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Coming when called – Learning the recall

One of the most valuable things you can teach your dog is to come when called. Ironically, the more control you have over your dog, the less you need to use it and the more freedom your dog will have. So time spent on this exercise is well worth it. If you can call your dog away from a dangerous situation on a walk, call him in from the garden when you’re late for work, or call him away from deer in the woods, then Rover will get a chance to walk in the woods, in the park and in the fields, without having to be on lead most of the time. This is an exercise that is as important for his happiness as it is for yours.

In this article we will be introducing the basic principles of getting your dog to come to you happily and reliably. The first step to take is to decide what cue you are going to use and use it consistently. This may sound easy, but as it turns out this is a challenge for us humans. “Rover, come!” is followed by “come, Rover”, “Rover, get over here right now!” and other terms best left unwritten. If you want your dog to come consistently, then you need to be consistent with yourself. So before going any further, decide as a family exactly what your come cue is going to be. The best cues are short and punchy, like “Rover, come!” or “pup,pup,pup!” or even better, short sharp whistles.

Dogs are the masters of reading body language (see our article Dog Communication, so how you position your body is also going to have a big effect on your dog’s behaviour. Your dog is more likely to stay away if you stand square facing him and step forward as you call “come!”. Your voice may be saying “come” but to your dog, your body is communicating a warning not to come any closer. Think of it as a traffic policeman stopping oncoming cars. So as you call him, turn sideways to him and move away from your dog. Your movement away will draw him towards you, rather than blocking him from coming forward. It’s not natural for us to turn away from our dog when we want him to get closer to us, so you will need to concentrate on this at first.

The Come Game

The first phase involves convincing your dog that running to you is the best game in town. Turn your training sessions into games. From no more than 6 feet away, call out your chosen come cue, (you may need to create a new one if your dog has learnt to ignore the old one), turn sideways, start clapping and running away from your dog. As soon as he moves a few inches in your direction, say “Good Dog!” and keep going. When he catches up with you – hurray! – have a ball! Give him extra tasty treats, have a little game with his favourite toy, praise him to the skies and if he likes it, rub him in the chest or rump.

Keep in mind that the hardest part of recall is to get your dog to turn his attention off what he is doing and unto you. That’s why you need to encourage him by saying “Good dog!” with enthusiasm the instant he turns his head and starts moving towards you. He will need reinforcing well before he gets to you. A word to the wise: most people don’t praise their dog soon enough, so consciously force yourself to praise your dog as soon as your dog turns towards you.

Repeat this game several times a day in short sessions, conditioning your dog to link the cue “come” with running towards you and feeling good about it. Initially, practice 10-20 times per day in all sorts of areas around the house and the garden. This may sound like a lot of times, but by doing it a little here and there it will be easy. You can also take the opportunity of calling him to you before putting his food down. Imagine what a jackpot he’s getting by just coming to you!

At first avoid calling your dog when he is intensely focused in something else, your goal is to get your dog to come to you every time he’s called, so don’t set your dog up for failure and to learn to ignore you when he feels like it. To be able to call your dog away from a play session in the park, you need to start with him coming to you every single time and be really glad he did. Smart trainers learn that their primary goal is to control the outcome of the dog’s behaviour.

One last thing to bear in mind, is to avoid calling your dog for something he is not going to enjoy, like getting his nails trimmed, or putting him back on the lead when he is still full of energy. In these instances, simply go to him, clip the lead on, keep a friendly and upbeat attitude and be sure you avoid linking your come cue with something he doesn’t like.