Basic Obedience – Reliable Recall

By Cinda Bishop, Mucho Poocho Doggy Day School

Does your dog appear to be deaf when you call him to you? Does he look at you and run the other direction? Are you tired of chasing him down the street because someone left the door or gate open? And the dog park? Forget it – once he gets loose there with all of those other dogs, you’ll never get him to come back!

Come when called – first time, every time. Sound too good to be true? It isn’t. You can teach your dog an absolutely reliable recall. All it takes is patience, consistency, and a really good treat (in the beginning anyway). To come when called is probably the most important thing you’ll ever teach your dog. It could even save his life. There are a few simple rules to teac the recall, and a couple of games you can play with your dog to reinforce it.

Rule #1 – Coming to you ALWAYS has to be a good thing. This means NEVER, under any circumstances, call your dog to you for any kind of punishment or correction. If you feel that the dog needs to be punished or corrected, go get him, take him to the scene of the crime, and scold him. NEVER call him to you for punishment. Calling him to you for correction one time can undo all the work you’ve done to build up a reliable recall.

Rule #2 – Don’t call your dog to come to you if you can’t enforce it. If the dog is 30 feet away across the backyard, and chooses not to respond, how are you going to enforce that?

Rule #3 – Always use the same word when calling your dog. If you call “Spot, come!” one time and “Spot, here!” another time, he will be confused. Consistency is the key – it doesn’t matter what word you choose. What matters is that the dog hears the same thing every time.

Once you know the rules, there are some simple games you can play with your dog to reinforce that coming when called is a good thing, and that the faster he comes the better the reward.

First, we have the “Find Me” game. Stash small containers of treats (something that doesn’t require refrigeration) in different rooms of the house, or carry them with you. When you’re in the living room and the dog is in the kitchen, call him to you. “Spot, Come!” Only call one time, then wait. If he comes, give a treat and a lot of praise, then walk into a different room. Wait until he settles and try it again. If he doesn’t respond, he doesn’t get a reward. Soon you’ll find that he comes running when you call him. In the beginning phases of training the recall, be lavish with treats and praise. Later you may limit the number of treats, but always be generous with praise.

Then we have the “Back-Up” game. To play this game, hold a small treat at the dog’s nose level, right in front of you. As you take a step backwards, the dog takes a step forwards. To someone watching you it should look like the dog is pushing you backward with his nose. About every fourth step, say “come” and give the treat. Besides reinforcing the “come” command, this teaches your dog to pay attention to you while moving. For small dogs, try using a long-handled wooden spoon with a dab of peanut butter – this will help keep the treat at nose level without breaking your back.

And finally, we have the “Puppy Come” game. Your dog doesn’t have to be a puppy to play – any age dog can do it. Play this game in a large, secure area, such as a fenced yard. With your dog off leash, allow him to get as far away as possible. Then, get down to his level and call his name. When you have his attention, clap your hands, wave his favorite toy or treat, whistle, anything to get him headed towards you EXCEPT say, “come”. Why? Because if you call him to come and he chooses not to, you have no way to enforce it. Get him excited and running towards you. As he approaches, continue to encourage him. When he is arm’s length away, say, “Come!” – by the time you finish saying the word he should be all the way to you. By not giving the command until he is committed to the come, you are setting him up to succeed. Be generous with praise and rewards. Practice this as often as possible.

Now that your dog is reliable with his recall, continue to practice with and without treats. Always be generous with praise and attention – let your dog know he’s a good dog every time. Remember, coming to you ALWAYS has to be a good thing. Sometimes we can make coming a bad thing without even realizing that we are doing it. For example, if you take your dog to the dog park, and he’s having a blast running with his pals. Then, you call “Fido, Come!” he comes charging up to you expecting a lot of praise and maybe a treat, and what happens? You snap on his leash and head to the car. Hey, wait a minute – that wasn’t what he wanted to do. The next time you’re at the dog park and call him, he may remember that coming when called means “we’re leaving”, and decide to ignore you altogether.

So how do you keep your dog coming when you call him, without putting him in charge? Call him to you before you’re ready to go home. Give him a treat, a lot of praise, then release him to go play some more. Do that several times during the outing, then when it is time to go, call him again, praise and treat lavishly, then use a happy voice and make going to the car the most exciting part of the day for him. Toss a ball or toy in the direction of the car, and get excited about getting in. Remember to vary the number of times you call him before you head home – if you leave the park on the third time every time, he will begin to get the pattern. Keep it random, and use plenty of praise every time.

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