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You Called?

Imagine walking through fields and woods with your dog off leash, both of you enjoying a beautiful day. Your dog has gotten quite a bit ahead of you and you want her to come back before she gets to a nearby road. You call her but she decides that coming back isn’t such a grand idea and goes off on her merry way. Scared for her safety, you start shouting for her to come, but she keeps going. You finally catch up to her, nose buried in some sweet aroma, and clip the leash on in a flood of relief and anger.

Having a dog who comes when called can be a life-saver.

What is a recall? A recall, or coming when called, is a series of behaviors that starts when you speak your cue (“Puppy, come!”) and ends when your dog comes. The best way to achieve a reliable recall is to condition your dog to have a joyful emotional response when she hears you call her. If your dog is not happy to come to you, why would she choose you over an interesting distraction? A conditioned emotional response (CER) takes time and practice to install. It doesn’t happen overnight. The dog needs to have a fairly long history of consistently being rewarded highly for coming when called. The rewards reinforce the behavior of coming.

Understand that the dog has a choice: to come or not to come. The correct choice (coming) needs to be reinforced more often than the incorrect choice or it will not win out in the face of distractions. Without a long history of reinforcement from you, the behavior of coming is simply not strong enough to trump all the fun to be had by not coming, which is naturally reinforced by the environment (critters to chase, scents to smell, places to explore, etc).

The recall (or coming when called) is not ONE behavior!

Think about it. For the dog, a recall involves a chain of behaviors:

  1. Noticing that you called. Sometimes the dog is so occupied by a something else (an interesting scent, another dog on the horizon, etc.) that she doesn’t even know you called.

  2. Disengaging from whatever she was doing when you called and turning towards you. Once your voice cuts in, your dog has to stop doing whatever she was involved in, whether that was digging a hole, chewing a bone, playing with another dog, lying in the sun, etc. and turn towards you.

  3. Coming towards you. She has to begin coming to you, not going off in a different direction.

  4. Arriving. It’s no good if the dog comes halfway, gets distracted and runs off again. She has to arrive, close enough for you to take hold of her collar.

Seamus, one of my dogs, happily coming when called instead of continuing to explore.

Things to consider before you start:

  • Distractions: Start your training in an area where there are very few, low-level distractions competing for your dog’s attention. Gradually you can train with more and/or higher level distractions, but for a while, it’s important to keep the distractions at a minimum to ensure your dog is successful.

  • Distance: This means both the distance the dog is from the distractions and the distance the dog is from you. If the dog is closer to the distraction than she is to you, which do you think has a better chance of winning her attention? To set the dog up for success, start your training with the dog close to you when you call, and far from any distractions. Increase your distance from the dog in gradual increments. Over a course of sessions, add slightly higher distractions. When you add distractions, stay closer to the dog at first. Work carefully and systematically through increasing levels of distance and distractions.

  • Timing: Your timing is extremely important! Begin enthusiastically praising your dog the instant she notices that you’ve called, or turns towards you (#1 or #2 in the chain of recall behaviors) and keep praising until she reaches you (the final behavior). Reward her when she arrives.

  • Reinforcement: This is the most important part of the training. What would make your dog super excited to come to you? Most dogs love really great, smelly food. Use something special that your dog doesn’t normally get, and use a lot of it, especially when you begin to train outdoors. Your dog should be somewhat hungry, and the food you are using should be super high-value. You can also reinforce with play, a game of chase, or anything your dog would find highly pleasurable at the time. For many dogs, releasing them to go back to what they were doing is the best reward!

  • Cue: What will you say or do to signal the dog to come to you? Choose a cue and be consistent in its use and its meaning. If you have been using the word “come” and your dog has had lots of practice not responding, choose a different word (“here” for example). Some people use a whistle. Whatever the cue, be consistent!

