By Sherri Romig CPDT-KA
A common complaint heard by professional trainers is “My dog only comes when he wants to.” The world is an exciting place and there any many things that can distract your dog from coming when you ask. There are many things you can do, though, to help strengthen your dog’s recall response. Let’s look at a few:
1. The most important thing you can do is make sure that the word “Come” is ALWAYS fun. I cannot stress that enough. NEVER call your dog to you and then scold him, cut his nails, give him a bath, take him to the vet, end the fun… or anything else that he considers even remotely unpleasant. If you need to do any of these things, go and get your dog, don’t call him to you. “Come” is ALWAYS fun!
*In fact, if you (or someone else) has repeatedly called the dog for unpleasant things in the past, it is possible that the word has been ruined. This means that the dog has learned to associate the word “Come” with bad things happening, and so when he hears it, he runs in the opposite direction! In cases like this, it is best to just choose another recall word rather than trying to overcome the negative association.
2. Practice the recall in situations that you can control. Don’t cue your dog to “Come” if you are not 100% certain that he will come to you. Begin teaching the recall in a low-distraction environment with a long leash attached to the dog. Start walking away from the dog calling to him in a happy tone of voice and praise and reward him when he gets to you. Use only short distances at first. Make sure to make a big deal out of it every time he comes! If he doesn’t come, give a gentle tug in the end of the leash to remind him (don’t use it to reel him in). Don’t forget the praise when he gets to you! You can gradually build up distance and distraction level (do these separately), but never go faster than your dog can handle. Remember to set him up for success by calling him only when you are sure he will come.
3. Playing games (see below) can give you more recall practice time and help your dog realize how fun “Come” really is. Add variety to your games, and don’t forget to praise and reward!
a. Chase and Tag: When playing outside (in a fenced area) run away from your dog, laughing, clapping, and calling his name. Make it a fun chase, dart around, change direction, grab a toy… When your dog finally catches you, make sure it is big fun!
b. Hide and Seek: Begin by hiding in obvious places where your dog can easily see you and calling him. Make sure it is big fun when he “finds” you. Gradually start to hide in more difficult places so he has to actually search to find you (don’t hide so well that he gives up!) Remember, big fun when he finds you!
c. Round Robin: This game can be played with 2 or more people. Start in a circle calling the dog back and forth. Each time he gets to the person who called him, remember: big fun! As the dog gets the hang of the game, you can start calling him back and forth from different rooms. You can even start hiding for another version of hide and seek.
These games are all great fun for dogs and help them to learn that the word “Come” means great things are about to happen. (Don’t forget to use treats occasionally). So, the next time you call your dog “for real”, he will choose you over whatever great smell or other distraction may be there because he is sure that he will miss out on something wonderful if he ignores you!
* Since originally writing this article, I have started teaching the recall in a different manner from the one listed above in section 2. Rather than rewrite the article, I decided that I would just add this section to the end. This way, you have two training ideas to consider when you are working with your dog at home. I personally use and prefer this new way because it also teaches your dog a second, important skill (stop and turn when he hears his name)
4. Play the “Name Game” with your dog. This will teach the dog that when he hears his name, he should immediately stop and turn to look at you for a reward. The basis of the name game is the idea that if you do not have your dog’s attention, you cannot expect him to come back to you or otherwise respond to cues. This provides a way for us to get our dog’s attention quickly and easily. This is one game that cannot be played too much, and could potentially save your dog’s life in an emergency situation.
Playing the “Name Game”
Begin indoors in a low-distraction environment with a pocketful of yummy treats. Call your dog’s name when he is nearby and not looking at you, but not otherwise distracted. Say his name only once.
The behavior we are looking to mark is the dog turning his head AWAY from whatever he was looking at. Whether you are using your clicker or a verbal marker (“Yes!”), do it just as he is turning his head. He can then come to you for lots of praise and yummy treats.
If, when you called your dog’s name, he failed to look at you, wait several seconds before trying again. We want him to learn to respond to his name right away, not after he hears you say it several times. If he still does not look, you may be calling him when he is too distracted by something else. Move to a less-exciting environment. At the beginning, we do not want to be competing with other enticing things. Once your dog learns what is expected, you can begin to practice with more distractions.
As you practice and the dog begins to understand what this game is all about, we can begin to add the “Come” cue. The sequence now looks like this:
-say dog’s name-click for head turn- say “come” as dog is coming to you- reward and praise!-
Make sure you are certain the dog is going to come to you before you give the cue!
This game can easily be integrated into your everyday life. You can even play as you are relaxing for the evening with tv or a book, calling the dog periodically, rewarding, and then letting him go back to what he was doing.
Remember, the name game is one of those very important games that you cannot over-do. You want your dog to be so fluent in this game that he will stop and turn when he hears his name no matter where he is, or what else may have his attention. This is something that can only be successful achieved through practice, so get out there and play with your dog!