Updated: Oct 1, 2021
Teaching a dog to reliably come when called (also known as a recall) can be a challenge for some pet owners, and is a skill I work on regularly with my clients as well as my own dogs. On the list of truly important skills to teach a dog, I rank this at the top because it's such a vital safety skill, allowing you to keep the dog away from trouble or to return back to you in worrisome situations.
When taught to a high level of reliability, a dog can safely earn more freedom, which is certainly enriching for them. A reliable recall also saves the owner lots of worry and frustration. And it's not hard (or maybe I should say, it's not complicated) to teach. But it does take a strong commitment to training and requires you to build the skill in a step-by-step fashion, always aiming to set the dog up for success. Recalls that are consistently reinforced with high-value treats and other rewards help to convince the dog it is always in his best interest to respond, and he will learn to do so happily. (I do appreciate that some individual dogs are harder to teach, especially if they already have a history of running off, or have a strong prey drive, so more focused training will be needed for them while maintaining safety within fenced areas or on long lines.)
Some of my clients mention having to resort to crinkling a plastic bag of treats (or shaking a box of biscuits, or saying "Treat!") to get their dogs to come to them, and this is the interesting tidbit I'd like to focus on in today's article. Why is the dog responding reliably to these cues, but not the verbal cue, "Come!", or "Come, you d@*#! dog!" Well the answer is in the consistency of positive consequences.
If you think about it, when you pick up a bag of treats in order to give one to the dog, the crinkling sound naturally happens. Additionally, if the dog is nearby, seeing the bag in your hands is also a salient cue that predicts a treat is on the way. So it's no surprise that our very observant dogs with exceptionally good hearing pay close attention to these cues and are quick to come to you in anticipation of the goodie.
I've recently seen two unintentional recall cues crop up in my own home with my own dogs. When I use my treadmill, I have a handful of kibble on board and I throw pieces around the house, including on and under furniture, so the dogs have to hunt down each goodie. It's a fun game for them, and I do it almost every single time I use the treadmill. So now, when I plug in my treadmill and it makes a distinct beeping sound, the dogs immediately come running, often from a nap in my bedroom! Every time!
Similarly, when I turn on a dremel (used to file their toenails), they also come running to me from another room. And please trust me when I say both dogs were actively uncomfortable with the sound and even the briefest touch of the dremel when it was first introduced. The key detail, however, is that I consistently paired baby-step exposures to the dremel with treats. I did this enough that they now run to me in happy anticipation of a dremeling session. The sound of the dremel motor has become a recall cue.
So why are so many people having trouble getting their dogs to respond reliably to a verbal cue like 'come'? Here are some likely reasons:
The dog is not consistently rewarded for his efforts
The rewards offered are not sufficiently motivating to the dog
The dog is actually punished when he arrives, at least some of the time (more on that below)
The dog is too distracted by something in the environment and you've not yet put in sufficient training time to be able to expect a response in the face of that level of difficulty
You may be wondering, why would anyone punish their dog when he comes to them? Well it happens a lot, though not always intentionally. For example, one client had an energetic pup who loved to romp around in the fenced yard in the morning. When asked to come back inside, he was then promptly put in his crate and they departed for work. From the dog's perspective, coming when called was punished by hours of isolation in a crate. He soon learned not to come in this context! (A resolvable issue, BTW.)
In another example, sometimes the punishment IS intentional, like when a dog has run off for an extended period of time (having a grand romp) and the owner is roaming the neighborhood shouting or pleading for him to come. When the dog is finally worn out and ready to come home, the frustrated owner may berate or smack the dog in frustration. This can lead to the dog being afraid to come home, which is surely not what we want.
So my takeaway advice is: commit to a consistent and highly rewarding training plan; protect whatever cue you're using so it ALWAYS predicts fabulous rewards when the dogs gets to you; never punish the dog when he arrives; and keep him safe during the training process so he's never able to practice running off and potentially be in danger.
If you need training guidance, I'm always happy to help!
Virginia Dare is a certified dog trainer & behavior counselor with decades of experience. Her business offers live video consultations anywhere in the US for training and behavior help, along with pre- and post-arrival counseling for new puppies.
She also provides in-home, private lessons and behavior consultations in northern Fairfield and Westchester counties, western New Haven county, Putnam and southern Dutchess counties.
Please visit www.NorthStarCanines.com/services to learn more, or contact me at 804.784.0120