How to Train a Reliable “Come”

Have you wondered whether your dog was actually deaf? Can he hear the rattle of the leash when you pick it up to go for a walk, but when you ask him to come he shows no sign of having heard? Can he hear the sound of the treat jar opening a mile away but apparently not “come” when he sees a bicycle go zipping by? Does he manage to hear the garage door open but appears deaf when he is in the backyard exploring and smelling the flowers?  Has he made you late for work because he wouldn’t come in and you couldn’t catch him? If so, join the club! How did this happen? How did he go from a puppy who always wanted to be with you to an independent minded adolescent sans hearing?

Hearing Aids – Does Your Dog Need One?

Hellooooo! Can you hear me?

Let’s look at how this problem fits the issue solving paradigm I introduced in an earlier post.

Principle #1: Dogs Do What Works

It is readily apparent that tuning you out and ignoring you has been working. He has gotten to stay in the backyard or park longer than you intended, and perhaps when he finally came skulking in you firmly scolded him. If this has happened, you may have inadvertently taught your dog that coming to you will result in a firm rebuke. This is plainly not what we intended, but if you can think of it from your dog’s point of view you may see the association he has been making. Here you are wanting him to come away from some really interesting smells and when he does you may lock him in the house and leave him for 8 hours.

Principle #2: Practice Makes Perfect

Often times this behavior gets practiced rarely at first and then becomes more and more frequent without us really noticing. By the time we notice that having a reliable “recall” is a safety issue we have already provided many learning opportunities. He may already have concluded that coming is optional.

Principle #3: Train an Incompatible Behavior

In this case we will be training two behaviors: name recognition and a reliable recall. Surprisingly, I often find that dogs really don’t recognize their names mainly because we have used it conversationally and not really as a “cue.” We have essentially used it as “white noise”  and haven’t attached any behavior to it.

Preparing for a Successful Recall

You have many opportunities during the course of a day to practice a recall successfully. You are probably just not aware of them. Start looking for opportunities. For instance, most dogs know the sound of their dinner being prepared and come running. Great! Take advantage of that moment by using your recall word as he is enthusiastically bounding towards you. After all, you know it is going to work and he is not going to stop dead in his tracks on the way to dinner. Look for every opportunity to practice this successfully. Does your dog like to chase you? If so, start a game with him and when he is excitingly running after you, say “come” or “here” while he is catching up with you. Let the reward for coming be catching you. And be effusive with your praise. Using a high-pitched voice can also help build that enthusiasm you want when he comes running towards you. Don’t repeat your recall word or the cue will become “comefidocome” or “comecomeIsaidcome.”

Does He Really Know His Name?

Very few behaviors can be learned without your dog paying attention to you. We like to be looked at and good things happen neurochemically when we have eye contact with our dogs. If you haven’t read The Science of Why You Love Your Dog, this might be a good time to take a look at that post because it relates in some ways to this whole idea of eye contact and attention.

There is a game I love playing with my students which helps them learn their name and respond to it favorably when there are distractions. Let’s call this the Name Game. Have your dog in a sit in front of you and have many tiny, succulent treats in each hand. With your fists closed, let him smell your hands. Don’t worry. He’ll know what is in there. Now raise your closed fists out to your side so that they are even with your shoulders and your elbows are straight. The chances are excellent that your dog will stare hopefully at one fist or the other, drooling perhaps and hoping you might drop something.

Keep looking at his eyes and don’t take your eyes away from his even though he is not looking at you…yet. After some time passes, and this varies considerably, your dog will look at your eyes. It is critical that you mark that second, preferably with a click (if you are clicker savvy) and a treat.  If you do not use a clicker, you can say “yes” quickly and in a high-pitched tone and immediately give him a treat from one of your fists. He will probably go back to staring at that fist again. If he stares at the right fist intently, try to give the treat from the left and vice versa but only, of course, after he makes eye contact. What you will begin to notice that he spends less and less time staring at your fist before he shifts his gaze to your eyes. In the beginning you will click and treat (or C/T) immediately when he makes eye contact. Then, ever so slowly, you will increase the length of time incrementally between when he looks at you and when you C/T.

