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How to Get Your Dog to Come When Called

Encourage your dog to come to you enthusiastically when you call her.

By
Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA,
December 1, 2009
Episode #039

Ah, that familiar sight--the person standing in the park calling “Dogalini! Come! Dogalini! Come! Dogalini! Get over here right now!” Meanwhile Dogalini’s busy busy busy, as far away as she can be. 

If you and your Dogalini have ever starred in the coming-when-called sound and light show, then this episode is for you.

How to Get Your Dog to Come When Called 

Dogs do not have a grand strategy to make you look like a fool in front of all your dog park friends; they just prefer to hang around wherever they find the most interesting stuff.

Remember three things. One, coming when called--trainers use the term “recall”-- is a skill, just like waiting for permission to go out a door or lying down on cue and staying down while children do jumping jacks and toss Cheez Doodles three feet away. Two, dogs do not have a grand strategy to make you look like a fool in front of all your dog park friends; they just prefer to hang around wherever they find the most interesting stuff. Three is a concept in learning theory--“learned irrelevance.” Basically it means that animals learn to ignore stimuli that don’t have any significance apparent to them. If you’re calling your dog over and over with no result, you can bet that she’s ignoring you because those sounds you’re making don’t mean a thing to her. Now let’s apply these points to teaching your dog to actually show up next to you when you ask her to.

1. Treat Coming When Called as a Skill That Needs Work 

We all know the old joke about how to get to Carnegie Hall, right? “Practice, practice, practice.” For your dog, coming to you after being called--when that entails leaving play with other dogs or abandoning that fascinating animal den a thousand yards away--is the equivalent of going onstage at Carnegie Hall.

Build up to that level of skill with patient practice and start in the most ridiculously easy situations. Call your dog to dinner. Call her to have her leash put on for a walk. Call her for a game of fetch. Right before dinnertime, have your whole family call her back and forth among you, and each of you give her a bit of her meal as a reward. Take a hungry Dogalini out to the backyard or a safe fenced area, let her sniff around awhile so the place isn’t so shiny and new, then call her to you and feed her 15 tiny pieces of roast chicken, one by one, when she comes.

Do it again. Do it again the next day. Do it again the day after that and the day after that and the day after that until you can’t count the number of times you’ve done it. Sometimes deliver chicken, sometimes throw Dogalini’s favorite ball, sometimes run away from her and invite her to chase you. Practice in gradually more challenging situations till your dog is coming to you so fast she looks like an understudy for the Road Runner. Well, make allowances, of course, for the short, the stubby, the geriatric, and the generally languid.

2. Become the Place Your Dog Wants to Be

Since dogs generally want to spend time where the fun and the goodies are, make it your business to be fun and deliver goodies. By itself, having fun around you won’t teach your dog to come when called, but it will make the job a lot easier. Practicing his recall with treats and games certainly helps. Here are some other ways to give the squirrels a run for their money.

“Off-leash time” is not a code phrase for “People stand around like lumps while their dogs find interesting things to do at another venue.” Many dogs, young dogs especially, will need some time to just run their fool heads off at first and/or romp with other dogs. But once that first excitement has worn off, engage with your dog.

Rather than stay in one place, walk around--maybe with a group of your human friends and their dogs. Play fetch with your dog. Play tug with your dog. If you’re not in a crowded dog park with potential for a food fight, toss a treat on the ground, then run away while your dog eats it, and encourage him to chase you. Observe your dog and learn what aspects of the great outdoors he finds most fascinating--torn-up tree stumps? The dens of small animals? Then look for those things yourself and call him over to check them out. I really hope this doesn’t sound like work to you, because it’s not--I promise it’ll make the walk more fun and rewarding for both of you.

A Tip for Maintaining Fun While Putting the Leash On

You’ll often hear the advice not to call your dog to leash him up at the end of a walk, because leashing him in effect punishes him for coming to you. Whoah, if being with you is that much of a drag for your dog, there need to be some changes made. When you leash up, take a moment to ask your dog to do a trick or two, then reward her with a treat. Did she find a prize stick? Let her carry it home. And don’t be one of those Gloomy Guses who trudge out of the park as if they had a suitcase on wheels at the end of the leash instead of their beloved dog! Talk to her affectionately and let her sniff and poke around as you head home.

3. (Don’t) Repeat, (Don’t) Repeat, (Don’t) Repeat

Human babies naturally develop speech by listening to the people around them and imitating them. Dogs, of course, do not. Dogs communicate brilliantly with their body language and with vocalizations. They can be exquisitely sensitive to human emotion. And they can learn on their own that some of our utterances are relevant to them--“walk” and “ball,” for example, are greatest hits.

[[AdMiddle]But the significance of most words, most of the time, doesn’t become clear to our dogs without careful teaching. Trainers used to say a “command,” then elicit the behavior they wanted, often by force. In fact, the best way to teach a word cue is this: Find a way to elicit the behavior you want, then reward it. Do this over and over until your dog (or other animal) is offering the behavior confidently. Then, and only then, speak the cue just before the dog offers the behavior. After many repetitions, your dog learns to associate the cue with the behavior. Because the behavior has been rewarded, she also learns that when she hears the cue and does the behavior, she just might get a goodie--whether that’s a food treat or a ball toss or a chance to go outside.

Because many people don’t teach their dog in a systematic way to come when called, the dog never really learns what the point is of the sound “Dogalini, come!” It’s just another human noise with no particular significance. Maybe your dog comes to you when you start to sound angry. I don’t think this is because he knows you “really mean it now”--it’s more likely that he’s figured out that you’re about to leave when you take that tone. Or he’s approaching to appease you, his social partner, who’s in one heck of a mood suddenly, who knows why.

Get Your Dog to Come When Called by Choosing Another Cue Word

If you’ve fallen into the trap of repeating your recall cue over and over again, your best bet is to teach your dog from scratch to come when called. Also, once an animal considers a stimulus irrelevant, they have a hard time learning that “Oh, wait, that means something after all.” So try a new cue--if you used “Come!,” try “Here!” Or “This way!” I used to know someone whose recall cue was “Leashes!” It was a treat to see her dogs come tearing toward her at the sound.

I’d love to hear from you – visit me on Facebook, call 206-600-5661, or email me – dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com. Audience, this way!

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