Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Come When Called...Or Not?

Does your dog come when called?  For most of us, the answer is, "It depends." It depends on whether the dog is distracted with something, whether you're at home or on the beach, and so on.  Most dog owners don't have this challenge while their dog is a puppy.  But come adolescence, the dogs develop more independence (just like teenager kids) and they'd rather be exploring the world and hanging out with their friends than hanging out with Mom and Dad.

Well then, how do you get your dog to come to you in all, or at least in most, situations?  It's all about conditioning your dog to think that coming to you is a good thing.  Below are 12 guidelines to help you teach your dog to come amidst distractions...

The first thing to do is teach your dog what is expected of them when you say “Come” (it can be another word such as “Here” if you prefer). At first, your dog won’t know what it means, so you will want to say “Come” when your dog is walking towards you anyway. Or you can say “Come,” then right away make noises or movements that will encourage your dog to come towards you. In other words, you are letting your dog hear the word “Come” as he does the corresponding behavior. With repetition, the dog learns that “Come” means that he should come to you.

Often, dogs will come to you when you just call their names, but it’s recommended that you teach your dog specifically what “Come” means.  The name is meant to get your dog’s attention before you ask for a specific behavior, for example, “Fido, Come” or “Fido, Down.”

One of the best ways to condition a reliable recall is to make it worthwhile for your dog to come to you.  Let’s look at it from your dog's point of view.  Say your dog is playing with his doggie friends and you ask him to come to you.  He does so, and you put him on leash and take him away from his friends.  Do you think your dog will come to you next time he’s playing with his friends? 

For most dogs, food is the number one thing they will work for.  If you're going to use food rewards, I recommend high-value food for Recall training.  Coming when called can be one of the most important things your dog ever learns - it could even save his life in a dangerous situation.  By “paying” for your dog’s recall with delicious treats, you are drastically increasing the odds that your dog will come to you when you ask. (Please refer to the treat chart at the end for ideas.) The treat should be equal in value or more valuable than whatever the distractions are, so you can “compete” with them.

Praise is good, but usually doesn't work as an only reward.  If your boss at work praised you profusely for doing a good job, it might make you feel good the first few times, but if you didn't also get a paycheck, then you'd probably end up quitting your job.  We all work for something.  What will your dog will work for?

It’s good to mix up the rewards too, i.e. alternate what you use as treats.  It will be more exciting for your dog.

Assuming your dog has learned what “Come” means at this stage, you may find that he still won’t come to you if the distraction is extra interesting.  In that case, stick a treat right to his nose, say “Come” and take a few steps away. Usually with a treat right in front of his face, the dog will follow you.  Release the treat as soon as he takes a few steps with you, then send him back to play.

This is called bribing because you are showing your dog what he will get as a reward. We are teaching the dog that it "pays" to come to you even though there are other exciting things going on.

After you've used a bribe several times in a particular situation (such as while playing with another dog), transition to a reward system, i.e. instead of showing the dog your treat first, have the dog to come to you first, then pull out the treat.  This way, your dog won’t always rely on seeing or smelling your treat first. But he will trust that you’ll still pay him for coming.

Each type of distraction has a different level of difficulty in terms of being able to call your dog off of it.  You may find it helpful to make a list of your dog's distraction, rate the difficulty levels, and decide what kind of rewards to use:

~ Geckos - MILDLY DIFFICULT – use medium value treats
~ Smells - grass, trees, other dogs' pee - MODERATELY DIFFICULT – use medium value treats
~ Cats - MODERATELY DIFFICULT – use medium value treats
~ Other dogs - VERY DIFFICULT – use high value treats
~ Cat poop - VERY DIFFICULT – use high value treats
- On the beach - ALMOST IMPOSSIBLE – use multiple super-high value treats!

You will want to train for each type of distraction so that your dog can generalize the Recall in various situations. Keep in mind also that the DISTANCE from which you call your dog can also add to the difficulty level. 

When your dog successfully comes to you in a distracting environment, it helps to give several small treats rather than just one big treat.  If you give several small treats consecutively rather than just one small treat, or several treats all at once, then you encourage the dog to stick around after he comes to you, instead of doing an “eat and run.”  Giving multiple treats also prolongs the enjoyable “treat party” for your dog, making it even more rewarding.

While your dog is still learning to come to you and away from distractions, you can set your dog up for success by making things easier.  For example, rather than calling your dog from 20 feet away at the beach, walk halfway to your dog and then ask him to Come. Increase the distance as your dog becomes more reliable in his recalls.

If your dog hasn't learned to come to you in the presence of certain distractions yet, then it's better not to ask him to Come in that situation, because he may ignore you.  Instead, you can do one of the following: 1) avoid that situation, 2) keep your dog on leash, or 3) reward your dog for "checking in" with you voluntarily, rather than explicitly asking for a Come.

If your dog is playing with other dogs, or sniffing something really interesting, learn to recognize the natural pauses during the play or sniffing, and use those moments to call your dog, rather than saying Come when they are fully focused on what they’re doing. 

Nine out of ten times that you ask your dog to Come, send your dog back to play (or whatever he was doing before you called him) right after he comes to you and gets his reward.  This way, your dog will learn that when he comes to you, he gets a yummy treat (or toy) AND he gets to go back and play.  Coming to you does not mean “the end of fun.”
If possible avoid associating Come with things that your dog doesn't enjoy, such as taking a bath, clipping his nails or leaving the dog park. Your dog may start to avoid you when you say Come, because it means bad things.  If you need to wash your dog or clip his nails, you can quietly put him on a leash without saying Come.
Be clear in your communication.  I recommend saying your dog's name first to get his attention, and then the word Come.  For instance, "Fido, (dog looks), Come!" rather than "Come here puppy" one day and then "Over Here" another day.  Say the name clearly first, wait for a head turn or acknowledgment, and then immediately say Come (or use a hand signal) with enthusiasm.