When the light bulb has gone on and your dog is consistently looking away from your hand and into your eyes, start to add his name AS he is doing it. You are not asking him to do it, but rather naming the behavior as he is doing it. After 8-10 repetitions, you can start to use his name during this game as a cue, and actually say it before he does it. If you have set him up properly there is little chance that he will fail. But if he does, and you have asked him for his attention by using his name and he has failed to give it to you, then interrupt the game and walk away for a few seconds.  Be sure not to repeat his name, or you will be well on your way to being trained to use his name multiple times. The word I use is “wrong” and turn my back briefly.

Make It Harder…Slowly

So now we know he knows his name. Let’s increase the distractions and take it outside into the backyard. Have him on a leash, make sure he is hungry, and have a smorgasbord of many pea-sized treats. Dogs usually get distracted when they are out and about and enjoying a good sniff.  You will be using the freedom to go off and investigate the backyard as a reward for eye contact as well as treats. Wander around a bit and then come to a halt. Your dog may continue to sniff a bit or look for squirrels but eventually he will wonder what you are doing and check back in with you. You must be on your toes for this one, because eye contact may be ever so brief and you don’t want to miss it. As soon as he even glances at you, C/T and then say “OK” and walk briskly forward again. Halt again. Wait for eye contact. C/T. Say “OK” and walk off yet again. Repeat this 8-10 times.  When you feel rather certain that he is catching on and is quickly checking back with you when you stop, you can start to add his name, AS he looks at you. Do this 8-10 times before you take the final step of using his name as a cue and asking him to make eye contact. Again, don’t repeat his name. If he does not comply, say “wrong” and go in the house. Game over.

Repeat this game outside for several days. You will find that your dog is checking in with you more and more. When you get to this point you can “take it on the road.” You can now start to use it when you go for a walk or are in more distracting environments. But do remember that it is your responsibility as a good parent to set them up to succeed. So don’t take them to the park on the fourth of July at lunchtime and expect them to succeed. Rather, the first time you take him out of the yard, do it very early or very late. Pick a time when distractions will be low. And in highly distracting environments, pay him well! Bring out the high paying rewards like cheese or bits of pot roast.

Put the Two Together

You have been practicing your recall word every day, many times a day, when your dog is heading in your direction, anyhow. Hopefully you have also been running away from him occasionally, as well, as this encourages him to enthusiastically run to you. And you have been practicing the Name Game inside and outside.

Now let’s put them together. We will begin indoors because the distractions are low, but it may be good to have a leash on just the same.  When you are putting these together you do not want to give him the option of not coming.  If need be, you can always reel him in happily and reward him when he gets to you. Let him pull the leash around the house getting use to the feel of it and hopefully ignoring it.  As always, if your dog has a leash on, be sure to keep your eye on him as it can become tangled and he can hurt himself. After he is comfortable with the leash on, quietly grab some treats, hopefully unnoticed. While he is looking away, do the following:

  • Use his name
  • Use your “recall” word
  • Run away from him
  • Reward him when he catches up to you. Be effusive.  Heap treats and praise on him
  • Repeat
  • Say “OK” to release him and let him go back to his business as usual
  • Begin all over again

Make It Harder…Slowly…Again

After this becomes reliable in the house, you can do it outside with low distractions. A 20-foot training lead comes in handy outside because you want to start increasing the distance he is from you when you call.

Start to think of distractions on a continuum from very slightly distracting to very highly distracting. It is a good idea to actually write this out. Every dog is different. For instance, I have one dog that would not find a recall past a cat at all difficult. I have another who would find this at the very, very high end of the continuum. Work your way from low to high distractions slowly, remembering that your job is to make your dog succeed.  It is often necessary to backtrack and reinforce what you thought they understood. There is no shame in that. The objective is to make his recall reliable in every situation, but this takes time, practice and persistence.

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Photo Credits: Matthieu A. on flickr

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