Teaching Your Dog to “Come When Called”

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By Sophia Yin, DVM, MS

The problem with speaking English instead of using made-up words is that we assume our pets know what we mean. We say, “Sit” and expect Fido to drop his derrier, but the command Fido’s learned is “sit, sit, sit, SIT!”

Then once he’s done the deed, we praise with “Goodsit,” when just “Good” would do, thinking that Fido understands that “good” modifies the word “sit.” Do we think “Gooddown,” or “Goodstay” would cause him to walk away confused, or that “Goodgirl” would cause a boy bowser to develop a gender identity problem?

These minor language misconceptions probably seem moot; however, when the message we want to convey is for Fido to come right away, proper communication may save the day. If Fido could race over every time we called, imagine the possibilities.

When Fido darts out an open door, you could call him once and he’d speed to your side instead of thinking that your call was his cue to lead you on a game of chase.

Or at the dog park when he sniffs a mound of manure, one call would mean “hurry back right away” rather than “return at your leisure after you roll in the stinky stool.”

How can you get such a rapid recall? You can start by making yourself more interesting then a pile of poop… or a neighborhood dog, or any other distraction that Fido finds more entertaining than you. Here’s how.

Start with Fido on a leash in a quiet, distraction-free setting and give him a few tasty bite-sized treats so that he knows you’re up to some fun. Then, when you have his attention, suddenly run backwards a few steps and say “Fido, come.”  Your sharp movement should stimulate him to want to play. As he closes in, hold the treat at his nose level so he keeps all four-feet on the floor and give him the treat when he catches up.

This step sounds simple but at least half of your friends are already messing up. First, be sure you say “Fido, come,” only once if your goal is that he comes the first time. That is, quell that irresistible urge to blabber his name and the cue word repeatedly. Second, make sure your summon sounds like an invitation to play rather than a roll call on death row. Your goal is to teach Fido that running to you is more fun than a romp with fellow rovers not a sentence of doom.

Once you know you have this part down because every time you call, Fido immediately runs over, you can up the ante by expecting him to sit in front of you. No need to say “sit.” Using your treat as a lure, just silently guide his nose up when he reaches you so the weight shifts onto his back legs putting him into sit position. Now, the new meaning of “come” is to race over and sit in front. To make this into a real game, turn and run away a short distance when you call him so the exercise is involves a short chase. When he catches up, stop so that he can sit in front of you and receive his treat.

The next step is to add mild distractions such as a toy or bone on the ground or other family members playing nearby. Walk towards the distraction and before Fido becomes too engrossed, call him and run away so you lead him in a chase. If you call soon enough and have practiced the earlier steps well, he’ll immediately race after you. Cheer him on so he knows for sure he’s having fun and give him his treat when he catches up.

Repeat this game with different distractions starting with easy and progressing to more difficult. Randomly practice at home and when on walks so he never knows when to expect you to break out in play. 

At this point many owners mistakenly let their dogs run off-leash at the dog park. There, Fido frequently comes when called giving the owner the false idea that he has the exercise down pat. But like the running back who breaks 100 yards per game but fumbles on all the key plays, Fido’s perfect except when it’s really important. He always comes running but sometimes not until after he finishes rolling in the dead rat, after he aggressively approaches and barks at other dog owners, or after he runs half-way across the street.

To prepare Fido to recall reliably off leash, practice all of the earlier exercises on a long leash until “coming” when called even with tempting distractions become his habit. And, make sure that once he’s with you, he’s happy to stay focused on you until you give him the okay to do his own thing again. Gradually graduate to more distractions such as toys, new scents and even other dogs. This may take a little longer than you first thought, but by being consistent, careful, and always expecting him to come when you call just once, you’ll develop a Fido who understands what you really want.

First appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle in March 2003

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15 responses to “Teaching Your Dog to “Come When Called”

  1. Any suggestions if dog displays fear avoidance of people, ( not aggressive at all) just runs away or hides with zero recall skills and is not very food motivated.
    Only interested in positive reinforcement techniques
    Thanks.
    Janice

  2. I am in almost complete agreement but with one or two questions. If I only call the dog once what do I do if he does not come?

