Teaching Your Pup to Come When Called
People are often amazed that we bring groups of dogs to hike off leash in the woods. “What if they run away?” is often the first question out of their mouths. The secret to having dogs run safely off leash is to instill good recall behaviors in your pets. You call. They come. End of story.
But, as we all know, things that are simple in concept can often be trickier in practice. So, how can you teach your dog to come reliably when called, despite distractions? Here are a few tips to help you train your pets to have this most important behavior.
What is recall and why is it important?
Recall is the ability for a dog to come quickly when called, whether with her name or a command. Usually the command used is “Come”, “Come Here”, “Here”, “Hey You”, or “Lordy, Percy get yer butt over here!” We also like to use a whistle as a trigger for recall, because a whistle is universal and sounds the same no matter who blows it. You don’t need a super-sonic dog whistle; just a regular old-fashioned gym teacher whistle works the best.
Recall is very important if you would like your dog to be able to go off leash at the dog park or in the woods. You never know exactly what you might come upon (other walkers with not-so-friendly dogs, equestrians, moose, aliens), and having your dog be trained to come quickly and reliably is crucial to everyone’s safety.
Some dogs are more naturally inclined to stick close by your side, while others like to run and roam. No matter your dog’s natural predisposition, good recall will require consistent and regular practice to stay sharp. Remember, your dog’s training should be an active part of your relationship. You can’t just take them to puppy class and expect that they will never falter over the next 15 years… you have to do the work to keep up their good habits!
How do I get my dog to have good recall skills?
We believe in training through “Positive Reinforcement”. That means that you reward your dog when they perform the desired action and ignore any behavior that doesn’t. We do not punish dogs, verbally or physically. Using this sort of “Negative Reinforcement” can confuse animals and make them nervous about coming to you, exactly the opposite effect from what we desire.
First you must get your dog to understand that paying attention to you and doing what you ask is the path to happiness. Whenever your pup comes near, be sure to make it feel good with praise, a happy face, and a calm and upbeat demeanor. You want to make sure your dog thinks of you as a good time, positive energy, hug and treat dispensing machine.
Figure out what motivates your dog. Many dogs are highly motivated by food. For good training try to find the smelliest, tastiest, greasiest nibblets you can round up, so they can’t resist the desire to do whatever it takes to get that morsel from your hand. Other dogs are not as motivated by food, and it can be tricky to find a reward that is strong enough to reinforce their behavior. For some dogs this may be a toy or ball, simple praise from their owner, or the peer pressure of being in a group of dogs who are running towards you at your command. Using a special reward that your dog doesn’t usually have access to, can make their training sessions even more exciting. Remember, this should be fun for your pet, or they will probably not keep paying attention.
Start inside by standing across the room and saying your command or your dog’s name. When they come over to you to see what’s up, praise them and give them their reward. Simple. Do it again. And once more. Keep doing this, with minimal distractions, until your dog really associates your command with the reward. Once your dog is regularly coming when called in the house, you are ready to take it out to the yard.
Squirrell! Leaves! Sticks! Poops! Don’t get discouraged if your dog seems to have forgotten everything you worked on inside. Dogs are easily distracted, but if you are steady about rewarding the behaviors you want and ignoring the behaviors you don’t, they will start to get the idea. Whatever you do, don’t let frustrations lead to any negative emotional outbursts. Anger, yelling, hitting, etc can all cause your dog to lose the thread of your training and become wary of following the commands of their crazy owner. Don’t be the crazy owner!
Out in the yard, start slow. Step a few paces away and call your dog. If they come, give them their reward with lots of praise. Even a little movement in the right direction is a positive step towards good recall, so be thankful for even the small victories, especially at first. Gradually increase the distance and distractions, until your pup is reliably coming in your yard
If you have a friend or family member to help you, you can play a “Red Rover” game as a fun way to practice. Stand on opposite ends of the yard, each with a bag of treats, and take turns calling your dog back and forth. Gradually increase the distance between you and the time between commands. How’s Rover doing? Good, now we are ready to take it out into the world.
