Training the recall (teaching a dog to come when called) is one of the most important things you can teach your dog (if not the most important thing). Her safety could be at stake, and honestly not much is as frustrating as a dog that intentionally stays right out of your grasp when you call her to you.
Today I’m not going to tell you how to teach your dog to “come” but I am going to tell you when you should never call your dog to come to you.
To start do not call a dog that hasn’t been trained to come unless you know the dog is going to come to you. Essentially you want to avoid teaching the dog to learn that “Come here, boy!” and whistle sounds and kissy sounds are extraneous background noises that mean nothing and should be ignored. Don’t call your dog or puppy (in-training) unless:
- You feel confident the dog or puppy will comply
- You can gently follow through with the command should the dog choose not to comply (i.e. the puppy is wearing a tag-line or the dog is on a leash that you can very gently reel toward yourself)
- You have the ability to give a valuable reward when the dog does get to you to reinforce the desired behavior
Set yourself and your dog up for success. Don’t give a verbal command when there is a chance the dog will ignore it (and if it does get ignored don’t repeat the verbal cue over and over again).
Essentially an untrained dog should not be running free unless you feel confident that the dog will come to you when called in that particular situation. Otherwise keep the dog on a tagline or leash at all times. Yes the dog has temporarily less freedom but it ensures a lifetime of greater freedom in his future. Set yourself up for success.
The Back Slider
Sometimes a dog that has already learned to come when called stops doing so reliably. This dog should be treated just as the dog in training here, and the following “don’t” should be very closely adhered to for the back-sliding pooch!
Just Don’t Do It
Whenever it is time for something your dog might perceive as unpleasant you should not call your dog to you. This bears repeating. Do not call your dog prior to anything the dog might perceive as an unpleasant experience. I do not care if a treat is offered between the successful “come here” and the something unpleasant. Dogs are not quite that simple minded. They will make the association eventually.
Often a good-natured dog will show very minor signs that something is disagreeable to them. Pay close attention to your dog’s body language so you can be aware of your dog’s feelings.
“Come here, Buddy!” followed by being shoved in a crate (as an example) is a surefire way to teach your dog that “Come here, Buddy!” is a good time to avoid the humans. Instead of rewarding your dog for complying with the command you are inadvertently punishing your dog.
This particular bit of advice is most important for new dog and puppy owners. A dog that is learning to potty in an appropriate place must be crated often. It is the best (and most humane) way to train a new dog not to potty inside the house. If you’re calling your puppy to you and placing him in a pen or crate multiple times a day you’re going to quickly train your puppy to avoid you when you call her.
This is not to say that a puppy or dog hates being in a crate. They don’t find it unbearably miserable as long as they have been crate-trained properly. But the puppy may initially feel objectionable toward being out of your company. This is particularly true with cockapoo puppies. They are extremely social dogs, preferring human companionship even to the companionship of other dogs. They will make themselves content in their crate but at first they aren’t happy about being separated from their people.
I am not trying to dissuade you from crate-training your dog because I think that is very necessary for a new pup or dog. But we must be aware of the fact that you’re locking the dog somewhere they haven’t chosen to be and that may be perceived as unpleasant.
There are many other things that a dog might perceive as unpleasant.
- Time to come inside from playing outside
- Time to go back on the leash from off-leash play time
- Time to get a bath (or head to the groomer’s)
- Time to go to the vet
- Time to go for a walk (some puppies actually dislike this initially)
- Time to meet and/or be pet by an unfamiliar person (some dogs are shy)
Unfortunately many of us make the mistake of calling our dogs to us and then following that up with something unpleasant. Dogs will recognize these patterns. So don’t do it.
A Better Way
When you have to do something several times a day (like crate a puppy in training) you need a quick solution. I have one. Simply reach down and scoop up the otherwise distracted puppy or dog and place him in his crate. Absolutely zero communication is needed prior to picking up the puppy. After you pick him up, of course, you can praise him and accept a few chin-kisses if you like. You can also reward the puppy for being in your arms (or going into the crate) with a few treats. I definitely like saving very high-value treats like bits of juicy, cooked-bacon for crate time.
If your untrained dog is impossible to easily scoop up at will then she must not be off leash until she is reliably trained. This takes more effort and work in the short-term, perhaps, but it is essential to having a trained dog and a good relationship with your canine companion. Furthermore (and most importantly) it is critically essential in keeping your curious pet safe from harm.
When You Must
Sometimes you have to call your dog to you and then follow up with an unpleasant activity. As an example you might be at the dog park and ready to go home. You have to call your dog over to be clipped to his leash to start the journey home safely. Your dog might not be keen on leaving doggy play-land. What can you do about that?
The most important thing you can do here is make the unpleasant activity pleasant. Believe me, this can be done. But it takes a bit of time and repetition.
In the meantime you need to distract and extend.