    Here in NYC we don’t have large fields to run in and we have a leash law. Almost the only place to train a recall in in a local dog run where it is not appropriate to use a drop line. This presents a problem for myself and my clients. I have developed a method of teaching the recall in the dog run in the presence of other dogs using the clicker incorrectly. When the dog comes to make sure I am there and is really close, 3-4 feet. I click and because the dog is clicker trained I get attention and give a treat saying “come.” I repeat this until it is locked in and then create distance. Advancing slowly…it has worked every time.

  3. I was recommended to your site by the “Sophisticated Dog.” I offer dog walking & dog daycare in NH and come across tons of puppies, and older dogs for that matter (mine own included) who seem to have selective hearing when being asked to “come.” I knew that repeating the command over and over is confusing. And, keeping the dog on a long leash in order to correct behavior is recommended often. Practically speaking, my own dog doesn’t come every time when called and my clients report the same. I will try your suggestions. Unfortunately, no one I work with or know did clicker training. Thank you,
    Rose

  4. My puppy-a shiztzu-toy poodle mix-very small-is 15 wks. old, which I have only had 4 weeks, runs when i am ready to put him in his play pen.He knows that I am going to do that. However, he also does it when I just want to cuddle and play with him. He loves to cuddle and lick when I get him. However, he hides under tables and behind chairs until my husband helps me corner him. He doesn’t seems to care about treats..
    Thank you. genie bennett

  5. Hi Genie:
    She’s running because she doesn’t know when something “bad,” such as being banished into the playpen might happen. Here are two things you can do. When he’s really hungry, instead of feeding him in a bowl, take some of his food and treats and toss them to him in his play pen. Better yet reward him with a string of treats for sitting in his pen. Then when he’s sitting, you can let him out on leash. Now, run around with him a little and also practice calling him and running the other way so he’ll chase. Reward him with bits of his meal and treats and petting (whichever he responds to like he likes). Practice this close to his pen too. When he’s clearly having fun and and doing well, pick him up and put him in his pen. Once in his pen give him a bunch of yummy rewards. You can toss them to him at first or you can wait until he sits. Then when he’s clearly happy in his pen and sitting calmly, pick him up and let him out again and repeat the whole game.

    Eventually he will think that going into his pen is fun and is followed by being let out. He’ll also think that coming when called is really fun and is never followed by a punishment.

    You can see some of these techniques in this video: https://drsophiayin.com/videos/SayPleaseandSuddenlySettle.mp4

    Sophia

  6. The Running to me on cue is working well.
    I need help with this potty training problem:

    My 5 month old shitzu-poo was really doing well with using the training pads to potty. So I thought I would buy a try from Pet Smart to protect our wood floor from leaky spots. Now Digit, a male,will not use the pad at all. He may go near it or he may go in the middle of the floor anywhere.
    My daughter suggested I put the pad partly on the floor and partly on the tray.. Now Digit occasionally will use the pad and other times right around it. What can I do? Thank you. Genie Bennett

  7. I have 5 dogs , I have a fairly big enough space to play and do the training , but , what can I do so the specific dog I want , comes racing instead of all of them , will using their name on the “come” command help at all ?

  8. I agree with you. The words you will use to command a dog should be constant. Years ago, I got a puppy and I was able to train it.

    Months passed and my puppy wasn’t able to learn what i trained him. I was really upset. Later I realized that I was confusing him on my commands. I was not able to convey the right message. Thanks for sharing some information on how to train dogs.

    Thanks! wink

  9. Do you think some dogs, for example an independent type or in-tact male, needs to know “come” is not just a request, but a command?

    I don’t see how you can get a RELIABLE recall with every dog using only positive or food techniques. It works fine with some, but I’ve worked with many in-tact males, they need to learn to come, yet you know how it is once you introduce distractions of other dogs/smells. What if they are just so-so food motivated? Or a breed that is independent or distracted, like a Bulldog (independent, ‘willful’) or a Terrier?

    I train a recall positive, but I definitely add correction, leash/collar prong with a tab, for not coming. That is the only way I’ve found it can be reliable with all dogs, not just some. Some could care less for food, praise, or toys. If they get distracted in a big way, forget it. To me it’s a safety issue- (leashes can break, etc) they must know they have to do this, or there will be a consequence for not doing the command they understand we want.

