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Coming When Called – October 10, 2011

Getting your dog to come to you on cue is one of the nicest things you can do for your dog. Knowing that your dog will return whenever you want her to allows you to give her freedom to play and go where she wants to — within reason. The recall, along with a solid “emergency down” may save her life one day, so it’s worth putting some time into training her to respond quickly.

So how to build this solid recall? First, choose a word for the cue. If your dog is a puppy, you can choose whatever you want, just stick to it. If your dog is a rescue, you might want to pick something out-of-the-ordinary as your cue. She might have bad associations with “come” from her previous guardian. Just test it out, and she’ll tell you. If she ignores you, that’s okay. If she runs away, that’s a sign you should use a different word.

Let’s assume that your recall cue is “come.” You want this to be one of the best words your dog knows. It means, “run to me, there’s a party over here!” The idea is to never let your dog know that there is something better than coming to you. So never say “come” when you think your dog may not do it. The second thing to be sure that you do not do is doing something scary after your dog comes to you. When your dog comes when you call her, do not do anything that she does not like. That includes nail-clipping, putting the leash to leave the park, or yelling at her for pouncing on the neighbor’s cat. The last thing she did was come to you — you don’t want to punish that, you should reward it! You’ll have to be satisfied with telling her, in a nice, upbeat voice, what a rotten dog she is.

Finally, the last bit of negative advice is to never chase after your dog. You do not want her to think that running away from you is a fun game. Whether she has a sock, you need to take her out of the park, or you just think its fun, chasing is not the answer.

The major steps in teaching the recall are to introduce the cue and then practice in a huge number of different circumstances. Vary how far away you are from the dog and how many distractions there are. When you make one aspect harder, make the other one easier. You might use a long line for safety or as a gentle reminder of your existence, but don’t use it to tug your dog to you. If you need the line very often, you are pushing her too fast. Set your dog up for success.

1. Introduce the cue to your dog. Do this somewhere where you know the dog will come to you. Have a treat handy, behind your back, for example. Have your dog about two or three feet away. In a friendly voice (not a command or a question, but an invitation), say “Puppy, come” (the dog’s name here is Puppy). Then show her the treat and take a step backward. Lean away from her, not into her. Leaning in is doggish for “stop.” Puppy runs over, gets clicked for showing up, and gets her treat. Not just one treat, but several, one at a time (only one click). Make it a real party. If she likes to be petted, now is a good time. But be careful — she may often like petting, but maybe not all the time. Watch what she does. If she ducks away from your hand, now is not a good time.

2. Practice from further away. Do the same activity from 6 feet away. You say “Puppy, come,” then get her to come to you somehow. She doesn’t fully know the cue yet, so you want to make sure that she comes to you. Legal moves on your part are: waving the food in front of her face and running away; making kissy noises; clucking with your tongue; clapping your hands, etc. Illegal moves: walking over and grabbing her by the scruff of the neck or in some other way making “come” a scary word.

You don’t have to have a party every time now, but at least twice a day, take a full 30 seconds to reward her for coming to you. Continue that procedure for a long time, at least a few months. On times when you just give one treat, you can practice a few times in a row. To get her to go away from you, throw a treat and make sure she sees it fly. Then you can call her again.

3. Practice not luring her to you. When your dog has a clue about what “come” means, start calling her without waving food around or making smoochy noises, from the same distance as before, or closer. If she doesn’t start coming to you in a few seconds, make noise or get her attention and run away. Toss the treat to make her leave you, then call her as soon as she’s gulped it down.

4. Practice as part of living. Call her to you whenever you are about to do something good to her or for her. Feeding time is a great example. If you want to take her for a walk or let her out into the yard, those are good times, too. If she knows sit, then call her to you, ask for a sit, then give her dinner, let her out, or clip on the leash. Remember, only call her for the fun stuff, so don’t call her to give her a bath!

5. Practice from even further away. Work up to ten feet, or fifteen, if she’ll do it. All indoors, with low distractions. Reward generously.

6. Practice with distractions, closer in. Now make it harder for her by increasing the distraction level. We don’t want to make it too hard, so have her closer to you, say 5 feet away. Keep increasing the level of distraction and the distance until you have the recall you want. Make sure that any time you call her, you are willing to do what it takes to get her to come to you. This may mean running away (one of my favorites) or running up to her, showing the treat, and then running away (safer method). It may mean waiting her out, if she’s not entertaining herself by not coming. When she doesn’t come when you call her, you are simply moving beyond what she is ready for. Simply make it easier for her in some way and build reliability slowly.

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