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Training a Reliable Recall

Reasons Dogs Don't Come When Called

"Come!" means to you that you want your dog to come to you so that you can get your hands on them. If the dog thinks it means something different, they aren't likely to come when you call them. 

 

It means good times are over.

Fido is playing outside and having a great time. His person calls him, so he runs to them. His person puts a leash on him, takes him inside, and leaves for work. Fido thinks "Come" means the end of playtime. The next time Fido is having fun playing outside and his person calls him, he declines. "No thanks, I'm playing right now."

Spot is at the dog park running with his best buddy Spike. His person calls him to "Come!", so he goes to see what he wants. His person puts his leash on and takes him home. Spot thinks "Come" means it's time to leave the dog park. The next time he is having fun with his friend Spike and his person calls him, he declines. "No thanks, we're in the middle of a game of chase and I'm not ready to leave yet."

It means bad times are coming.

Fluffy's person calls her to "Come!" She starts on her way but gets distracted by an interesting smell or a leaf blown by the wind. She checks these things out before finally making her way to her person. Her person is angry that Fluffy did not come immediately when told. Her person yanks her roughly by the collar and with a scowl on her face yells at Fluffy, "You will do what I say when I say it, do you hear me?!" Fluffy thinks "Come!" means her person is angry and will jerk her around and yell at her. The next time her person calls her, she declines. "No thanks, I don't trust you not to be mean to me if I come to you."

FiFi's person calls her to "Come!". When she does, her person puts her in the bathtub or cuts her toenails, or shoves a pill down her throat. FiFi hates those things! She decides it's best not to come when her person calls her because she will make her do something she hates. 

He doesn't see the point. 

Rover is hiking off-leash in the woods with his person when a deer suddenly runs by. What a treat! Rover runs after the deer. His person calls him to "Come!" Why on Earth would he want to stop chasing a deer to come back to his person for no reason? His person is boring and never gives him a treat or even an "atta boy" when he comes to him. Chasing this deer is WAY more exciting than coming to my person.  

AVOID THESE THINGS TO KEEP YOUR DOG'S RECALL SOLID

Don't call your dog while he is having fun and then do something he hates, like cutting nails or getting a bath.

Don't call your dog inside while he is having fun and then be boring or put him directly in his crate for the day. 

Don't call your dog and not give them a treat, toy, praise, or other reward they really love.

Don't get angry with your dog for not coming fast enough. This will definitely NOT make them want to come to you faster next time. 

Don't use your recall word "Come!" unless you are sure they will do it. Once a dog learns they can ignore the recall, it is incredibly difficult to train them to be reliable in all circumstances. These dogs generally need life-long management to avoid them getting away from you.

Follow these steps so that you and your dog are speaking the same language with the same definition of the word "Come!"

LEVEL 1

Coming to you pays off

  1. Load up with lots of small, delicious treats. You'll want them small so your dog can eat a lot of them and still not get too many extra calories.

  2. Hang out with your dog in a safe, fenced area. If you don't have one, put your dog on a long-line (10' - 20' leash).

  3. Let your dog do whatever they want. Don't say anything or try to get their attention. Just hang out and enjoy watching them play.

  4. When your dog comes up to you, tell them they are super awesome and give them 10 treats in a row. It has to be one at a time and not all 10 at once, or the dog only counts it as one treat.

  5. Encourage them to go back to sniffing and playing. 

  6. The next time they come to you, repeat step 4. 

You will notice your dog start checking in with you more and more frequently. They may not want to leave you at all. When this happens, you are ready for the next level.

Image by James Barker

SUCCESS

When to Level-Up

LEVEL 2

Play hard to get

  1. Load up with lots of small, delicious treats. You'll want them small so your dog can eat a lot of them and still not get too many extra calories.

  2. Hang out with your dog in a safe, fenced area. If you don't have one, put your dog on a long-line (10' - 20' leash).

  3. Let your dog do whatever they want. Don't say anything or try to get their attention. Just hang out and enjoy watching them play.

  4. When your dog comes up to you, run away. Run a little and then let them catch you.

  5. Tell them they are super awesome and give them 10 treats in a row. It has to be one at a time and not all 10 at once, or the dog only counts it as one treat.

  6. Encourage them to go back to sniffing and playing. 

  7. The next time they come to you, repeat. 

Your dog's drive (desire) to run to you will build. They will not only be coming to you but running to you as fast as they can. They think this is the most fun game they have ever played!

Image by Joe Caione

SUCCESS

When to Level-Up

LEVEL 3

Restrained Recall

  1. You will need a helper for this level. *

  2. Your helper will hold your dog by the harness while you run several feet away from them. 

  3. When your dog is straining on the leash to run to you, you will say the cue "Come!" Wait until your dog is looking at you and not focused on something else. Note, this is the first time we use the cue "Come!"

