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Coming When Called

Teaching a dog to come, like anything else you’d teach, begins at the place of least distractions and expands from there on out. In other words, training a dog to come when called starts at home, in the house.

Capture the behavior whenever your pooch is on her way to you. Chances are, your dog offers to join you numerous times a day because she wants to be with you, or wants something you have to give, including interaction and affection. Why would you ignore that? Don’t. Name it instead.

Call your dog often, and make it worth her while when she comes. Surprise her periodically with something extra special.

Do not punish your dog, ever, when she comes. Your proximity has to be your dog’s sanctuary. Yes, that includes when your pup brings you the new Italian leather pump she snatched.

A dog shoving something pilfered in someone’s face and not releasing it, but perhaps darting off with it, is neither disobedient nor dominant, but normal; it is a dog-typical behavior to initiate play. If you scold and take the booty away, the pup learns two things: That you aren’t always a safe place to come to, and that bringing you a great find is a bad idea, and she’ll be more reluctant to repeat either in the future. 

Do not call your dog and do something she doesn’t like, e.g. brushing, clipping nails, putting her in her crate because you have to go to work, and with some fearful dogs even putting the leash on.

What if you have to? Realistically, unpleasant things aren’t always avoidable. Should you go to your dog? Get her? No, because then she’ll become suspicious when you approach and learns to evade you, also something you don’t want. For the interim, your best bet is prolonged interaction that feels good before you do what you have to do, but your long term goal should be to counter-condition so that what feels bad now eventually will feel good.

Only when, not before, your dog reliably, happily, without hesitation, comes each time when you call her, take the show outside.

You’ll need: Ideally access to a few fenced-in areas, a long line or tracking lead, and reinforcements. The latter two are must-haves - the long line to manage your dog and enforce the come command, the reinforcements so that... Why does a dog come when he hears the car keys jingle? Because the consequence matters to him: Stimulation. Why doesn’t he come when he is off the leash outside? Because the consequence matters to him: Being away is more rewarding. So you must change the dog’s experiences if you want a different outcome outside, and that’s why you need the right reinforcements.

Unfortunately there is no template answer what those are. The reward hierarchy depends on the dog, the day, the moment, the season, the age, but here are a few ideas:

Extra special food! Generally meat treats and human food works: garlic roast beef, chicken cheese, stinky fish skins, Ziwi Peak – air-dried dog food. Kibble and floury cookies typically don’t work that well.

Don’t just think food, though. Think toys: A ball, Frisbee, toy or flirt pole – googling brings up a lot of info – or playing a chase game with their human excites many dogs more than food because, especially outside, they expect and want movement, action. So, never underrate the value of interacting with you. It matters, or should.

In that sense you can raise the appeal of food by making it part of a game: Toss it and let your dog pounce for it, teach him to catch it in mid-air, or hide a few pieces for him to nose out.

Many dogs love hide and seek. Hide objects that smell like you - a sock or mitten, and play tracking. Do that on leash after a recall, so that your dog experiences that being leash restrained doesn’t mean the fun stops.

Ideally, the leash should not be perceived as aversive, and to work toward that recall frequently, re-clip, and continue the fun on the leash for a while. Follow animal tracks in the snow on leash, pick and share berries on leash, or ask your dog to find the car on the walk back from the park. 

Begin to practice in areas where there are no, or minimal distractions.

Walk backwards and call your dog. Let him move ahead of you, and call. Reward even if you have to reel him in, because you want to make it very clear that what you rehearsed in the house means exactly the same outside: returning to you has pleasant consequences.

Recruit the whole family, form a wide circle, and take turns calling the dog. Each person has a different reward s/he hands over, then another person calls, and so on. Dogs love that fast-paced game, learn to pay attention and come to each member - and tire out. If the dog goes to a person who hadn’t called, s/he must completely ignore him, while the one who did reels him in – and rewards.

When your dog comes every time you call, happily, in several locations, it is time to build in distractions and yes, you still need the long line.

I can’t stress enough the importance to raise the bar incrementally to set your dog up for success - you then can build on.

There is a gradient from least challenging to most difficult to resist; from most likely to succeed with a recall to least likely, and what a dog finds most seductive is as varied as what he finds most rewarding.

Start with stationary objects and the barely moving: adults strolling afar, calm dogs minding their own business, garbage bins on the side of the road. Good places to practice are mall parking lots. Then gradually creep closer, and then increase distance again and practice with stimuli that are more animated: children and dogs playing, wildlife, people who pay attention to your dog, and dogs that bark at him.

Do you have to reinforce every come?

An interesting observation was made during a seminar by Dr. Susan Friedman at A person was practicing recalls with a parrot. He initially applied a variable schedule of reinforcement, which means he rewarded only sometimes and mixed it up so that the parrot could not predict when he would get rewarded. The result was that the parrot didn’t come half the time, and when he did, unenthusiastically. When the person changed the tactic and reinforced every time using a variety of food the parrot really liked, he not only came every time, but sat on his perch flexing his wings and leaning forward, ready and eager for the cue. If you want your dog to eagerly wait to be recalled, it seems reinforcing every time is the way to go.

Don’t be troubled by that. Remember that reinforcing doesn’t always mean food, but also interaction. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging the dog, and engaging her a bit, for a lifetime. Realistically, as you mesh together, you don’t have to make it a big deal event every time, but as long as your dog is still learning, and your relationship developing, and whenever he is highly motivated by something in the environment, impress him when he chooses to return to you when call.  

