the other 23 hours 45 minutes each day? Every time the dog and owner interact, the dog is learning something even though the owner may not be intentionally trying to teach the dog anything. Dogs are always learning.

Prime the Training Pump

The first step is to test if the dog is motivated and ready to learn. At the dog's regularly scheduled meal time, take a nugget of kibble and wave it in front of the dog's nose. If the dog does not show enthusiastic interest in the food, then this is not the right time to begin training. Training should be delayed for an hour or so until the dog shows interest. You may have to skip one meal entirely to get the dog motivated. Don't worry, Puppy will not starve to death if he misses one meal. Overindulged pets that are constantly showered with affection, attention and tidbits will be more difficult to motivate. Most will have the attitude, "Why bother learning something new for a piece of kibble when I can just look cute and get steak?" If you are serious about training, then you must withhold all treats during the day, put the dog on a strict feeding schedule (no ad lib feeding) and adhere to this during the training period. Tidbits will be reintroduced a little later in the training. For dogs that are absolutely finicky and underweight (not fat and spoiled) then either the food can be made more appealing by coating it with something especially yummy like baby food chicken or gravy or use other motivators (keep reading).

Basic Come When Called Training

As soon as Puppy says, "Yes, yes! I'm hungry, I'll do anything for that food," then you're ready to begin. Introduce the simple recall by giving the dog a couple of nuggets of kibble for free, then quickly back up a few feet and say, "Come Here." Hold the food in an outstretched hand at the dog's nose level. Praise the dog all the time that she approaches and give the food as soon as she arrives. Once the dog comes readily, add a sit to the end of the recall and take hold of the dog's collar before giving the food. Many dogs will come and sit, then duck or run away to avoid being touched. They will not allow themselves to be touched because past experience has shown them that this usually means bad news (from the dog's point of view, not yours).

The exercise may be repeated several times in a row with you quickly running backwards between recalls. At a more advanced level of training, the dog may be instructed to sit-stay until called. Repeat this sequence with every nugget of every meal. Make certain this exercise is performed when the dog is really motivated. If at anytime the dog loses interest, stop the training immediately and don't allow the dog to eat anything else until the next regularly scheduled mealtime and practice session.

Once the dog is responding regularly, it is time to start to thin out the food rewards. Rewards should be reserved for the dog's better responses, i.e., only those times when she comes quickly, directly and happily. Reward with one fourth to one third of the dog's meal instead of only one kibble or handful. During maintenance training, on average, the dog should receive one food reward per five times that she comes obediently.

More Come When Called Exercises

Now that the dog understands the basics of the exercise, it is time to make training even more fun. Perform the To & Fro and Hide & Seek (described below) exercises between meals with your dog's favorite treats. Again, be sure the dog shows interest in the treat you're using. Use miniscule pieces - this is a treat, not a meal. I suggest one quarter inch square pieces or smaller of chicken, cheese or liver. In other words, real food, not boring milkbones. The better the reward, the quicker the dog learns and the longer the dog retains what has been learned.

A very simple, enjoyable training exercise is a back and forth recall. Two or more people should stand ten yards or so apart. One person calls the dog to come and instructs her to sit-stay until another of the human participants calls the dog to come. Practice this exercise in the house and yard. Most dogs love this exercise and in exuberant anticipation of the commands, may madly rush back and forth, like a deranged yo-yo. Either, do not let the dog break her sit-stay until she is called, or if the dog is not being asked to stay, then someone other than the person the dog is running towards, should do the calling. Only the person who calls the dog is allowed to give a treat. We don't want Puppy to think that all he has to do is charge up to someone and they will automatically dispense food.

Hide and Seek Training

When the dog catches on to the game of To & Fro, then the human participants can begin to spread further apart turning the To & Fro recall into a game of Hide & Seek. Two or more people begin in the center room of the house. Each time after they have called the dog to come, they go further away from the place they started. As the game progresses, eventually one person will be in the master bedroom, the second person in the guest room and the third in the kitchen and so forth. The dog does not simply run up to the person calling, he has to find that person first. This game is an especially good reinforcer because not only does it appeal to many of the dog's natural instincts, but it also associates the words "come here" with the owner with fun instead of dread.

Random Recalls and Other Training Motivators

There are times when we know the dog will come: when the owner says, "Do you want to go for a walk?" or "Ride in the car?" or "Where's your ball?" Many dogs come running to the owner just upon hearing car keys jingle, or when the closet door where the leash is kept is opened, or the cupboard that holds the treats is opened. Periodically and randomly throughout the day, happily herald such events with the cheerful announcement "Come here." For example: before giving any clues that a walk is being offered, call the dog to come. If she comes, hold out the leash and ask her to sit, put on the leash and go out for a walk. If she does not come, pick up the leash, waggle it around, put it away and ignore the dog. She will probably regard you suspiciously, perhaps thinking, "How come my owner picked up my leash and now we are not going for a walk?" The next "come here" usually produces an immediate response. With enough repetition your dog will think, "I don't know what those words "Come here" mean, but whenever I hear them I better hustle over to the owner as quickly as possible because something terrific is going to happen."

Distraction Training

Don't let a fun activity such as running free and playing with other dogs become a distraction to training. Instead, use it as a reward. Show the dog that if she comes when called, she will receive plentiful praise, a food treat and then be allowed to resume her play session. Try to be a part of your dog's good times, so that she learns it is not the end of the fun just because you tell her to come.When you first take the recall training exercises outside, practice in areas with the least amount of distractions. Begin with the dog on a long leash. It's absolutely important that you are able to enforce your command should the dog refuse to obey. Don't allow your dog to ignore you. If you call a couple of times and the dog ignores you, use the long leash to make the dog come. It will take many repetitions of "Come Here, go play" before the dog is convinced that its freedom is not going to end just because the owner has called. Gradually add more distractions only when the dog succeeds with minimal distractions. When you find you no longer have to enforce your command, then it is time to try the exercises off leash. If at anytime the dog regresses, then simply go back to square one and begin again. Don't take the dog back to the park off leash again until you have done some retraining. In most cases, all it takes is for the dog to get away with disobeying once and the dog realizes that he can do it again and again.

It's a good idea to practice all these exercises all the time anyway if you want to maintain the dogs level of obedience and prevent bad habits from reoccurring.

Training a Dog to Come When Called

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