The Critical Life Saving Lesson … "Come”
Here are a few hints for those of you who have problems getting your dog to come when called. Identifying WHY you have the problem may help to find a solution. Perhaps we can think like a dog and make the Recall one of the most exciting things in life!
POSSIBLE CAUSES …….
Some possible reasons why your dog may not come back to you include:
Not having the opportunity to train your dog during his/her critical socialisation period before 12 weeks of age when puppies are not bold enough to move away from their “family”. It is much easier to condition a puppy to “Come” at that stage of its life.
Feeding your dog too frequently, or “food on tap” especially when your puppy is young therefore creating a dog that may be a fussy eater, or one is not very motivated towards food. Some breeds are more susceptible than others.
Teaching your dog to come by using food in your signal hand in the early stages of training and not progressing to use food as a reward only after the response.
Pairing the word "Come" (before you dog has actually been conditioned to what that word means), when the dog is actively engaged in a different behaviour, for example, running to see his friend. Remember you want to set yourself up for success and avoid setting yourself up for failure.
Coming to you means in your dog’s mind - “I have to stop playing and go home!", etc.
Anxiety about the environment especially if it unfamiliar, noisy, windy, stormy, or your dog has been attacked by another dog. Fear overrides training.
Finding other things more exciting than coming to you!
Distracting stimuli such as smells or the presence of other dogs, especially if your dog rarely has the opportunity to play and socialise.
A negative association with coming to the handler; being ticked off for running away.
The handler has stopped rewarding the behaviour in a meaningful way. Your dog’s stomach is her main motivator! Use yummy rewards.
You are training without your dog without withholding food for a period of time so that your dog is not keen to earn the food rewards.
Your dog is a ponderous breed and would rather lie in the shade than come to you.
Training your dog to come and sit in front of you and rewarding after the sit. This is a classic way of rewarding a behaviour of lesser importance (sit) and not rewarding the CRITICAL behaviour as effectively (Come)
Your dog has avoided being put onto the lead after play consequently you have lunged at the dog to catch it, thus creating an avoidance response. This is compounded if you run after your dog and your dog then perceives this behaviour as a game.
But the question is – What are we going to do about it?
POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS . . .
Let’s get back to basics. Below are a few suggestions which are probably pertinent to any unreliable Recall (see A, B, C, D and E) and others which are more related to the specific cause of the problem (see later).
First of all. Preparing your dog for re-training (whatever the cause)
Your dog must be keen for his/her food rewards. This means not feeding your dog for at least 24 hours before a re-training session OR
Preparing your dog’s food for the day and only feeding the dog for responding to you i.e all food comes from your hand and nothing from a food bowl. In this case you can train randomly throughout the day. It is generally more successful if you keep up the same regime for a couple of weeks so your dog realises that it’s in their interest to “come”. However your dog should get the same amount of food per 24 hours as normal.
Use high value food rewards such a fresh meat. Variety is good but avoid such things as cured meats which are potentially carcinogenic. Work out what you dog really loves and consider a meaty bone such as a section of kangaroo tail for the last Recall of the day. (Make sure your dog gets trace elements in some form too; for example, Vet’s All Natural Complete Mix* https://vetsallnatural.com.au/product-category/dog-puppy/complete-mix/).
Re-train your dog in a restricted area to begin with such as your garden, a tennis court or a fenced park. Set your dog up for success. Realise that if your dog runs off it may well be reinforced by doing some exciting doggy activity.
Get your dog’s attention by calling his name in a high pitched voice and dropping your hand down in front of your legs without food in the hand. Only say “Come” when your dog is absolutely committed to coming to you. This is critical. Have a yummy bit of food ready in the other (non signal) hand to feed your dog the instant she arrives at your signal hand. Reward low down so that you dog is not triggered to sit before you can reward him (refer back to No. 13 above).
Progress to more open areas and gradually add distractions. Be generous with your rewards but intermittently substitute food with enthusiastic verbal praise, throwing a ball or anything else your dog really likes. Be prepared to run away from your dog to generate a chasing response. Then turn around and give the usual signal. Needless to say you must never show displeasure when your dog returns to you even if their return has been less than perfect! However you would obviously choose to reinforce the “best” responses and not the imperfect!
SOLUTIONS RELATED TO SPECIFIC CAUSES (above)
It may be too late to talk about the critical socialisation period at this stage of your dog’s training. In any case you may have chosen to adopt an older dog. Just remember if you acquire a dog in the future that it will be much easier to teach a good recall before 12 weeks of age whether you are adopting or buying.
Feed your dog once a day if it is 4 months or older. Twice a day should be quite sufficient from 10 to 14 weeks, maybe three times a day when younger. If your dog does not finish a meal within five minutes, this is a clear indication that you are feeding too much, or too frequently.
Only use food to reinforce (reward) your dog after the Come when called response. Avoid using food as an inducement (that is, food in your signal hand), or you will condition yourself to think you need it!
Say “come” once only when your dog is absolutely committed to come to you. The use of a clicker to mark the behaviour may be useful. Ask an instructor how to do this if you haven’t learnt how to train with a clicker yet.
Call your dog randomly during a walk and occasionally pop the lead on for a couple of minutes. Then let your dog free to play again. Dogs get very cute about knowing when the end of the walk or play is coming and then avoiding being caught!
Anxiety will definitely affect your dog’s ability to concentrate and learn. The use of positive reinforcement is one of the best ways of making your dog feel more confident. Be absolutely consistent with your training so that there is no confusion in your dog’s mind. Try going for walks with a stable dog with an excellent temperament.
Be more animated. Introduce fun activities such as fetch. Have your dog extra keen for food rewards.
I have known situations where dogs are rarely allowed off the lead to play and socialise. Ideally your dog should have off lead exercise with other dogs on a daily basis. Don’t have time? Would a dog walker, doggy daycare or having another dog in the family help? Your call.
We are all aware that coming to you must never be associated with anything negative even if you are totally frustrated. Dogs are adept at reading negative body language. If you are frustrated stop training and try again later.
Use a variety of food rewards often enough to keep your dog responding at a high level. Building a recall into fun activities or competing with another dog for attention may help – “train me, train me”!
An obvious solution. Have your dog keen for food. It’s not being mean: you need to fix the problem.
Train when it’s cool or thoroughly wet your dog down before training. Practicing recalls at the beach or river is a great way to go in the summer.
Be fanatical about recall. Have a piece of food in your non signal hand when re-training so that you can instantly reward your dog for arriving at your signal hand. Reinforce low down otherwise your dog may sit because it looks up if you lift your hand to get food from your bum bag. Reinforce intermittently. Phase out the use of food in your non signal hand when the response is reliable and reinforce intermittently from your pocket or bumbag.
Do a few recalls by calling your dog (without food in your hand remember) and rewarding him quickly with food when he responses well.
Next time as you reward him, take his collar with your other hand and hold it for a few seconds. Release him. Don’t feed and then lunge for the collar! In fact don’t lunge at all – take the collar quietly and gently.
Repeat the action of taking the collar AS YOU FEED YOUR DOG gradually holding it for longer before releasing him again.
When that is going well start putting on the lead as well but remember the lead must not always mean end of walk/fun time as in solution 5.
* The Gentle Modern School of Dog Training has no commercial connection to Vet's All Natural