Teaching Your Dog to Come When Called

Teaching Your Dog to Come When CalledAuthor:  Elsa Larsen, Dog Behaviorist & Trainer | Owner: My Wonderful Dog.  Half the fun of going to a dog friendly beach or park is being able to let your dog off leash to explore.  Many of the beaches in southern Maine, where I live, require that your dog be under voice control. Voice control, in my neck of the woods, means when you call your dog to you, your dog must come immediately--not come to you in a little bit or not come to you at all. Taking into consideration that not everyone who uses the beach or the park likes dogs, even friendly ones, it is the dog owners’ duty to have their dog trained well enough to be able to get their dogs to come to them if there is an issue.

What Motivates Your Dog?—To teach a really reliable recall you need to first figure out what motivates your dog when he or she is outdoors.  Does your dog love butt scratches?  Use them!  Pieces of hotdog?? Get some!  A good game of tug with his favorite toy?  Bring that toy with you!  You’re going to have to have something fantastic on hand to elevate your status enough to encourage your dog to leave behind that great smelling bush or his favorite doggy pal and come running so it’s up to you to figure out what that something is.

The Value of the Reward is a Consideration—My dog loves her dry dog food and she will work very hard for it at home and if there isn’t much going on.  However, she is less inclined to work for plain old dog food if there is a lot happening.  When the environment is filled with distractions, I bring out the big guns, like some yummy hot dog bits.  With Lincoln, food is it but this isn’t true with all of my clients’ dogs.

If your dog likes food but LOVES play, maybe a tasty treat isn’t what’s called for.  Instead you might want to focus on your dogs’ drive to play.  Kim Salerno, the President of TripsWithPets.com, has a rescue Lab named Tucker who went with me a few times on my off leash adventure walks.  Unfortunately, we had to stop the walks for Tucker because he wouldn’t come when he was called—a necessary skill for dogs off leash, so Kim hired me to work with the two of them to try to improve his recall.  

On the walks, I had observed that Tucker was crazy about chasing birds and critters.  He had an incredible prey drive.  I thought to myself, if only we could channel that. I suggested that Kim buy a special toy that she would only use for rewarding Tucker’s recall.  Kim went out and bought him a realistic looking stuffed rabbit. I had her build up Tucker’s enthusiasm for this time over the course of a couple weeks (see How to Create a Motivating Toy).  Finally to really kick in his prey drive I had her buy rabbit scent at a hunting store to rub into the fake rabbit toy.  With some really hard work on Kim’s part we were able to vastly improve on Tuckers skill.  His recall wasn’t good enough to be able to resume my group walks but it was much, much better. Here is a short video of Kim Salerno and her dog Tucker and Tucker’s rabbit:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ba4RZR0_Qmo

Okay, so you’ve figured out what motivates your dog—now what??!!  Understand that the recall is a whole chain of behaviors.  First you have to teach your dog to acknowledge you when you call him to you.  If he doesn’t, the rest just ain’t going to happen.  The paying attention part is the piece that I have my clients work on first.

Conditioning the Word “Come”—The conditioning that I am referring to here is classical conditioning, also known as Pavlovian learning or associative learning.  Below is an exercise that was designed to increase the likelihood that your dog will tune in to you when he or she hears you call. The idea behind this exercise is this--let’s say that for a period of time, every time I was to say your name, I gave you a $20.00 bill.  Soon enough, you would get to feeling all warm and fuzzy inside every time I spoke and you would orient to me.  You wouldn’t be able to help yourself.

Imagine if you could do this with your dog. If you think about it, if you could say come and have your dog turn towards you, the next step—actually getting the dog to you--wouldn’t then be much of a stretch. Pairing the word “come” with the doggy equivalent of a $20.00 bill every time you say it, will help your dog to begin to develop a reflexive response to turn towards you every time he or she hears you say the word.

Here’s how you do it: Count out 20 pieces of your dogs’ food.  Say the word “come” and give your dog a piece of kibble or a treat.  Do this 20 times over the course of the day and every day for a month. Don’t worry about whether the dog actually comes to you.  That isn’t the point.  The point is that you want to have the dog make the association between hearing the word “come” and good things happening. You want to build up the warm and fuzzy.

Reward Check-Ins—In addition to conditioning the word come, I also suggest that you begin to reward your dog for turning and looking at you or coming up to you on walks. You can do this on leash or off.  You can even do this whenever you are hanging out in your house or back yard. I call these check-ins and I see this behavior as precursor to the skill of coming to you when called.

The Bottom Line—You cannot expect an animal to come running to you when they haven’t been trained to do so.  Getting your dog to reliably come to you when you call requires a lot of work both on leash and off. If you are the type of person who knows that you will never have the time available to really practice this skill with your dog--do yourself and your dog a favor and keep him or her on a leash.  It’s the responsible thing to do. You could even use a long line or a long leash on your beach walk, allowing your dog to have some freedom but not enough to be an irritant to other beachgoers or a danger to himself or herself.  Just remember, an unleashed, untrained dog could run off and get lost, or worse, get hurt. On leash or off, happy hiking.

Elsa Larsen and LincolnAbout Elsa Larsen:
Elsa started her dog training career as a volunteer for an organization in Santa Rosa, California that trained dogs for people with disabilities.  In June 2000, Elsa moved to the east coast and created My Wonderful Dog, a non profit that that engaged at risk youth in the care and training of service dogs.  Sadly, the non profit had to close its doors in 2008 due to lack of funding, but under the original banner of My Wonderful Dog, Elsa continues to bring her expertise and knowledge to bear in her quest to create harmony between pet dogs and their owners in and around Portland, Maine and the greater Boston area. With over 15 years experience, Elsa has had the pleasure of working with hundreds of dogs on issues as diverse as dog aggression to puppy management and care.

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