Coming when called is one of the most important behaviours that we can teach our dogs, and frequently one of the most frustrating for owners. A reliable recall means less stress for both owner and dog, and the ability to call your dog away from a potentially dangerous situation could save it from injury or death. Any dog of any age can be taught successfully.
First decide what your command word will be and make sure that everyone in the household uses the same word. It is not a good idea to use the dog’s name. His name is used to get his attention, and he will be accustomed to hearing it frequently. If you plan on doing formal training avoid the word ‘here’ as it is too similar in sound to ‘heel’. ‘Come’ is a good choice as it is distinctive.
The golden rule of recall is that coming to you must always be a pleasant experience for the dog and should never have any negative consequences for him. Do not call him to you to tell him off. If you need to do anything to your dog which he dislikes, e.g. clip his nails, bath him, medicate him, etc., then go and get him rather than calling him. If he gets the idea that responding to your ‘come’ might result in something unpleasant, then he will grow reluctant to obey. Your tone of voice should always be light and happy. A stern bellow is likely to make him think twice about returning.
The easiest way to reinforce in the dog’s mind that ‘come’ means good things is to use feeding times. Once you have prepared his food call ‘come’ prior to putting the bowl down. Do this even if he is sitting beside you waiting. Call, take a couple of steps holding the bowl (he will be following you), tell him ‘good come’ and give him his meal. He is thus learning the meaning of the word and that it is associated with a reward.
Keep a few treats in your pocket and, if you see him coming towards you of his own accord in the house or garden use the opportunity to call ‘come’ and when he reaches you give him a treat and praise him enthusiastically. It is a good idea to touch either the dog’s collar or neck when he comes to you as it will lessen the chance of him dashing off again immediately should you need to attach the lead.
The easiest way to reinforce in the dog’s mind that ‘come’ means good things is to use feeding times
When out walking, try to pick an area/route with as few distractions as possible and if you are not near a road, attach a long line to his collar. Call him to you. If he does not respond immediately give a little tug on the line and run backwards encouraging him in a happy voice. When he gets to you praise and reward and let him go again. Doing this several times during a walk reassures the dog that going back to you is good. He gets a treat, is praised, and is allowed to go back to exploring.
Your secret weapon
Once your dog has a basic understanding of what you mean by 'come', you can begin to cement the behaviour with this secret weapon: Every once in a while make the prize to a successful recall, very, VERY special. It could be freshly cooked chicken breast, or something else that is a rare but very tasty treat. Remember it has to be extra special - something the dog will remember. Just make sure the dog has no idea this recall has an extra special reward coming up - as the idea is to put him in the frame of mind that the next reward could be a highly valued prize.
A couple of points to note
Do not keep repeating the command. If you have to encourage your dog in, make high pitched, excited noises. Also, do not let your dog make a mistake. If he is off-lead and really distracted by something and you know that the chance of him heeding your call is zero, then don’t call. If you call him several times before he decides to return then he is learning that he can ignore you. He must understand that coming back is not optional, it is a command that he must respond to immediately. Try to ensure that he is successful every time.
If you are aiming eventually to have a dog that will recall reliably off lead then you will need gradually to proof him against various distractions. Dogs do not generalize and the fact that his recall is very good at home and on-lead in areas of low distraction does not mean that this reliability can be transferred to a park with people and other dogs running around.
Once you have an excellent recall in the garden start adding distractions. Low level to begin with, such as someone else walking around. When he is solid with that introduce a slightly higher distraction such as the person running or jumping about. Solid with that? Add the person whistling, singing. Still solid? Add the person bouncing a ball or eating something tasty. Then practise somewhere such as a quiet park with only a few people about. When recall is solid there, then the next step is a busier park with children and other dogs around and practise again. All this preparatory work should be done on a long line. The aim is to give him no opportunity to ignore you. You give the command and he comes - either voluntarily or with a gentle reminder that he has no choice in the matter. Always reward compliance. Get excited, praise him enthusiastically, give him a treat, play a game.
When you feel you have proofed him against as many distractions as possible, the try off-lead recall. Initially in a quiet secure area and very gradually working up to the high level of distraction of a busy park.. Remember, never call your dog when you know there is a chance that he will ignore you. If he does not come on your first command, walk up to him and do a recall on-lead, if that is successful let him go again. Should your dog run off do not chase him, he will probably think it is a game and will run even faster. It is better to attract his attention and run away from him, or arouse his curiosity by pretending to have found something very interesting on the ground.
Consistency is the key - and good luck!
It can take a lot of time and patience to get a reliable recall. Go slowly from very low levels of distraction to very high. Make sure each step is solid on-lead before moving on and never be reluctant to go back to reinforce a previous step. Don't forget your secret weapon - you might be surprised at how effective an extra special, highly valued prize will help reinforce your dogs recall.
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