5 Rules to a Rapid Recall
"Many are chosen but few come when called."
Those words are on a favorite sweatshirt of mine. When people call me about dog problems, one of the main issues they mention is that their dog won't come when called. Sometimes they'll add a statement that their dog recently got away from them and they couldn't get him back, or that they couldn't get the dog to come in the house when they're ready to go to work, or that the dog will come some of the time but not if "distracted."
When we get a puppy, the pup follows us everywhere. Why, then, does not coming to us become a problem? Because the dog has grown up and is being a dog. Coming when called isn't a natural behavior like scenting, digging, chewing, barking, etc. It's a learned behavior, which means we need to teach it and reinforce it under different conditions until--and this is the important part--it becomes a habit.
We often neglect to call puppies because they're always underfoot. So, it's not something we think about. Then, they grow up and become teenagers and discover that there's a whole big world out there to be explored. They are becoming more independent and starting at around 4 months they're learning that they have a choice about things. They can choose to come or not.
My dog Bleys (who passed away many years ago) taught me this. He was my 2nd dog, and quite different from Amber, my first golden. We were going for a walk at a park well-known as a place to go if you wanted to walk your dog off leash. Things were going good, he was exploring but staying close when a runner came by. Always extremely friendly, Bleys ran up to him to say hello. The guy petted him but kept on running. This seemed like a fun game, so Bleys continued to run with him. I called him, but he ignored me. I knew chasing after him would make it worse, but I was afraid I'd never see him again and felt I had no choice but to follow. They were a lot faster than me, so I chased them for almost a mile before Bleys tired of the game and came back. From then on, he had a habit of dashing off whenever he wanted. Training was a lot different back then, and the conventional way of working on coming when called was to keep the dog on a leash or long line and continually jerk the dog to come to you when you called. Some dogs learned to come this way--they may not have been happy about it but they did come. Others, like Bleys, ran *away* for as long as they could or put on the brakes and stopped moving altogether ( if that happened, conventional wisdom at the time said to just drag him to make him come). That didn't work, either.
If you have a puppy, now's the ideal time to start working on teaching a recall. If you have an older dog who may have picked up some bad habits, don't despair, there IS hope.
The 5 Rules to a rapid recall (plus a Bonus rule!)
1. Don't call your dog to do something he doesn't want to do.
This seems like a no-brainer but we do this a lot without really thinking. Our dog's out playing in the yard, having a good time, and it's time for us to go to work. So we call the dog to come in and as soon as he does, we plop him in the crate. It doesn't take long for the dog to realize that hey, the longer I stay out here, the longer I can have fun. You're better off bringing the dog in several minutes early and making it worth his while before putting him up in a boring crate all day.
2. Don't call your dog if you *know* he's not going to come.
If your dog is running after a squirrel, and you've never been able to call him away from squirrels, you know he's not going to listen. Save your breath. You'll just end up feeling frustrated and he's learning that he doesn't have to come. Consider it as showing that your dog needs more training and go from there. It's all about meeting the dog where he *is* instead of where you think he should be.
3. Don't repeat the command.
Repeating the word over and over isn't really helpful. If it meant something, the dog would have responded. Often we'll repeat the word with more emphasis each time. The dog soon learns that you don't really mean it until you've said "Come, Come, COME!" Or, which "come" is the real one? Don't leave it up to your dog to decide. Call once and that's it. Then either go get the dog--if he's not coming-- or praise and reward for coming.
4. Spectacular rewards = spectacular recalls.
Don't just use mundane, boring treats. Would you rather receive $25 for doing something or $1? Same principle for your dog. However, there's a science to rewarding correctly, otherwise we get a dog who's always judging just how much is enough (something my sheltie tends to do) or who won't come if he doesn't see a treat.
5. This should go without saying, but I've seen it many times. DO NOT CALL YOUR DOG AND THEN PUNISH OR YELL AT HIM!
You've called, cajoled, chased after the dog, and he finally tires and comes. At that point, you're so mad you yell at him, or worse smack him. What did he just learn? Coming to you is NOT fun. Never mind that it took him 20 minutes to come. That's a training issue and punishing him isn't going to make him come back faster next time.
Bonus Rule-Change The Word
6. If your dog is consistently not coming, or ignoring you when you call, Change The Word you're using to call him.
It doesn't matter what word you use as long as you teach the dog to respond to it. So, if you've got a long history of your dog ignoring you, switch to a new word. It won't have the baggage of the old word and you can start fresh. Just don't make the same mistakes or you'll have to change it again!
Have a dog who won't come? There IS hope!
I'm having a Rapid Recall Workshop here in Lexington January 2018. My assistant and I have a series of exercises and games designed to help you improve your dog's recall. You can find out more information by contacting me.