Ask the Trainer: How do I train my dog to come when called?

Q: We have a 3 year old black lab/pit bull mix who is very loving. She obeys most all basic commands like stay, sit, speak, roll over, etc. The one we have the most trouble with is “come”. We want her to come at our call under all circumstances. Suggestions?

A: Ah, coming when called. That’s a common issue for many owners. It isn’t any fun to have a dog who won’t come when called. And it’s dangerous. Unfortunately, even the most diligent owner can have a dog get off lead in an unsafe environment. Doors get left unlatched, collars break, clips on leashes jam, things can happen.

Why Doesn’t My Dog Come?

There are several things you can do with any behavior your dog exhibits and to teach a great recall (coming when called) we’re going to teach the behavior, reward the behavior and give a reminder of the new behavior.

Believe it or not, sometimes by accident, we teach them the exact opposite behavior – NOT to come when we call them:

  • Dogs don’t come because they don’t have to.
    Sometimes, if a dog is occupied doing something, they don’t come when we call them. This teaches them that “come” is optional. They can take a minute to smell something delicious, roll in the grass, or scratch an itch and then, if they want to, they can come to us.
  • Dogs don’t come because they get chastised for coming to us.
    After leading you on a merry romp around the yard and neighborhood, your dog finally allows you to grab her collar. She’s had a wonderful time running around with you – but you aren’t so happy and you tell her “bad girl, didn’t you hear me call you?”.
  • Dogs don’t come because something they don’t want to happen, happens next.
    We all are guilty of doing this sometimes. We call our dog and put them in their crate. Or call them and do their nails, or give them a bath or a pill. Or we call them indoors from outside and then we leave for the day. None of these are fun for the dog, so he learns to avoid us when we use that “come” voice.

So Let’s Teach the Behavior!

You will need:

  • One dog with selective hearing (hears “cookie” just fine but not “come”)
  • A six foot leash
  • A long line or clothesline – 50’ to 100’
  • A martingale collar
  • Lots of high value treats (cheese, chicken, liver and so on)
  • *Optional: A bait bag or fanny pack to hold the treats

Step One: Put Your Martingale Collar and Leash on the Dog

Step Two: Give everyone some high value treats:
Everyone can have different treats – in fact, it may help.

Step Three: In a safe location indoors, drop the lead and have someone call the dog.

  1. Call, “Fido, COME” in a pleasant voice – remember to use the dog’s name BEFORE the command so he knows you are talking to him.
  2. Start making noise “pup,pup,pup,pup” in a pleasant tone. Don’t use the dog’s name again and don’t say “Come” again but continue to make noise until the dog reaches you.
  3. Back up as quickly as your are comfortable doing. Backing up and making noise make you much more interesting to “chase”.
  4. When the dog “catches” you, feed the dog a yummy treat with both hands. Make sure both hands are touching your body.
  5. Step on the lead with your foot, give another treat and a chin scratch or belly rub.

Step Four: Have the next person call your dog and repeat the same steps.

Step Five: Have each person call the dog three times, then stop and repeat at the next session.

Step Six: Have the people spread out – one person in the living room, one in the kitchen, one upstairs.

Step Seven: Using your long line, practice outdoors.

Step Eight: Practice putting on your six foot lead after your dog comes to you, gets a treat, and a scratch or belly rub.

So that’s teaching a dog that it is fun, exciting and rewarding to come when called.

Some Things to Remember

  • Keep making noise and backing up until your dog catches you. Don’t give up! You have to make yourself the most interesting thing in the room/yard.
  • Make sure you feed the dog with both hands.
  • Be sure to have your hands touching your body – otherwise you may teach your dog to come in and stop, just out of your reach.
  • When using a long line, please wear close toed shoes, long pants and gloves to avoid “rope burns”. Always carry something to cut the line quickly in case of emergency.
  • If you need your dog so you can cut their nails, give them a pill, bathe them, put them in their crate – go get them! Never have something the dog perceives as negative happen after you call them.
  • NEVER HAVE YOUR DOG OFF LEAD IN AN UNSECURED LOCATION.

How Long Will it Take?

Coming when called takes time and practice – especially in stimulating environments. Different dogs and different breeds will vary in how long it may take to get consistency. Sighthounds, dogs who hunt with their eyes like Afghans, Whippets, and Greyhounds, will be distracted by visual stimulation. Scent Hounds, dogs who hunt with their nose like Beagles, and Bloodhounds will have a hard time concentrating with lots of smells. Terriers, dogs who are bred to chase small furry things, like Jack Russell Terriers and Wheaton Terriers will find small moving objects a great distraction. Bird Dogs like Setters, Spaniels and Retrievers may find ducks or geese a huge distraction. Most dogs need many repetitions of the recall being rewarding and very few instances of the recall leading to something they don’t like before the recall is consistent.

If you have a fenced yard and you are in the habit of calling your dog in from the yard, remember to make it a positive experience for your dog most of the time. If you are going to leave to go to work, for example, call your dog in and give them a treat and send them right back outside. Repeat this three or four times over the next fifteen to thirty minutes. When you do call them in and close the door behind them, give them a stuffed Kong™ or chewie and WAIT ten to fifteen minutes before you leave. You don’t want your dog to associate coming when called with you leaving – or they aren’t going to come very many more times!

Dogs should never be off leash in an unsecured location. The chance of injury to the dog is too great. Plus, in most places, it is against the law to have a dog off leash. Keep your dog on leash at all times. Your dog can have just as much fun on a long line and you will have the peace of mind that your dog is safe.

In an Emergency

Leashes do break, so do collars and doors get left open or unlatched so accidents can happen. If your dog is in danger from being off lead and you have used this training technique:

  • STOP – don’t chase your dog.
  • CALL – use your dog’s name and the word “Come”.
  • RUN – in the opposite direction from your dog. Yes, you read it right, run away from your dog. You can’t outrun them so running towards them won’t work. You can’t catch them.
  • MAKE NOISE – “PUP,PUP,PUP” or any other noise to get your dog’s attention
  • FALL – when your dog gets close to catching you, fall down and lie on your back with your eyes almost closed.
  • GRAB – when your dog is right over you (she will come over to see what happened to you) grab her.

You can only use this method two or three times in your dog’s life – so save it for a real emergency when your dog is in danger and not when it is only inconvenient for you to have a loose dog. Your dog will figure it out and it will cease to be effective if you use it too many times.

So keep your dog safe. Practice the recall and remember to only have your dog off leash in a secured location. Thanks for asking your question and let us know how you do. Train your dog, enjoy your dog.

(c) Susan D. Greenbaum August 2012

Coming When Called
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