Remember that it's windy in Hawaii, and there are times when your dog may not hear you because you are downwind from him.  If your dog doesn't know his name very well, it's a good idea to teach him his name before teaching him other verbal cues like Come.

You’ve probably seen dogs that start coming to the owner, but get distracted partway and walk away at a 90-degree angle.  Praising your dog with enthusiasm as he starts to come to you will encourage your dog to keep coming to you - not only are you more exciting now, the dog also enjoys the praise. 

You might also find that standing at an angle (i.e not facing your dog directly), or walking in the other direction while maintaining eye contact (i.e. as if you want your dog to chase you) will also encourage your dog to come to you.  Facing your dog or walking towards him as you say Come may appear intimidating, or like you're chasing him, which will trigger his "running away" instinct.

Sometimes a dog comes to the owner but then ducks his head away from the owner's hands because the dog doesn’t like to have his face petted or his collar grabbed.  It can help to have your dog target your treat hand, and if you have to leash your dog, then gently and inconspicuously grab her collar while she's eating the treat.

Some shy dogs feel intimidated if their human leans over them or towers over them.  It might help to squat down, or stand straight without leaning over the dog.
Make sure that your dog regularly gets enough exercise, socialization with other dogs and/or off-leash time to get his ya-ya's out.  If your dog likes to smell the environment, then make sure he gets enough sniffing time in. Otherwise, he may run away every time you take his leash off, because that's the only way he can fulfill his own needs.

For an energetic or young dog, a 30-minute leashed walk in your neighborhood probably won’t cut it, even if it's twice a day.  They need to run, play with other dogs, swim, play fetch or go hiking!

Get in the habit of saying Come only once.  Otherwise the cue becomes "Come, come, come…I SAID COME!!" and your dog will learn that he doesn't have to come the first time you say it. 

Assuming you followed the guidelines above, including not asking for more than your dog has been trained for, then your dog should come to you most of the time.  But a dog is not a machine, and you will find yourself in situations where your dog “blows you off.”  In these situations, it’s a good idea to go and get your dog. There’s no need to scold or punish your dog; just calmly go and get your dog.  This way your dog doesn’t get rewarded for ignoring you.
When your dog is initially learning Come, or if he is learning for the first time to Come away from a particular type of distraction (such as another dog), you should reward him every single time he complies to your Come.

As your dog becomes very reliable at recalls (with and without distractions, from a distance, in all environments), you may not need to reward 100% of the recalls. 

It's scientifically proven that a random reward schedule will make a simple behavior stronger.  You can see it in slot machine gamblers - they'd get bored if they won every single time, and they'd lose interest if they NEVER won, but because they only win sometimes, they are driven to keep pulling that lever.  Pulling a slot machine lever is pretty easy though. What if you had to solve a New York Times crossword puzzle in order to win money. It’s a more complex problem, and you’d probably want to get paid every time.

Take this into consideration when deciding when and how much to reward your dog for his recalls.  If you see your dog’s recall response declining, then it might mean that you’re not rewarding enough or that your treats are low value. I myself like to reward my dog at least 60% of easy recalls and 99% of difficult recalls for the rest of its life. It’s better to reward too much than too little and be sure to get a reliable response when you really need it. It’s like depositing money into your bank account; you’ll be able to withdraw some day when you need it most!


I hope these guidelines help you train your dog's recall.  As with the rest of the advice on my blog, they are just guidelines, and I recommend supplementing them with a group class or private lessons with an in-person trainer.  There also some great videos out there including Dr. Patricia McConnell's "Lassie Come!" video:  



Treats don’t have to be expensive store-bought dog treats. They can be cut up pieces of real meat, or something else your dog goes crazy for.  Usually, the wetter and stinkier the better!  If you’re not sure what your dog likes, try a taste test.  Dry biscuits are usually not as effective because the top ingredient is typically not meat.

LOW VALUE (not recommended for Recall training)
·       Dry dog biscuits
·       Kibble

MEDIUM VALUE (can work for low distraction Recall training)
·       Zukes-type training treats
·       Dried jerky treats
·       Other packaged but non-refrigerated dog treats

HIGH VALUE (works well for higher distraction Recall training)
·       Freeze dried dog treats such as beef liver, salmon and other meat
·       Plato salmon and duck treats
·       Cheese
·       Freshpet Vital and other refrigerated dog treats
·       Sliced hot dog
·       Cold cuts (turkey, ham, bologna)
·       Steak, chicken^^, liver and other cooked meat and fish (i.e. not packaged dog treats)

^^ Costco sells packages of pre-grilled chicken that are easy to cut up into small pieces.

Please see my blog below for photos of the above treats and other ideas:


  1. Kyoko ~ Really enjoyed reading this blog entry. Lots and lots of food for thought as I work with our new puppy ... would like not to make the same mistakes I have made with other dogs in the past. Am looking forward to watching you work with more dogs at the shelter.

  2. We import our products from 8 countries across the world. pet care products , dog grooming kit, dog hair trimmer, dog shampoo, andis deshedding & dematting tools & all other grooming tool.

  3. “Meat” can include skeletal muscle of an animal as well as tissue from the heart, diaphragm, and esophagus, among other things. It may also include fat and gristle just as meat destined for human consumption might. “Meat by-product,” on the other hand, is the non-rendered parts of an animal sans meat, and can include the lungs, kidneys, brain, blood, bone, and more. By-product tested by the strict AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) standards should NOT include hair, horns, teeth, or hooves. “Meat meal” describes any rendered product from animal tissues.