Talking dogs: Tips on training dogs to come when called

August 3, 2015

Q: Can you give me some tips on teaching my shepherd mix Zeus to come when I call him? So far, what Iím doing isnít working.

Thanks, Jose

A: Happy to, Jose. You didnít mention what youíve been doing with Zeus, so Iíll list some general concepts here for, you and readers in general to consider.

I describe the recall, or teaching the come cue, as a valuable behavior well worth the investment. Itís one that is really important to have from the dog ownerís perspective, and to have an excellent recall relies, in part, on lots of practice.

In my mind, the perfect recall looks like this: My dog is off leash, at a distance from me, not looking in my direction, and is interested in something in the environment (a squirrel, another dog, a smelly bush, etc.). When I say "Come!" the dog immediately and joyfully turns and runs directly to me, ignoring everything else in the environment. Thatís my goal behavior, not a training scenario.

First and probably most important is to recognize that in order to be reliable, the act of coming to you must be a pleasurable experience for Zeus, both when teaching it and maintaining it. So itís important to know what your dog finds highly rewarding. In my opinion, the very best reward for a recall is an active one, so I engage my dog in a game of Tug each time he comes when called. For some dogs, hand play is just as rewarding, as is high-in-value food, access to a squeaky toy, etc. Youíve got to figure out at least two ways to highly reward your dog when he comes to you, and that may require some experimentation on your part.

The word "Come" is not nearly as important as how you say it. If you are quiet, monotone, scolding or demanding in tone, it makes sense that your dog would want to avoid you. So make sure your tone of voice is positive and encouraging.

Dogs are attracted to motion, so you can use movement as an incentive to come to you by calling your dog and running away from him, encouraging him as you go. Most importantly, when he responds and comes to you, the reward should be massive and prolonged ó a true celebration each and every time!

Remember, having a reliable off-leash recall is the goal behavior, but it should be taught in increments. First on a short leash and without distractions, so it is easy for the dog to successfully come to you. Next on a long leash, so you can work at a greater distance. Finally, working on a long leash in a variety of distracting environments to continue with the concept that coming to you will always be more rewarding than whatever your dog can find in the environment.

Keep in mind that every time you call Zeus and reward him for coming to you, youíre investing in his response the next time you call him. So practice it often, and make it fun and rewarding. Getting hooked up with a trainer who teaches positively, without punishment, is of particular value in obtaining a beautiful and reliable recall.




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