Teach a Dog to Come When Called

Probably the hardest cue for dog owners to train is the recall, or to come when called. Even a prolonged 'stay' isn't as hard to achieve as this holy grail of dog training behaviors. So, why is it so hard for us to teach our dogs to come to us?

Think in terms of reinforcement. What things are you, the dog owner, doing to reinforce your dog's behavior? Keep in mind reinforcement can work many ways, so the subtraction of something fun can reinforce, as well as the addition of something not so fun. Remember: it's not about what you, the dog trainer, thinks is reinforcing; it's what your dog actually perceives HOW she's being reinforced for WHAT she did that matters – especially when training the recall.

We're Actually Teaching Our Dogs NOT to Come
That's right, the majority of the time dog owners are most likely teaching their dogs NOT to come when called.

Take this scenario: dog owner takes dog to dog park. Upon entering dog park, the restricting leash is removed and Fido is allowed to run free, socialize, smell, chase...all the things a dog loves to do. It's a bit of doggy paradise. Then dog owner decides it's time to go home. Owner begins calling for dog to "come" and –  normally – the recall probably occurs multiple times. Even if the dog knows explicitly what that cue means (most don't), what dog wants to head over to the owner, get the leash snapped on and be led AWAY from doggy heaven? Not many.

Other scenarios in which dog owners 'abuse' the come cue: calling the dog over to get a bath, to go to the vet, to get punished (you know who you are – the dog's doing something he's not supposed to, so you call him over and tell him he's a bad dog for doing whatever behavior you made him come over for), etc.

Teaching Your Dog to Come
Whether you get your dog as an 8-week-old pup or an adult, training him to 'come' to you on cue is an extremely important behavior which must be initiated immediately. No pup is too young nor any dog too old to 'learn new tricks,' so to speak. Any trainer who says puppies younger than 6 months can't learn have no clue what they're talking about: if a dog is old enough to see and walk, you can start training simple behaviors.

Keep in mind you need to train recall behavior – as any other – with a fun attitude, and the dog's 'paycheck' needs to be more rewarding than anything else going on at that moment. In fact, it's best to utilize the dog's absolute favorite reinforcer when training this behavior; best case scenario means only giving out that special treat when the dog comes to you.

To begin, set your dog – and yourself – up for success by attempting recall in a small, confined area. Inside the house would be great, since normally dogs are less tempted to go sniffing/chasing when inside the house. After your dog has mastered an acceptable level of 'come' – by your standards – throughout the house, you can move on to the outdoors, again in a controlled area. A dog trainer must always progress any training exercise in levels which set the dog up for success. Be careful not to put a word to the 'come' behavior too soon in the training process. Barking commands at a dog isn't going to work if the dog isn't aware of what the word means. First attain the behavior; once it's occurring consistently, then you can add a word as a cue.

But How Do I Train the Recall?
There are many ways to train your dog to come – as always, it first depends on what motivates your dog. As an example, I have a high chase-drive dog – a working-line German Shepherd – so I actually worked with her on recalls while playing fetch. She loves chasing and retrieving sticks (I began teaching her fetch immediately when I got her at 4 months of age) and she was consistent in bringing it back. So, as soon as she started heading back towards me on a retrieve, I'd clap excitedly. When she came and dropped the stick at my feet, of course I'd throw it again. Now, when I take her for a walk she can be off leash and every time I clap*, she comes running! She of course associates the hand-clapping with fetch/play/fun, so it's become a recall cue for me.

I also worked on training the same behavior – recall – with a whistle as a cue. Keep in mind you can have multiple cues for the same behavior; what you should never do is attempt to train multiple behaviors off of the same cue. I personally don't use the word "Come" as my cue because a hand-clap or whistle carries farther than my voice.

Important Concept to Remember When Training: Dogs Don't Generalize
A big mistake many dog owners make is believing their dogs come when called 100% of the time, and will do it anywhere, yet they've only practiced with their dog inside the yard. Then they head to the dog park and are completely baffled as to why the dog won't recall. At this point, the dog not only isn't used to performing the behavior amidst distractions, she's mostly trained to perform 'come' only in a certain place.

If you only work with the recall cue when your dog is in the yard, how will he know that 'come' doesn't mean "come to me here in this yard where there's a fence and not many other places to go"? You must work on training the 'come' cue with your dog in MANY different areas and situations. This guarantees 2 things:

  • your dog knows that 'come' means to come directly every time, in any place, and immediately;
  • the dog knows it must recall amidst any number of distractions.

Also, be sure never, EVER to ask the dog to 'come' when you think she might not. Sounds counter-intuitive, doesn't it? By this I mean if you're not ready to lay down a $100 bill on the table as a bet your dog will immediately come when you call her, don't call. If you call her and she ignores you, and/or if you have to repeat the cue several times before she does come (which isn't recommended), you're actually teaching her not to come when called. The way around this is to train it correctly – at first, marking the correct behavior and rewarding the dog for every occurrence; as the dog starts to understand what's required of her, then you start reinforcing only the strongest/fastest/best recalls; eventually the dog will only be reinforced intermittently; finally the dog performs the behavior on cue.

Remember, When Training Recalls:
The main points to remember when teaching a dog to come are:
  • understand what motivates your dog; 
  • train at incremental levels which set the dog (and you!) up for success;
  • be consistent;
  • don't put a word (also known as a cue or command) to a behavior until the dog is offering it consistently and then properly associate that word with the desired behavior;
  • be patient and have fun!

*Keep in mind I taught recall with a dog who already retrieved 100% consistently; also I did it over and over in multiple places, situations, etc. Training a dog to come when called doesn't happen overnight.


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