One of the most important cues, Come!
By Elisabeth Catalano MA, CPDT-KA, CDBC
One of the most important cues that you will ever teach your dog is to come to you when
you call. Also known as the ‘recall’, this behavior can save your dog’s life. Poor recalls are the most common complaint from owners. While recalls are easy to teach they are
unfortunately, also very easy to ruin.
Motivation is an important part of training this behavior. Puppies are very strongly
motivated to follow their mom and return to her after a separation. The reason they are so
motivated to do this is simple, mom has something they want and need, food! Train your
dog to ‘come’ when he is called by teaching him that coming to you is worth it. Equally
important in training recalls is reinforcement. Behaviors that get reinforced get stronger
and we want to build a REALLY strong and very reliable recall.
What word will you use to ‘cue’ (i.e., signal) the recall behavior? If the word ‘come’
already has a history of leading to things your dog doesn’t like, such as going into the crate or getting a bath, it is best to start over with a new word. Try, ‘Here’, ‘To Me’, or ‘Front’. You may be tempted to use his name, but don’t. His name means ‘attention please!’ or ‘look at me’. It is an indication that further instructions are coming. Just because you need his attention doesn’t necessarily mean that you want him to run to you.
Dogs not only need to learn the cue, they need to learn how to perform the behavior in a
variety of situations. In order to be completely reliable, they must learn how to perform the behavior at a variety of distances, with different distractions, and even with you out of
sight. If that sounds like a lot of work it is. A truly reliable recall takes practice, but the
results are worth it!
Here are the rules for training a REALLY good recall!
- REWARD IT! Don’t be stingy! You must reward BIG for this behavior. Consider it an
investment in your dog or even insurance for his safety. Reward your dog each and
every time he comes to you. Recalls and rewards should be a one-to-one ratio.
- Use high-value rewards like roast beef or chicken. Sure, treats are good, but you give
those for sitting (and be honest, sometimes just for being cute). Running to you takes
work and energy, it is a behavior that should be a higher pay grade!
- Take your time when you reward. Don’t just give one or two treats and call it good.
Time your reward. It should be no less than 30 seconds for each repetition. If your dog
runs to you and then gets to eat for 30 seconds, he is going to remember that it sure was
worth it! Think banquet! Remember, you are strengthening behavior and we want to
really strengthen getting to you and remaining there.
- Be enthusiastic! Don’t just call him to come and then wait to see what happens. Keep
up the praising! “Good dog, here we go, yay!” Verbal encouragement is motivational
too and it also serves to keep his attention on you and not on the squirrel that you didn’t
even notice over there to your right!
5. Train, train, train! You must practice. Try to stick in at least one recall every day and in
different places. You can use on your walk, when your dog doesn’t expect it, call him,
as soon as he turns, run away from him (he won’t go anywhere, you are still holding the
leash!). When he catches up, reward him with something very tasty for 30 seconds. He
is going to think this is a great game.
- Use a leash or long-line to be sure that your dog follows through on the cue you gave.
Sure you want off-leash reliability, but that has to be earned through training. Your dog
must be reliably performing the behavior at different distances and with distractions
before you can safely lose the leash.
- Don’t overuse it. Using the word ‘come’ too often with no reward will weaken your
dog’s response to the cue. When the dog hears ‘come’ ceaselessly throughout the day,
and most of the time it doesn’t lead to anything, the cue becomes irrelevant. Think white
noise! Using come to stop your dog from doing things that you don’t want, like poking
in the trash, barking, or touching things that they shouldn’t will also work against you.
This is actually the lazy person’s route to dog training. ‘Come’ should be something
special, a wonderful and surprise event in your dog’s day! It should never be reduced to
a nagging, repeated duty. ‘Come’ should mean run to me, something wonderful is
about to happen!
- Don’t use your recall cue if your dog will be too distracted or otherwise engaged to
comply. Don’t call your dog to come when you can’t enforce or control the situation. If
you call him when he is distracted at a distance with no leash on, and he doesn’t
respond, what will you do? How will you get the behavior that you asked for? That will
teach him that ‘come’ is just an option for consideration. I call this the ‘wishful thinking’
recall, the one where you are expecting your dog to perform a behavior you haven’t
even taught yet (e.g., leaving a distraction).
- NEVER associate your recall cue with bad things. Don’t call your dog to ‘come’ and
then do something he doesn’t like: put him in the crate then go to work for the day, cut
his nails or give him a bath. That will help him make the association that ‘come’ is a
- Don’t associate your recall with the end of good things. Using ‘come’ when you are
about to end a play session to get your dog inside or when you want to leave the dog
park. Your dog will quickly learn that ‘come’ signals the end of a good time. Needless to
say, he won’t be motivated to respond!
If you don’t want to ruin your recall, use other words for the varied behaviors you want
performed. For instance, if you want your dog to come into the house, train him to
respond to the cue “let’s go in”. If you want him to go into his crate, train him to respond
to “kennel up”. If you want him to get out of the trash, train “leave-it”. What do you do if
you call him and he doesn’t come? Go get him!
While ruining a good recall may be easy, it is much easier to maintain a good recall than
to try and fix it once it has been damaged. Keep it good, keep it controlled and keep it
special and you will have a recall your dog always responds to!
ELISABETH CATALANO, MA, CPDT, CDBC is a professional dog trainer and
behavior counselor with more than 15 years of experience in dealing with
canine behavior problems. She is the Director of Behavior and Training
of The Coventry School, Inc. for Dogs and Their People. Liz is a member of
the APDT, the IAABC, and The Animal Behavior Society. To reach Elisabeth
Catalano call 410-381-1800, or visit www.thecoventryschool.com.