Training your dog to come back when you call him is probably the most important response you can teach, but it can be the hardest. To put this into perspective, I always remember a dog training friend of mine saying to one of her clients, ‘for your dog to come back when you call, you need to be more exciting than any other dog’s bottom’! Whilst this doesn’t conjure up a very pretty image, it does make you realise how challenging it can be to master a great recall response.
Recall problems aren’t just confined to dogs that are distracted by other dogs; we see dogs that love to chase after squirrels and other small furry animals as well as larger animals (remember the Fenton video on YouTube!) and it is very difficult for an owner to be more exciting than the thrill of a chase. Remember, if what your dog is doing is much more exciting than you are – then it is highly unlikely that he will come back the instant you call him.
So, what can you do? The first thing is not to put your dog straight back on the lead when he comes to you. If coming back is linked to the end of play time and being taken away from his playmates in the park, then why should your dog want to come back? Call your dog several times during a walk, make sure you have some amazing food treats, when your dog comes to you give him a treat and scatter a few on the ground, then tell him to go play again. This way, coming back is good and playtime can continue.
Think about your dog’s daily routine, it might be that going out to the park is the highlight of your dog’s day. If, for the rest of the day, your dog is largely ignored and has no meaningful interactions with you, it is no surprise that he doesn’t want to come back and for the playtime to end. Make sure that you put time aside to have fun time with your dog, play games that satisfy his innate needs – chase games for herding types and sighthounds, retrieve and searching games for gun dogs, squeaky toys and digging games for terriers. The list is endless, if your dog views you as a fun person to be around then establishing a good recall response will be much easier.
Whatever signal you use to call your dog, be it a whistle, a verbal cue such as ‘come’ or ‘to me’, it should always be associated with a positive thing. Never call your dog to scold him, even if it has taken half an hour to get him to come back to you! Nor call him and then give him a worming tablet. For your dog, coming when called should always result in a great outcome. Don’t get lazy, make sure that whenever your dog comes when he is called, even if it is from the lounge to the kitchen, that something great happens. Vary your rewards, keep your dog guessing…will it be a liver treat, or a piece of chicken, some kibble or that awesome new toy? Never knowing if this time will be the jackpot will keep your dog focussed and eager to come back.
Be aware of what signal you use and change it if your dog has learnt to ignore it. Also think about your dog’s name…. I believe most dogs think they are called ‘Oi!!’ For example, take the dog called Benjamin; he is often called Ben, Benji, Benny and Benjamin and when calling him back in the park his owner will go through the full range of names (which Benjamin will ignore) and then resort to ‘Oi’ at which point Benjamin will turn and look at his owner…along with all the other dogs in the park! Consistency is key: only use your recall command when you want your dog to come back to you and make sure that if you couple it with your dog’s name and (if that name is one of many), link only that one name with that command, making it sacred for recalls.
As I said at the beginning of this article, it is very difficult to compete with the thrill of the chase, but if your dog thinks that you can also provide the exhilaration of a chase then you instantly become more exciting. Your dog is chasing after a squirrel and you want him to stop chasing and come back to you for a piece of cheese? It’s not going to work! However, if you can provide something equally satisfying like a chase game in the opposite direction then you are fulfilling the need to chase. Practise calling your dog back and, as he turns to look at you, throw his favourite toy behind you and all the time your dog is coming towards you keep praising him. You can vary the game by sometimes waving the toy and running in the opposite direction and then throwing the toy.
Remember, the world is not perfect and sometimes your dog will not come back instantly. Don’t be angry, just think about all those times you were playing with your friends and you ignored your Mum when she called you in for tea!!!!