It was a terrifying sight. Dodging and weaving, the Dachshund slipped through busy traffic, heedless to the danger around him. His eyes were locked on the ditch across the highway, where the bunny he was chasing had just disappeared. Luckily for him, his life was saved by the quick thinking of a group of drivers, who temporarily blocked traffic until the dog’s frantic owner could corral him. His leash trailed behind him, having been yanked out of his owner’s hand when the rabbit bolted in front of them.
It’s every owner’s worst nightmare: a dog who gets away and ends up hurt or killed because he doesn’t respond to his recall. There are a lot of dangers in our world, and it only takes one mistake at the wrong time or the wrong place for your dog to find himself in a bad situation. Teaching your dog to come when you call him could save his life, and will certainly save you some frustration. Here’s what you can do to help your dog develop a rocket recall.
Photo by M. Maddo
First of all, remember that dogs don’t come preprogrammed with recall software. While your little puppy will naturally run to you when you engage him, that response will fade as he hits adolescence. Dogs learn what we teach them, and it’s no more fair to get mad at your dog when he doesn’t come in from the yard if you haven’t put the training time in as it is to get mad at your child for coming home late if you haven’t taught him to tell time.
Let’s begin at the beginning, then. As I’ve written before, I strongly believe that it’s unfair to ask more of our dogs than we would of ourselves. So, let’s start with your recall. If your child, coworker, or significant other calls you, do you always drop what you’re doing and run to them? Let’s think about those times when you wouldn’t. If you’re engrossed in some other task, you may ignore them or call out, “just a minute!” or “what?!” instead of running to them. What would it take to increase your reliability? Take a minute to really think about this. If you want your dog to respond immediately and enthusiastically every single time you call him, how can you make sure that he never gives you the doggy equivalent of “just a minute!”?
Many dogs have a problem with their recall cue. Perhaps you’ve been screaming at your dog to “come” for years and he rarely listens, or perhaps you’ve used it at times you shouldn’t have. If you think there’s any chance that your cue has become poisoned (associated with unpleasant things) or that your dog has learned to ignore it, start by choosing a new cue. Instead of calling for your dog to “come,” what about using “here,” “to me,” “now,” or even “cookies”? It doesn’t matter what cue you use. All that matters is that you use it consistently and put in the time to make sure it’s effective.
It’s easy to abuse your dog’s recall cue unintentionally, so be very careful to only use it responsibly. Consider it from the dog’s perspective. If you occasionally give him a treat when he comes, but also sometimes trim his toenails or administer ear meds after he runs to you, he’s going to be suspicious when you call him. That’s not the response we want! Only use your recall cue for pleasant things, especially early in training. If you’re going to do something to your dog that he’s not a big fan of (or worse yet, something he actively hates), just go get him without saying anything. Don’t break your cue by letting it become paired in your dog’s mind with anything icky.
Remember, too, that dogs learn through repetition. As you’re working on your dog’s recall, only call him when you know he’s going to come. If you’re not sure he’ll respond, don’t risk teaching him that he can ignore you. Instead, just go get him. If you’re not willing to bet $50 that your dog will run to you the instant you call him, you shouldn’t be calling him. (Don’t panic when you think about this. As his reliability increases you’ll be willing to make that bet more and more frequently.)
Just as with any training, it’s important to manage your dog’s behavior until you’ve trained him. I use long leashes to safely give young or untrained dogs freedom without risk. Generally, I don’t allow my dogs off leash outside of safely fenced areas until I know that I can call them off anything we encounter: wildlife, children, other dogs, ice cream trucks, or whatever other distractions are most alluring for your dog.
Training a recall involves lots of repetition. The goal is to create such a quick, reflexive response that your dog doesn’t even stop to weigh his options. I know that if my predatory dog Layla ever paused to do this cost-benefit analysis, chasing critters would win over coming to me every single time. Since I have such a history of rewarded recalls with her, though, she doesn’t take the time for mental calculations. She just runs to me when she hears her recall cue, the same way Pavlov’s dogs would drool when he rang a bell. Her response is conditioned.
Start inside, in a boring area. Say your dog’s name in a cheerful tone of voice, then say your recall cue word as your dog starts to move towards you. When he arrives, surprise him with his favorite treat. The surprise is important here. We don’t want your dog to only come when you have treats, although in the beginning stages you need to always have treats. The treats should be a reward, not a bribe. Be very generous with the reward so that you really make an impression. Leslie Nelson recommends rewarding for a full thirty (yes, 30) seconds after your dog arrives, and I find that this works really well.
Try to surprise your dog with a recall at least three times a day. Say his name, say his recall word as he starts to move towards you, and surprise him with really delicious treats. I use lamb lung with Layla because it’s her favorite. Dobby works for tuna or cream cheese, and Mischief loves blue cheese or rabbit.
After a few weeks of practicing your surprise recall at least three times a day, try using it when your dog is mildly distracted. By this point you should be getting a very enthusiastic response! If you’re not, keep working on the surprise recalls or get help from a professional until you’re seeing the level of joy and excitement you’d like. Once your dog is reliable around mild distractions, move up to moderate distractions, and eventually tough distractions. Expect this process to take a couple months with a naïve dog, and even longer if you’re retraining a dog who had already learned to blow you off.
But what do you do if your dog doesn’t respond when you call him? Honestly, if you’re working within the parameters detailed here, that shouldn’t be happening very often, if ever. Remember that you’re not going to call your dog unless you’d bet $50 he’ll come. Don’t make risky bets!
That said, sometimes something will happen to distract your dog on his way to you or you may misjudge the situation. If that happens, resist the urge to call him again unless you’re fairly certain he legitimately didn’t hear you the first time. Instead of teaching him that he’ll get a second chance if he blows off your first cue, do something else to get his attention.
Clapping, making kissy noises, and running away often work very well to draw a dog’s attention. If these don’t work, walk (don’t run, which may spark a “catch me if you can” chase game that you’re sure to lose) up to him and collect him quietly. Resist the urge to punish him, as this would only teach him that allowing you to catch him is a bad idea and make him more difficult to get in the future. If he’s wearing a long line (which he should be, if he’s still unreliable), step on the line to prevent him from moving further away, then walk along the line until you get to him.
When you’re close enough that you’re quite certain he’ll respond to you, whether that’s 5 feet away or 5 inches, say his name and try your recall again. If he responds, praise and pet him enthusiastically but withhold the food reward. Ask him for another behavior he’s good at, like sit or shake, then try another short recall from that distance and reward him as usual. The message is that if he doesn’t respond the first time he’ll have to work harder the second.
It’s definitely worth your time to teach your dog an especially reliable recall. Not only can it provide your dog with a better quality of life by giving them more freedom, but it gives you peace of mind.
Does your dog come when you call them? What did you find the most helpful in teaching him to respond? Please share your questions and ideas in the comments below!