A very powerful reinforcement is to release the pooch to where he originally wanted to go, and you can orchestrate situations to practice that.

Deposit baits in an area before you get there, or throw a ball with your dog managed on the long line. When he is on his way, step on it, call him, and when he comes, release him to it. Rehearse in different areas and with a variety of tantalizing triggers, and your dog will learn that gaining access to what he wants is contingent on coming to you first. Don’t always release him, though, because in real life he can’t always get what he wants, but when you don’t, provide a different reinforcement of equal or higher value. 

When your dog doesn't come:

Your expectations are unreasonable - Always take your dog’s training level and present ability into account - and regardless of age. What I mean by that is, don’t expect your new rescue dog to come when called just because he’s an adult and “should know it”. Treat a new dog as if he were a pup, and don’t let him off the leash until he is off-leash ready, and until you know more about his social behaviors with people and dogs.

Also understand developmental stages: A 10-week-old pup might come every time, but will likely be much more confident to explore away from you when 10 months old.

You have kibble in your pocket and there is deer poop on the trail - If “food” in the environment excites your dog more than what’s in your bait bag, up the ante.

You are boring - If you are doing your own thing, don’t be surprised if your dog does his own thing.

Be inspiring, and connect to your dog’s mind, not just his stomach, albeit that can sometimes be one and the same, but what you don’t want is a dog who comes, grabs the food, and runs off again. If you want him to stay with you, engage him.

You misjudged distance and intensity of a stimulus and waited too long to call your dog - When your dog is too close to a stimulus, or surprised by something that moves fast, he has you tuned out. He is not willful or dominant, but magnetized, and doesn’t hear you anymore.

Pay attention to that, check frequently if your dog is still mentally connected with you, recall, reward and release him back to what he wants to do. Don’t purposely trek in sensory overwhelming environments that are full of things too enticing to resist, and if you do, keep your dog on the leash or long line until you built up to that level of training.

If you made a mistake, try to get your dog’s attention. Be snappy, lively and swift with your body and voice.

If you can’t get his attention, try to get into his space. Don’t approach like you want to jump on him, but move calmly and casually. You don’t want to frighten your dog, but get close enough that he does hear you again, and then encourage him to follow, ideally without clipping the leash on. The moment he does so willingly, the party begins.

You always aim for voluntarily compliance, instead of “making him” on the leash. Only if you absolutely have to, clip on the leash, but do so without frustration and anger. Walk away from the stimulus, practice a few recalls, highly reinforce, and if possible release him back to what mesmerized him so. Better yet, join him. Being curious about things that matter to a dog deepens the relationship and the mental connection, extending to the outside where the stimuli are.

Your verbal and non-verbal communication doesn’t align - Fast moving toward can be perceived as a threat or play-chase signal, and your dog might either avoid you or joyously accept. In either case, he’ll move farther away from you instead of coming closer.

If you want your dog to come, walk or run away. Running away is also a strong play signal – for the dog to chase you.

However, in real life it is not always wise to run away from a dog who is busy elsewhere, leaving him out of sight, hoping he’ll follow. In these situations, you can move toward and still come out ahead even if your dog runs farther away. This is how: Agree to his game and chase him, but then pause, play-stare and bow – the play bow appears to be one of the few communication signals a dog understands even when a human does it – and then run away. Very likely your dog will now chase you, and then you halt again and chase your dog, and so on, yo-yoing between you chasing and being chased. When he is close, periodically clip on the leash, reinforce and play a different game, and then return to the off-leash chase game if you like.

You moving toward becomes the cue for the whole sequence: you chasing first, but finishing with the dog chasing you. You always end up with the dog, and even putting the leash on is nothing new, but part of the game and not perceived as aversive.

Come is a poisoned cue - The term, coined by Dr. Jesus Rosales-Ruiz, simplified means that a word meant to trigger a specific behavior doesn’t work properly because the consequence is unpredictable for the dog.

I once observed a handler/dog team at a dog show I had a booth at. Throughout the day the dog, a Labrador retriever, was “popped” on a choke collar for one thing or another. When I watched them later compete in obedience, the dog joyfully ran for the dumbbell, but increasingly slowed down the closer he came to his human. I saw similar slow returns with young German shepherd, shock collar trained at a dog park. Fear and ambiguity can lead to a dog who won’t come when called.

In that sense, beware of often calling your dog away from something he really wants to do because it is an intrinsic drive, or needs to do because it is a biological necessity – like having a poop.

Come can also be poisoned if it wasn’t enforced in the past. The dog running off, the person calling, the dog NOT coming, the person calling again, the dog still NOT coming, is a common occurrence. What behavior you think the dog is connecting with the word come? If you say it, enforce it. That’s what the long line is for. If you can’t and you’re not certain that your dog comes, don’t say the word – and investigate how often he is reinforced for ignoring you in other contexts.

If you have a rescue dog, or if you made mistakes in the past, come might be useless. Choose a new word, for example here, close, by-me, and then train as outlined above, in your pleasant, happy or excited voice, not the demanding or frustrated one that makes your dog nervous to return to you. Be equally inviting with your body: smile, be limber, back up with open arms.