A big priority for most dog owners is to be able to get their dog to come to them when they’re called. It’s actually not that hard to teach, if you go about it in a way that takes advantage of how dogs learn.
For this behavior (which is really a series of small behaviors, or actions), I have a high standard of performance that I strive for. I want the dog to come immediately, quickly, and on one cue. After all, it’s just not all that useful to train it such that the dog responds eventually, approaches slowly, or does so only after multiple cues or threats. With that in mind, the next few Top Notch Dog Blog entries will offer some tips to improve your dog’s responsiveness to you when you call. It is not so much a “how to” series as pointers to keep you successful as you go.
Some principles to keep in mind: Behaviors that are rewarded tend to increase in frequency, intensity and duration. This means you should make it worth it for your dog to come when called. Reward your dog’s effort, and be generous. Make him really glad he came to you. The flip side of this is to avoid punishing him when he does come to you. That may sound obvious, but many people punish their dog’s behavior without even realizing it, and then continue to struggle down the line, wondering why the dog won’t listen to them.
Coming When Called Tip #2: Control Consequences Carefully
Imagine you are a dog, and you are enjoying a good sniff outdoors or playing with one of your friends. Maybe you just found something excellent and really dead to roll in. Then your person calls you. Now you have a choice to make. What might increase the chances you would leave what you’re doing, and go bounding to them? You may be much more likely to drop what you’re doing and fly to your person if you had no doubt there was something good in it for you. In other words, if you had been trained to assume that the consequences would be really good.
So when you are teaching a dog to come when called, be careful that your consequences affirm in your dog’s head that it is best to come to you without hesitation. Good things should happen to your dog when he comes when called. Really good things. Like his supper, dog play date time, a walk, a car ride to a favorite spot, or a raucous game of tug.
Sometimes when we are training a dog to come when called, we think we are providing good things, but we are really providing consequences that are punishing. It’s the dog’s opinion that counts as to what is a “good thing.” So it’s best to avoid calling the dog and then:
- Using unpleasant touch or body language (see Tip # 1)
- Putting the dog in the house (if he was enjoying being outside)
- Putting him in the car (for example, at the dog park)
- Putting him on leash (if he’d been running free)
- Doing something boring or annoying (like checking for a tick or cleaning his ears)
- Sticking him in his crate and then leaving
- Scolding the dog (if he had just been doing something you didn’t like, so you call him and then punish him)
Of course, it is practical to be able to call your dog to be able to do all but the last thing on the list above, and eventually, after a long history of rewards, doing so should not ruin your dog’s responsiveness. (Especially if you occasionally surprise him by calling him, putting him in his crate, and letting him right back out again! Dogs love games like that.) While you’re in the training phase, when you need to do something other than provide wonderful consequences, just go get him. Or teach a different cue from his recall word, like “inside” or “kennel up.” If he’s doing something naughty, instead of calling him, think in terms of what you could have done to prevent the naughty behavior to begin with.
Speaking of consequences, you might be inclined to punish a dog who does not come when called. That may work if you’re exceptionally skilled and know exactly what you’re doing. You still might get some unintended fallout with that approach. Personally and professionally, I prefer to put my energy and training into getting the dog to come with confidence and enthusiasm, rather than getting him to come because he is afraid of what I might do to him if he doesn’t. If I called a dog in the learning stage and the dog didn’t respond, I would be sure to note in what way I had made it too hard for the dog to be successful (was he too far away or too distracted compared to where we were in our training?). With a well-trained dog, who had carefully been taught to come under great distraction, I would promptly and quietly collect the dog by the collar, ending whatever fun he was having, and then work on a training plan to brush up that gap in his education.
When your dog chooses not to come when called it sure can feel like he is giving you the bird (that one was for all the retrievers out there). But if you examine the consequences you’ve been providing, you may well find the key to turning things around.