“Why doesn’t my dog come when he’s called?” This is a question I get from K9 parents all the time. In today’s busy world, it has never been more important for our dogs to reliably come back to us when they’re called. People say, “My dog won’t come to me when I say ‘come,’ but when I say ‘treat,’ he comes!” Ever wonder why? It’s simple…association. The dog has learned that every time you say the word “treat,” food appears. So, the dog has started to come for the possibility of having a snack. So why does it all fall apart when we say the word “come?”
Well, let’s run through a few mistakes families make with this one. First, saying “come” with too many variations. From “come” and “come here” to “come on” and “come over here, being inconsistent with the word you use can be confusing for your dog. Second, using the “come” command to interrupt your dog from doing something you don’t like—shouting “Come!” in response to barking at the fence, darting out the front door, etc. This can create problems, because saying “come” when you want your dogs to stop something tends to make them hesitant to come. Think about it. They like doing those things. If “come” means they may have to stop what they like doing, you’re likely to start seeing some resistance or at least confusion when you use the command in that situation. Especially when you don’t have something better to offer them.
Another mistake is practicing “come” from a mainly stationary position. This is a big one. It’s not that “sit, stay, come” is bad or wrong to work on with your dog. It can be really helpful in the process of installing a strong recall in your dog. It just shouldn’t be the only way you practice. When do you usually need your dog to come to you? Most people would say it isn’t when their dog is in a “sit, stay.” It’s usually when you thought you clipped the leash correctly but didn’t and now your dog is loose, when your dog darted out the door and into the road, or when your dog is at the edge of the yard, completely preoccupied with chasing something. The most common moments we need that recall to be reliable is when they’re doing something else.
One last mistake is using the word “come” in a scolding or frustrated tone. This is one of the quickest ways to ensure your dog won’t come when called. I get it. We all get frustrated. What we need to work on is setting that frustration to the side and using a more neutral tone. I know a lot of us remember getting that phone call from home because we were out past curfew. We knew we were in trouble, so we conveniently didn’t answer the call, preparing ourselves for the consequences later. It’s no different with our dogs. If you use the word “come” with frustration, you will increase your chances of seeing that same sort of “ask for forgiveness later” behavior from your dog.
So how can we start making this better? Just try to remember the clients who inadvertently trained their dog to come right over when he heard the word “treat.” When working on your recall exercise, keep the verbal cue short and consistent. This will help your dog build association with the command. During training, try to avoid using the word “come” to stop your dog from doing something. Later, you will proof the behavior by using the command in this context. In addition to “sit, stay, come,” incorporate practice drills where you send your dog to a target, then recall him back. This will start teaching your dog to respond to the command while distracted, making it more likely to be reliable in a real scenario. Practice sessions should look pretty close to the real thing.
Finally, always remember that training should be an encouraging atmosphere. Take breaks if it gets frustrating and start again later. Short and sweet sessions are the best way to find success. Good luck!
Manny Guerra, ABCDT, is the owner of K9 Parent Training. (760) 813-5250 k9parenttraining.com