    So like someone else said, what are you to do when your dog doesn’t come? After you have already done months and months of rewarding recalls and longline work, with a dog who still does not come reliably?

  10. Thanks for asking Jennifer.

    I DON’T just use positive reinforcement. I combine ALL positive reinforcement with negative punishment. (e.g. making it absolutely clear the dog gets NO reward for anything else, and HE knows it and HE figures it that this is how life works.). To see examples of the combination of the two watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MHVRg98tBuk http:,//www.youtube.com/watch?v=hpPRwbEonUg, https://drsophiayin.com/videos/entry/stellah_sits_for_excited_petting).

    e.g. I start with dogs on leash and make recall really fun (not just food but how your body moves) in low distraction and work to higher. If you don’t shape the behavior in this way, your are right, you will never get a reliable come when called (most likely not even on choke or prong for dogs who are smart enough to know when they are wearing one and when they are not). I also make sure that the dog ALWAYS runs to me immediately, full speed and has no other choice but to do so. (and gets a reward every time at first and then later on variable schedule). I find that most owners regardless of which technique they use, spend too much time letting their dogs get rewarded for behaviors opposite of what htey want. e.g. call their dogs 1-5x and then punish –very confusing to their dog. Or call them too often when they have no way to ensure the dog will come and they can make it fun. So, they basically are so inconsistent that it’s not even fair to use a punishment–since they can’t even define their exact criteria. If someone is requiring months and months of training to get a realiable recall (using what I described above), they have bad technique,inconsistent are accidentally rewarding in correct behaviors, or are not actually doing the work. (and these “bad owner” behaviors can be documented via hidden camera:-). Or, as soon as their dog comes, they it blows them off–which means they really need to work on keeping dog focused on them longer. And also, if they cannot get dog dog to remain focused on them in a given environment, then dog is not that likely to have fantastic and reliable recall.So owners may need to work, not just on come when called, but keeping dog focused on them.

    For the breeds/individuals that are more distracted, independent, I require they go through the learn to earn program so they learn to look to their owners for guidance (by saying please by sitting for everything automatically). This makes them suddenly motivated for the things they used to get for free (e.g. every kibble, all interactiong, etc. This program is detailed in my upcoming Lucy perfect pup in 7 days book).

    BTY: I have a JRT and a cattledog and they have fanstastic and reliable come when calleds. I have video of them on my facebook and youtube pages. And will be placing some of come when called away from squirrels for my JRT who is a true vermin hunter. I’ll probably be getting a video summary of what the learn to earn program is (my version of it) on video too in a couple of week.

    BTY: some people think they use just positive reinforcement alone, but every time you just stand stationary and the dog goes to the end of the leash and can’t get where he wants to you, you’re using negative punishment (removal of the reward for unwanted behavior). One really can’t be a positive only trainer. But one can be a non-force or non -choke chain/pinch collar trainer pretty easily with excellent success.

  11. Hi Sophie,

    Thanks for your wonderful and useful blogs however one question:

    My dog is disinterested and hard to motivate into a run, I’m being upbeat and positive ! excitable as i can be in calling her, but how should I respond when she doesnt come (remembering I can only call her once)? Cheers,

    Sophie

  12. Hi sophie:

    Does your dog run when she plays? Figure out what makes her run and find a way to mimic that. Sometimes it means starting really close to her and moving suddenly or having her pretty hungry (e.g. train at feeding time).

  13. Hi Sophia, thanks for your reply. She doesn’t really like to run all that much, unless away from me (?!) She prefers to search for food and find things than run around at the park (or maybe she does like to run around at the park but I’m too nervous to let her as her recall is not good yet). I do use toys and very tasty food and call her before she goes very far (on the long line) but she acts deaf and is very focused elsewhere. On occasion she does completely ignore me, and I wonder what to do in that situation – do I reel her in using the long line and treat her, or ignore it and try recalling her again in a couple of minutes? Thanks so much! Sophie

  14. The post is just amazing. It is really very helpful for the beginners like me. I am trying to teach my dog the come command for so many days but I have failed trying so many methods. But after reading this post it seems that now I’ll be able to teach my David the come command easily. Thanks a ton for such a post. 🙂

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