  4. When your helper hears you say "Come!", they will immediately let go of the leash.

  5. When your dog reaches you, run backwards 3 steps. Give them several treats in a row while moving backward in different directions so they follow you to get the next treat. **

  6. Repeat the exercise. 

* If you don't have a helper, use a tree as a stand-in. Put your dog on a long-line. Pull it behind a tree so that the tree holds them in place. When you call them, let go of the line.

** If your dog likes toys better than treats, use them as the reward instead,

Practice this over several sessions until your dog is really good at it. His response is automatic, reliable, and swift. He is highly motivated to get to his owner.

Image by Courtney Roberson

SUCCESS

When to Level-Up

LEVEL 4

Loose Recall - Distraction Free

  1. In a safe enclosed area, allow your dog to wander freely off-leash. If you don't have one, put them on a long-line. Do this there where there are relatively low distractions - the backyard, the same old place they've been before.

  2. Do not call them if they are focused on something interesting. Wait until they are aimlessly moving about. 

  3. Call your dog to "Come!"

  4. Do the same extended reward party as before. Run backwards a few steps and feed a treat. Keep moving away from them in different directions, giving a treat each time. Praise in an excited voice. If they prefer a toy, play with the toy with them. 

SUCCESS

When to Level-Up

Practice this over several sessions until your dog is really good at it. His response is automatic, reliable, and swift. He is highly motivated to come running to you.

Image by Berkay Gumustekin

LEVEL 5

Call Away from a Distraction

  1. You will need a helper for this exercise. 

  2. Your helper shows your dog a treat while you run away from them, as in Level 3. At first, their treat should be less enticing to your dog than the ones you have. 

  3. After running several feet away, call your dog to "Come!"

  4. When your helper hears you call your dog, they will close off the treat so the dog cannot get to it.

  5. When your dog comes to you, reward excessively as before. 

SUCCESS

When to Level-Up

Continue at this level until the helper no longer needs to close their hand. The dog will leave their open hand of food and come running to you.

Image by Joséphine Menge

LEVEL 6

Call Away from a Chase

  1. You will need a helper for this exercise. It is helpful to have 2 helpers but not completely necessary.

  2. We are now preparing our dog to come when called in a real-life situation - they are running after something and we need them to stop.

  3. Put your dog on a long line held by Helper 2. If you don't have a 2nd helper, you will hold the leash.

  4. Helper 1 is several feet away with something the dog really wants - a tasty treat or a toy. Helper 1 gets the dog excited by waving around what they have.

  5. Whoever is holding the leash will let the dog drag them to Helper 1. For 3 trials, allow the dog to have what Helper 1 is holding.

  6. Next, only allow the dog to drag about half way to Helper 1 and then call the dog. Whoever is holding the leash will stop the dog's forward movement. 

  7. Wait them out. When the dog returns to you, have the usual party.

  8. When the person holding the leash no longer needs to stop the dog's forward progress with it, let them get a little closer to Helper 1.

  9. Repeat until your dog can get all the way to helper 1 and return when you call them without needing to be stopped by the leash.

SUCCESS

When to Level-Up

Continue at this level until the leash is no longer needed to stop the dog's forward progress. As soon as they hear the "Come" cue, they immediately turn away from Helper 1 and run back to you.

Image by vadim kaipov

LEVEL 7

Grandma's Rule

​Otherwise known as Premack's Principle. Grandma's Rule is that if you eat your vegetables, then you can have some cookies. This is how we teach our dog that coming when called doesn't mean the good times end.

  1. Practice on-leash at first. Let your dog get interested in something in the environment. It could be a bush she wants to sniff or a squirrel to chase. 

  2. Call your dog to "Come!"

  3. When your dog comes to you, reward them by letting them do what they wanted to do (sniff the bush or chase the squirrel).

  4. Periodically call your dog inside when they are outside playing. Give them a few treats and send them back outside to play again. 

  5. Take your dog for a walk and practice calling them in different locations, then allowing them to sniff something they are interested in.

  6. If your dog doesn't come to you, go back to previous levels and do more practice. They aren't ready, yet.

SUCCESS

When to Level-Up

Practice this periodically throughout your dog's life. Use it or lose it, as they say. When you call your dog inside from the yard, always give them a treat.

Image by Stainless Images

EMERGENCY RECALL: What to do if your dog won't come

It takes a while to develop a really reliable recall. One of the rules is that you don't use the word "Come!" unless you are 100% sure they will. What do you do, then, if you need your dog to come to you and you know the word isn't going to work? Here are some things to try.

  • Ask "do you want a treat?" Shake a treat bag if you have one in reach. 

  • Ask "do you want to eat" or "do you want to play fetch" or "want to go for a car ride"? - anything that your dog absolutely loves. If they come to you, give them what you promised, or it won't work the next time. 

  • Try running away from them like the game you played in Level 2. 

  • Sit down on the ground and pretend to be intensely interested in something on the ground.

  • If they are in a safe enclosed area, grab a slip leash and walk them down until you can get the leash on them. 

  • Above all, implement strong safety and management techniques so that you won't need to try and get your dog back in a panic.