One of the most valuable commands in your arsenal will be the recall, or coming when called. This command could save your dog’s life in some circumstances. For this reason, every dog should have a solid recall.
First, it’s important to decide what word you want to use to call your dog to you. Figure out how you want to say it and use that method each and every time you use it. We silly humans tend to play on the variables of the word “come”, which can cause our dog to become confused or ignore us. Therefore, it’s vitally important to keep your command the same each and every time. The same tone, the same inflection.
Next, we need to pay attention to our body language when we teach this command. We want to set Fluffy up for success, so we want our body language to be inviting and not sending another message that countermands our vocal command. We don’t want our words to say “come” and our body to say “don’t come any closer!” That would only lead to confusion for Fluffy. And until a vocal command is down pat, dogs are more likely to listen to our body language.
Speaking of body language, dogs naturally want to follow in the direction our feet are going. All too often I have witnessed distressed owners chasing after their loose dogs. The dog has a great big smile on his face and is enjoying the game which is giving him a great run. Now, Fido is just going in the direction the owner’s feet are pointed. And he thinks it’s a great game of chase! Often the owners also have their bodies positioned squarely at the dog, communicating “don’t come any closer”. Yet their words say “come”. Instead, the best option for owners of escapees who don’t have a down-pat recall is to cheerfully call their dog and run in the opposite direction of Fido, so that Fido will follow YOU!
Now, do we have our chosen command word? Good! For the purposes of explaining the training method I use here, I will use “come” as my command word. (Which I do anyways!)
THE COME GAME
For this week, we’re going to practice in a low distraction area. Inside your house, the back yard and other places with minimal distractions will be perfect. We want our pups to learn that coming to us is great!
So, with your dog off leash, let Fluffy sniff around about 6-10 feet from you. Now, use your recall command! Just sing out “come!”, turn sideways, clap your hands and run away from your dog! The second Fluffy turns her head to look at you, praise her and keep running. When Fluffy catches you, have a party! By this, I mean make a big deal out of Fluffy doing the right thing. Give a high value treat and lots of praise. We want Fluffy to know she did the right thing by showing enthusiasm. Also, we’re really reinforcing Fluffy’s behaviors by pairing food with praise. Fluffy gets rewarded for first looking at you and then again doubly for catching you!
It’s very important to praise for even the smallest attempts. We really want to praise Fluffy for looking at us initially when we call. This is an important building block for long term success and learning of our recall command. Remember, we want Fluffy to feel good for running to you.
A word of caution: We need to set Fluffy up for success each and every time. During this week, do not call Fluffy if there are a high amount of distraction and you think there’s even a chance she’ll ignore you. Instead, take a high value treat in hand and Go To Fluffy, use the treat in your hand to lure her in the direction you want to go and praise Fluffy for coming away from the distraction. We want Fluffy to associate good things with coming when called, and we’re setting a foundation for Fluffy to come every time when called. So be conscientious of when and where you’re calling Fluffy to you.
Now that you have the first section of this command, it’s time to practice! Practice several times a day throughout the day this week. Keep practicing in low distraction areas and only call Fluffy to you when you know she will come. This is a good opportunity to use times you know she will come to you, such as meal time, to your advantage to also reinforce the command. Remember to keep it light and fun. And have a “party” every time Fluffy catches you!
This week we’re going to continue practicing our exercise from last week, but we’re going to start practicing with more distractions. However, do not call Fluffy unless you’re at least 80% sure she’ll come when you call. Remember to continue using praise and treats. Work on your timing of the praise and have the treat in your hand before you call to prevent a delay in rewarding and a potential slowing of Fluffy’s learning.
Practice in different rooms of the house. Practice in different places as long as the distractions will not overwhelm Fluffy’s ability to listen and respond to you. So, at the dog park while busy playing is NOT the right time to practice your recall right now.
Keep practicing while you’re no more than 6-10 feet away. We don’t want to be farther away because we want to ensure success.
This week we want to stop running before Fluffy catches us. Turn towards Fluffy just as she completes those last couple strides to help prevent Fluffy from getting overly excited and possibly start nipping at us. Remember to give Fluffy the high value treat we’ve put in our hand before we called and give lots of praise.
What if Fluffy doesn’t come?
At some point, this will happen. It happens to all of us. That cute little pup who thought you were the center of the Universe will become a teenager and try out some independance. Your senior may pretend to not hear you (but can hear the rattle of food in a dish a half mile away!). Here’s what NOT to do: Do NOT keep calling over and over! All that does is teach Fluffy that she doesn’t need to listen. That’s the opposite of what we’re working to accomplish.
Instead, call Fluffy as you usually do. If she ignores you, give it a couple seconds, call her name sharply and then call “come” again in a cheerful, happy voice. If Fluffy continues to ignore you, go to her with the treat in hand and lure her away from the distraction. After she takes a couple steps, give her the treat and lure her all the way to where you called from with a second treat (which should still only be 6-10 feet away). You do need to use some discretion here. If the distraction isn’t something Fluffy will come away from at this point, such as a smelly cow pie or dead bird or something like that, go to Fluffy and quietly clip your leash onto her collar. Do not make a fuss when you’re clipping on your leash. If you don’t have a leash with you, gently take Fluffy’s collar and lead her away. Make a note of the distraction level and take a step back to the last level where Fluffy was responding to you every time. Work at that level for a few days before stepping up the level of distraction again.
At all costs, avoid correcting your dog for ignoring you if she eventually comes to you on her own.
Yelling at your dog no matter how frustrated you are will undermine all the progress you’ve made with Fluffy. It will tell her that you’re big and scary and coming to you is a dangerous thing. We don’t want this. So, avoid correcting your dog at all costs! Keep the interaction with the recall training positive. If it makes you feel better to make threats to give her away or turn her into a new fur rug, say so in a sweet, happy voice. Act like you’re reciting romantic poetry or cooing at a baby. But remember to keep your voice happy and light. Dogs understand the tone of our voice and we don’t want to show displeasure when they do the right thing.
How long will this training take?
Well, that will depend on what you expect of your dog. If you’re looking for your dog to come away from vigorous play with other dogs, it could take months or years to perfect the recall. Most dogs don’t have high levels of impulse control until they’re at least 3 years old. If this is what you’re looking for (and everybody probably should be), you need at least 6 months of intensive training for results before you begin to back off on the intensity of training. With this kind of intense practice, around the age of 3 (with at least 6 months of intense training!) your dog should be mostly reliable with low to moderate distractions. That means that after 3-6 months of training, Fluffy should come out of the back yard when called reliably and may start coming away from other dogs when called.
The more you practice, the more reliable Fluffy will get. With time and reliability, you can continue to increase distance and distractions. Just remember to break up training sessions and not move too fast when it comes to the level of distraction.
So, go have fun with Fluffy and practice those recalls!