Bringing your dog off leash on a trail can be scary, so if you are worried, bring them to a field or more open space and let them off with a long lead attached. That way you can practice without fear of them taking off. You will basically go through the same routine, start slow and close and build up to longer distances. When you feel confident that Fido won’t disappear, you can let them off the leash and start working with the real world of delightful and distracting smells, sounds, and sights. Remember to reinforce the behavior you want and ignore the behaviors you don’t.
Whistles and Clickers
Whistles and clickers are very beneficial in animal training because they provide a clear, unchanging sound cue no matter who is using them. It takes a little extra work, but the results are often worth it.
The first thing you must do is teach your dog what the sounds represent. The whistle replaces your command and the clicker gives a defined indication that a reward has been earned. To train them on the whistle, blow the whistle and give them reward. Do that a bunch of times, in several different sessions, over the course of a few days. You do the same thing with the clicker. Click and treat, click and treat, until your dog understands that the clicker means good things are a-coming!
Once your dog associates the whistle with the treat, you are ready to practice in the yard. Let your dog stroll away from you. Blow the whistle. When the dog responds by coming over, immediately click your clicker and give them their reward. Keep repeating this, eventually increasing the distance, timing, and level of distraction. Whenever your dog comes to the whistle, click and treat. We’ll talk more about clicker training in another blog post, but this can be a very effective way to reinforce behaviors.
No-No’s and Problem Solving
Do not yell a constant stream of names and commands at your dog. Once you cross a certain threshold, it will all blend into background noise and you will actually be training your dog to ignore you! If your dog runs off (they all do at some point), resist the impulse to yell at or punish them when they return, or you will actually be training your dog to be afraid of the nutjob screaming at them (that’s you being a crazy owner again). Calm and steady work is the best way to get your dogs to reliably come when called.
Keep in mind, some dogs will be better at this than others. My dog Percy is a dirty hound dog, and he loves to roam. His recall isn’t the best, but I work with him regularly and keep realistic expectations. If your dog is a breed that likes to ramble or has a defiant or aggressive personality, they may never be safe off leash. Be honest with yourself and anybody else who’s helping to take care of your dog, so that any unnecessary risks can be avoided.
What do you do if your dog is off leash in the woods and disappears? In my experience, dogs are seldom lost, merely not where YOU want them to be. Sometimes on hikes, dogs get spooked, tired, or turned around, but their outstanding sense of smell and hearing usually means they aren’t actually that far gone. If I am missing a dog, my first move is to go back to where my car is parked, and nine times out of ten the culprit will be there chilling out and wondering what took you so long.
If your dog decides that it is more fun to play “keep away” than to come when you call, do not chase them. They will run faster than you and think it is hilarious good fun watching you curse and sweat. Counterintuitively, the best thing to do is to run AWAY from your dog. They will usually think the game has switched and start chasing you. When they catch you, grab their collar and put them on leash.
When is a good time to work on recall?
Every day is a good day to work on recall. When I take groups of dogs out on hikes, I call them over with a voice command or whistle several times per hour. One of the great things about sending your dogs on a group walk with us, is that the peer pressure of the group can elicit behaviors in an individual that can be harder to get one on one. They see the their friends running over and sitting calmly to get treats, and they realize that if they step in line, they’ll get treats too. That’s why I never train dogs to jump off a bridge.
The most impressionable trainees are young puppies with a clean slate, but consistent training can help dogs of any age perform the desired behavior. Animal training is about repeating the same activities (trigger… behavior… reward, trigger… behavior… reward) until the habit becomes an automatic association. I think of it as a drop of water slowly etching away at stone. One drop isn’t too powerful, but they can add up over time to carve out great canyons.
If you have any questions about animal training, you can contact us at Sarah’s Pet Services or reach out to a local animal behaviorist. We recommend Animal Alliances here in Northampton. The most important thing to remember is that classes and consultations can help you learn how to train your pets, and group walks with our pack can reinforce good behaviors, but the responsibility for doing the daily work to keep your dog’s recall in good shape lies with you. So take a few minutes each day to play some recall games, and you too can make your good dog GREAT!