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What To Do When a Dog Doesn’t Come When Called

Few things are more frustrating, and potentially frightening, than a dog who doesn’t come when called. And as all but those of us with the thickest skin have experienced, it can also be a bit embarrassing. You call. Heads turn. The dog runs in the other direction. We’ve all been there, but it needn’t—and shouldn’t—be a regular occurrence. Recall is a critical safety cue, especially for dog walkers fortunate to walk in areas that allow for responsible off-leash hikes or play. Here’s how to build a great recall—and how to fix one that’s malfunctioning.

Understanding recall from the dog’s point of view
If you’re going to build rock-solid recalls you have to understand the situation from the dog’s side. Like any living organism, dogs do what works. And they do what works for them, not us. To be a true dog pro is to give up the notion that dogs should respond to our requests just because we asked. Dogs are living beings working under the same scientific rules of behavior as humans. One of the basic governing notions of behavior, operant conditioning, is that all animals (including us) do what works to get them what they need and want. There has to be a payoff for behavior, especially behavior that requires us to do things we’d less rather do than other things. The classic human analogy: How many humans (other than dog walkers!) would continue to show up at their jobs if the paychecks stopped coming?

If you want an off-leash dog to break focus from the excellent-smelling gopher hole she’s digging, there better be something really good in it for her. Otherwise, if you do manage to get her to come to you, she’s not likely to do so in similar situations again. The first trick to building great recalls is to figure out what the dogs you care for love above all else, and provide it as payment (or thanks, if you prefer) for their recalls. For some dogs this might be dried liver treats. For others you may need to go bigger, saving little bites of steak from last night’s dinner. For those dogs who would do anything to chase a well-thrown ball, reward a good recall with a swing of your Chuck-It. Whatever you choose, be generous about it and keep it scarce. If the dog has lots of ways to earn her favorite reward, the power of your recall—a chance to enjoy her top treat—is diminished.

Practice makes perfect
A common mistake is calling dogs only when you really need them to come. If you don’t practice in easy situations, actively teaching the cue and building up the recall muscle, you can’t expect a dog to come in a high-pressure or high-distraction situation. Like any skill or concept, it must be taught and practiced to achieve mastery.

While a dog is learning a strong recall, attach a long line (an extra long leash—you can find them online or in a good pet supply store) for safety. As the dog’s recall builds and becomes reliable, you can allow the dog to drag the line, and over time slowly decrease its length until the dog is running truly free, safely under voice control. Important note: Always attach long lines to a back-clip harness to avoid injury!

Follow the 5 Rules of Recall
As you practice, and forever more, follow these five rules without fail and you’ll give yourself the best chance of attaining reliable recalls.

  1. Never call a dog for anything unpleasant, such as having his leash clipped on to go home from the park. In short, never call a dog for anything that might give him pause the next time you call him. Recall should always (with the exception of an emergency) be a wonderful experience for the dog.
  2. Never call a dog if you are not sure he’ll come. All recalls should be successful recalls; you don’t want the dog to learn that blowing you off “works.” So work at the dog’s level: If he has a kindergarten-level recall, don’t give him a graduate assignment like being called away from a cat in a tree. The point is to set him up for success so that he gets rewarded and wants to keep winning the recall game. If you need a dog for something unpleasant, simply go get the dog so you don’t risk undermining your recall training.
  3. If you call the dog and he doesn’t come, save the recall. Run over to him and put a treat in front of his nose, backing up as you get his attention so he follows you. You don’t need to run him back to where you called him from—your goal is just to create an approximation of a recall, to help him go through the motion so he a) continues to learn what it is you want and b) isn’t rewarded for not coming when called. (By not responding, and thus continuing to dig that fabulous gopher hole, he’s being rewarded. This is how you end up with dogs who believe “Come!” means “Come here, please, if you don’t have anything better to do.”) Note: When you have to save a recall, follow it with a few easier ones, building back up to the one that failed, always working at the dog’s level.
  4. Don’t repeat the cue. Resist the urge to call over and over and over. It only teaches the dog to tune out the cue, turning you into the proverbial teacher’s voice from the old Charlie Brown cartoons. One quick way to differentiate the common dog lover from the uncommon dog professional is how many times a cue is repeated. Dog pros call just once and then, if necessary, use rule 3 to make the recall happen.
  5. Fabulous rewards get fabulous recalls. As explained above, but well worth repeating: If you want a dog to stop whatever interesting doggie thing he is doing and come running to you, make it worth his while. Use extra yummy treats—no dry biscuits here!—or a well-thrown ball, or a chance to wrestle you for their favorite tug toy if that’s the dog’s fancy.

Make recall fun and engaging
Cheerful tones often produce better recall results. Avoid calling with a commanding, angry-sounding voice. (Again, think about what you’re doing from the dogs’ point of view.) But being cheerful doesn’t mean quiet. Make sure you are loud enough to be heard, especially in busy environments. Remember to actually give the cue (“Fido, come!”); the dog’s name by itself is not a cue to come. (A side note: The dog doesn’t have to be looking at you when you call. I often see people call the dog’s name first, waiting for their attention before giving the cue. Don’t get in this habit; your recall cue should work whether or not the dog is looking at you, and ultimately whether or not he’s in sight or under a bush. Just cheerfully call out the whole thing at once: Fido, come!”)

Only call once, but don’t go silent. Make yourself interesting. Clap, whistle, squat, throw your arms out, cheer the dog in: “Great, great, faster, you can do it… I can’t wait until you get here!” This will help make the choice of coming to you (versus staying with that darned gopher hole) easier, keep him from distraction along the way to you, and give you something to do instead of repeating the cue. When he arrives, offer treats and release him to go back to whatever he was up to, or throw the ball. Make sure each dog comes to understand that recall is not an end to fun—it’s a bonus followed by a return to fun.

Fixing a broken recall
If you’re working with a dog who’s already learned to tune out your cue (at least until the 20th request), or one who’s come to see recall as optional if she’s got something better going, you have two options. You can always follow the five rules and slowly rebuild her understanding of the cue. You might find it faster and easier, though, to simply start over. Throw out the old cue and start fresh with a new one, following the five rules from the start. In the Dog Walking Academy we often suggest professional dog walkers retrain all their client dogs on a new recall word. There’s no rule that says the recall cue must be “Come!” and dogs don’t understand English anyway. So pick a new word. “Here!” or “Hurry!” or “Shazam!” It really doesn’t matter. Just choose something short that you don’t mind shouting in public.

Whether you “fix” an old cue or start fresh, using a long line will help training go faster by avoiding too many “failed” recalls.

One last tip: When a dog fails to respond to a cue that you feel certain is at his level—a difficulty level he generally has no problem with—you can use a time-out to help him learn both that coming when called get you the best stuff in life, and not doing so is a major bummer. Simply leash him up (or if he’s on a long-line, switch to a short leash). Do this without anger or frustration; you’re teaching, not punishing. (Scientifically speaking a time-out is a punishment. I’m talking here about your frame of mind. Be calm, cool, business-like. It’s better for you both.) Keep him restricted from the fun for 1-2 minutes and then try an easier recall, rewarding him well for his response. This helps create the contrast effect learning you’re after.

If the dog continues to struggle with recalls that are typically easy-peasy, leash him up for the remainder of the walk. It could be there’s an extra environmental distraction afoot (often a smell we can’t discern), so better to leash him both for safety and to protect your training.

Enjoy great recalls and look good!
With a little work—and lots of consistency—you can build reliable recalls for the dogs’ safety and your peace of mind. Plus no more embarrassment; just be sure to carry plenty of business cards to pass out when people compliment you on your well-trained charges!