  • Voice: The sound and pitch of your voice are important. Your dog needs to notice that you have spoken in order to respond, so your voice should sound different than everyday conversation. You want to sound happy and upbeat, not firm or angry. The goal is for the dog to be happy and excited to come to you. If she is so distracted that she doesn’t respond, the distractions are too high and you are too far away. [endif]--

  • Body language: For most dogs, trotting backwards away from them (you are facing the dog and moving backwards) is an irresistible invitation. Continue moving backwards until the dog arrives.

Some dogs and puppies respond well to a person getting down to their level with wide open arms. If your dog is timid or reluctant to come, turn sideways, bend down a bit and clap your hands as you move away, inviting the dog to chase you. ![endif]--

  • Remember, you are trying to create a joyful response in your dog so that eventually she will turn away from distractions immediately and come when called. Don’t be afraid to be silly and have fun as she’s coming to you. Dogs can’t seem to resist when humans act silly!

What if the dog doesn’t come when you call? Stop calling and go to the dog. If necessary, lure her away from whatever is distracting her with your wonderful, smelly treats and reward her for moving away even though you had to help her. Try it again, but stay closer to your dog so it will be easier for her to choose you over the distraction. Reward her with your food and showers of praise if she moves away on her own!!

After the baby steps

Practice, practice, practice in a variety of places. Practice at different times of day. Vary the number of times you call your dog and the number of treats you give before releasing your dog. If you do a lot of repetitions, use very high-value rewards so she doesn’t get bored.

Practice the recall anytime there is a high probability that your dog will come, such as for meals, to go for a walk or to go out to play. Your recall word should always predict something fun and fabulous for your dog.

Sometimes when the dog is near you (i.e. in the same room) but not paying attention, call her to come and reward generously.

A No-no list:

  • During training, never call your dog away from something she perceives to be enjoyable, even if she’s rolling in something gross. Go get your dog.

  • Never call your dog to scold her for something.

  • Never use your call word if there is a high probability that she might choosenot to come. Go get your dog.

  • Don't practice off-lead unless you are in an enclosed area and can control the level of distractions.

  • When your dog comes, don't ask for a Sit, Finish, Down, or anything else before lavishly praising and treating her for coming first. These other behaviors can be trained later, when your dog’s recall is very reliable.

A Yes-yes list:

  • Always sound pleasant and up-beat when you call your dog.

  • Sometimes give your dog some treats and/or praise and then release her to go back to what she was doing.

  • Practice in a variety of environments with a variety of distractions, according to your dog’s level of training.

  • Use a long line for safety when practicing in unenclosed outdoor areas.

  • Use the highest-value rewards you have available.

  • Practice at random times.

  • Always set your dog up for success.

  • Always pay the dog with wonderful stuff when the level of difficulty is high.

Round-Robin Game – Only call once!

This game should take no more than five minutes and can be played with two or more people, indoors or outdoors.

Give friends or family members lots of small, non-crumbly treats and have them stand about 10’ away from each other. Treats should not be visible to the dog until they are being delivered. Each person in turn calls the dog. The person who calls the dog should begin enthusiastically praising the instant the dog notices, or turns toward them and should continue praising until the dog arrives.

Bending down and clapping hands can encourage the dog to come all the way to you

When the dog arrives, the caller should throw her a party with multiple food treats (delivered one at a time while praising) and then stop all attention so the next person can call the dog, repeating the exact same procedure. (By taking all attention away from the dog, the original caller becomes boring, making it more likely for the dog to respond to the next caller). Repeat with everyone calling the dog randomly, not always in the same order. Stop after a few repetitions. Leave the dog wanting more of this fun game! Over the next few sessions, incrementally expand the distance between people so the dog has slightly further to travel from one person to the next. If you’ve been playing the game inside, shorten the distance the first time or two that you try it outside.

Reinforce the recall for the life of your dog, with praise or play, treats, or sending them off to resume whatever they had been doing. This is one behavior you want to keep fresh forever!


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