Distract: Dogs are like preschoolers. If you’re hyped up and excited about something they will get that way too. Believe me; I have children that beg to go to the dentist. The more you make something seem exciting and the more outward energy you put into the activity the more your dog will catch that contagious energy and get all excited too.
They may have no idea what you’re jumping around and speaking excitedly about but they know it must be great and they become completely distracted from, say, the leash being clipped to their collar at the end of off-leash time.
Extend: Lengthen the amount of time between the recall and the unpleasant activity and fill that time with pleasant, excited distraction. To keep with our “go-home after the dog-park” example you can spend about 5-10 minutes walking backwards, encouraging your dog to follow. Walk in spurts of quickness or jog and change up speed and direction suddenly. Dogs adore this game. Or you could play for a few minutes tugging on a favorite toy before you start heading home. Plan to start leaving about 10 minutes before you really want to leave to allow for this transition playtime.
Doing this ensures that you completely disassociate the recall with the unpleasant activity. In a situation like this one you will cause the unpleasant activity to become pleasant without any extra effort required.
*Tip* Going home from the dog park can become a lot of fun if a special “go home time only” toy gets pulled out only at leash clip-on time. I like using a tug for this and you can let the dog carry the tug or “help” you carry the tug on the walk home before putting it away.
If you’ve ever parented a toddler don’t hesitate to apply the tricks you’ve learned to your dog training. I can’t tell you how many times an extra-special (read: infrequently pulled out) toy, Mr. Ruffus the stuffed dog, got pulled out when it was time to leave the playground. It was the only way to get my two toddler girls to leave the playground without lots of pathetic tears and pushed out, quivering lower lips.
When You Make a Mistake
You’ll make training mistakes while living with your dog. How could you not? Training occurs all day, every day and not just when you have a bag of treats in your hand and a mind to train. Mistakes are ok and easy to recover from.
Being a well-versed trainer doesn’t mean all your dogs are perfectly trained and never have hiccups. For example my Rosie had a perfect recall until one day when I called her to have a bath. She saw that we (I and the other dogs) were headed into the bathroom. She doesn’t hate baths but she definitely doesn’t love them, a fact I was unaware of at the time. Rosie loves being out in the rain or swimming in any muck hole she can find. I hadn’t considered that she wouldn’t enjoy bath time.
She almost came to me when I called her but hesitated just far away enough that I couldn’t get ahold of her collar. She paced back and forth in front of me anxiously, darting farther then closer and looking unhappy about the whole situation.
To the average pet owner the feeling is “she knows what she is supposed to do but she is choosing to disobey!” and an angry feeling ensues. Few things make people angrier than wrongful, deliberate disobedience.
Well, yes. That is precisely what Rosie is doing. But Rosie is not a person and she doesn’t understand the idea of doing something unpleasant because of the noble concept of “obedience”. Dogs don’t really understand non-concrete things like ideas and beliefs.
What I see is a dog that really wants to come to me. She is hanging just out of my grasp because she wants to come when called. She just also wants to avoid a bath. I see a poor, conflicted little lady and I feel sorry for her because she is waging a miniature doggy-thought war in her head.
The worst mistake I could make would be to lunge toward her, grasp her collar and drag her into the bathroom. That would teach Rosie to hang much further off or even to go and hide from me when I’m calling her for bath time. This idea could very quickly overcome all recall efforts on my part and I would end up with a dog that was very unreliable when called.
I could further pursue the issue in this manner and wind up with a dog that tucks her tail under and crawls on her belly toward me when called, her sweet spirit broken. I don’t want obedience at that price, especially considering the loads of unpleasantness that would fill the space between the first “training” session and this result.
What I did was sit on the floor until Rosie climbed happily into my lap. I patted her and encouraged her and loved on her. I did not grab her up and drag her into the tub for a bath. I walked away from the bathroom (and she happily followed me) and I grabbed a handful of treats and encouraged her to willingly follow me into the bathroom, which, fortunately she decided to do, albeit slowly. She hung out in the bathroom with me while I bathed the other dogs and she got a lot of praise and treats for doing so. But she did not have a bath that night. I have not called her to “come” prior to bath time since and I have never had a problem with her and the recall since. As for the bath troubles I worked on making bath time a more pleasant chore for her.
This could have been a turning point in my relationship with Rosie. She could have progressed and gotten much worse and became a very unreliable dog and therefore an unpleasant companion.
Instead I have a happy Rosie who willingly follows me into the bathroom for a bath and actually hops into the bathtub on command. She stays put for her bath, even though I know she doesn’t love it. And I don’t have to chase a dog down, get aggravated, or worry about a potential soaped-up bath-time escapee!
This specific training took a few days and I had to put off bath time for those days but it was genuinely worth the effort. I would happily trade a few days for a lifetime of a dog that follows me willingly into a bathroom on tub day. And I have a “bad” back. While Rosie is only about 20 pounds I appreciate not having to lift her into the tub.
Now if only I could get my two year-old son to be as cooperative at bath time