As a dog owner, I bet you have either experienced this dreaded moment yourself or cringed watching it happen to someone else: you call your dog, and he blissfully ignores you. Perhaps your beagle smelled something extra tasty on the ground that is far more interesting than you, or maybe your husky has decided that she deserves an extra 10 minutes at the dog park. In any case, dogs who choose not to come when called can be, at best, annoying, and at worst, dangerous.
Dangerous, you say? Yes! I can vividly recall one afternoon when a car with two greyhounds in the back pulled up next to me in a Green Lake parking lot. The owner opened up the hatch, and one greyhound bolted out the back at top speed. The owner called her name, but she didn’t stop. One sickening thud later, and the greyhound had collided with a car. The collision was hard enough that it actually dented the car bumper. Amazingly the dog had minimal injuries, but still—dogs that don’t come when called put themselves at risk from traffic, unsafe interactions with other people or animals, and a variety of other hazards.
SEE SPOT RUN…WHY WON’T MY DOG COME?
There are a variety of reasons why a dog may have poor or inconsistent recall. Here are some of the top reasons that I see:
- Training: the dog hasn’t practiced recall enough and doesn’t know what you are asking.
- Dogs don’t generalize well, meaning just because Fido comes when you whistle at home, that doesn’t mean he is going to know what you mean when you whistle at the park. You have to intentionally train Fido to have good recall in many different scenarios.
- With all cues, start with the basics and then build distance (recall over larger spaces) and distraction (recall at home is easier than in an exciting dog park). The more places you practice, the more reliable your dog will be.
- Training: the dog isn’t motivated to come based on previous experiences with recall.
- Recall is a cue where you should reward your dog thoroughly for coming. Preferably with big, smelly treats. You want your dog to love the word “Come” because it always is a predictor of excellent things. If your dog isn’t thrilled about coming, you may not be rewarding her heavily enough.
- Rewarding your dog for coming will create a much stronger recall than scolding or punishing your dog for not coming.
- Fear/Avoidance: the dog is avoiding you and the recall cue based on previous negative experiences.
- Dogs who have been corrected or scolded for not coming in the past are less likely to have good recall. Why? They were having a blast at the park, you called them, and they came to you, and what happened? They got scolded for not coming fast enough. Well that wasn’t any fun at all. No surprises here, this decreases the chance your dog will come the next time you call him.
- Perhaps you called the dog to come and then it received an unpleasant bath or a time out. This also decreases the chances your dog will come when called.
- Instinct: something related to your pup’s “doggy nature” is making it difficult for her to come.
- Inside the wiring of their brains, dogs have something called a prey drive. This prey drive is an instinctual urge to chase things that look like prey, and it dates back to their wolf ancestors. Prey drive is much higher in some breeds of dogs than others. In dogs with high prey drive, when they begin to chase a prey item, you could call your dog with the best and most wonderful treats ever, and they are unlikely to come to you. Why? Your dog isn’t being naughty. The part of your dog’s brain that processes cues like “Come” is literally being overridden by the prey drive parts of the brain.
- Bolting is another trait that can hard-wired into some dogs. Going back to my story earlier, greyhounds are a breed of dog that are known for bolting unpredictably. Once they bolt and begin running, they can be difficult to stop.
- If you suspect your dog may have a high prey drive or a tendency to bolt based on their breed or other observations, use caution where you take your dog off leash. Even well trained dogs can run after a cat or a squirrel out into traffic if their prey drive has been triggered, and even well-mannered dogs can suddenly bolt. Ask yourself if it is really worth the risk.
- Overload: the dog is overwhelmed and unable to respond to cues.
- The more distractions that are present, the less likely your dog will be able to reliably respond to cues. In general, stress or excitement decreases your dog’s ability to respond to your requests. If you gradually train with more and more distractions, your dog will be less likely to succumb to this over-excitement issue.
- Fatigue: the dog is tired of you asking her to come.
- I have observed some people asking their dog to come about every 30 seconds. After hearing this about 250 times in one day, big surprise, their dog is bored of “Come” and doesn’t want to come anymore.
- Sometimes people have training sessions where they ask their dog to “Come” dozens of times. This is not ideal. Practice “Come” for maybe 5 minutes, and then do something else. You can add other training sessions later in the day. Keep it fun and short.
- Use “Come” minimally, and when your dog comes, reward her heavily. If you feel like you are having to use “Come” this often, ask yourself whether perhaps you need to train your dog with a different cue (such as heel, if you really want your dog to stay close to you). If the issue is that your off-leash dog just continues running very far away from you, perhaps your dog needs more training before she is ready to be off leash.
SEE SPOT COME: SOLUTIONS FOR BETTER RECALL
Here are some tips on how you can get a dog with great recall.
- Always give a dog with a highly desirable reward for coming to you, even if it is slower or not exactly as you’d like.
- Many dogs don’t find petting or verbal praise to be all that interesting. At least until their recall is rock solid, you need to give your dog an amazing reward…maybe his or her favorite kind of food.
- With positive reinforcement training, we often fade food rewards over time and then just give them once in a while. While you can also fade food rewards for “Come,” I still reward my dog for recall with food more than I reward other cues so that in her mind, “Come” is one of the best things she can hear come out of my mouth.
- Don’t ask your dog to “Come” and then scold her or have something “bad” happen.
- Even if I am terribly annoyed with my dog, I still praise her for coming.
- If I need to do something undesirable to my dog, like trim her toenails, I don’t ask her to “Come” and then pull out the nail trimmers. Since my dog is small, I can simply pet her and then scoop her up for her manicure. If your dog is large, it’s fine if you need to call them, but pet them or otherwise distract them for a few minutes before the nail clippers come out so they don’t associate the “Come” cue with something negative.
- Consider your voice and your body language.
- Don’t be afraid to be silly. A dog is much more likely to “Come” if you used a high-pitched, sing-song voice than a low or serious one.
- Kneeling down or running backwards are also two motions that are more likely to entice a dog to come to you.
- Practice at home: play recall games.
- Throw a treat down the hallway and run to the other end of the house. As soon as your dog finishes the treat, call her to “Come” in a high-pitched voice. Just as your dog reaches you, throw down another treat, run to the other end of the house, and repeat!
- My dog’s favorite game is a two person game: hide-and-seek. Hide in one room and then have your partner hide in another one. Your partner calls the dog, and then praises the dog enthusiastically when he finds the human. After a few seconds of praise, you call your dog, then praise the dog when he finds you. While your dog is finding you and you are praising him, your partner can be picking a new hiding place, and vice versa. Your dog will LOVE running back and forth finding the humans. If your dog is having trouble finding you, you are making the game too difficult. The point is for your dog to learn that coming when you call him is joyful, not to become a Search and Rescue dog.
- Both of these games are great to play to improve recall AND to tire your dog out physically and mentally!
- Practice in places with distractions.
- I put my pup on a long line at the park (about 30 feet) to practice recall in places with more distractions. I can place her in a sit-stay and then ask her to come. If your dog isn’t solid on sitting and staying yet, you can throw a treat, run in the other direction, and then ask your dog to “Come” as soon as he finishes the treat.
- Start with short distances and then build to longer ones. Keep your training session fun, short, and interesting! Multiple small sessions in a day are better than one long one.
Hopefully this post will help you improve your dog’s recall skills, so that if you are seeing Spot run…it’s towards you rather than away from you! Thanks for reading!
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