Sunday, June 04, 2006

Teaching your dog to "come" reliably

Twice in the past two days I've seen examples of how NOT to get your dog to come to you when called. Once was yesterday, when a dog trailing a rope wandered down my street, and a few minutes later a guy in a car came down the street trying to retrieve the dog. The guy opened the passenger door of the car and angrily growled "Get in here now!" The dog turned the other direction and then took off across the street. The guy got out of the car and managed to frighten the dog enough that he (she?) hunkered down and cowered, giving the guy a chance to go grab the dog's rope and put the dog in the car. But the dog never actually came to the man, and he could have easily taken off running again, perhaps into traffic on the busy street a half-block away. (I certainly didn't blame the dog for running away from the man in the first place!)

The second time was this morning, when I was walking my dog Lucy. A schnauzer pushed through an unlatched screen door to chase us. I alerted his owner by yelling toward the house, and when she came out she yelled rather angrily "Walter, get in here." Walter backed away from her a little and it was only when she opened the door wider and he saw his chance to safely dart past her into the house that he went in.

Both of these dogs got the message from their owners that nothing good was going to happen if they obeyed the command to come. It seemed pretty obvious that these people had taught their dogs NOT to come when called.

Teaching a reliable "come" can be easy if you have fostered a positive relationship with your dog and he sees you as the highlight of his life. However, even if you've ruined the word "come" with some negative connotations already, it's not too late to pick a new word and start over again. I know of a woman who uses the word "sausage" and has taught her dogs that it means "No matter what you've done, all is forgiven once you get here!" And that is the key: The word you choose must always mean good things, and only good things.

The basic method for beginning to teach "come" is simple, but it must be practiced and rewarded consistently before you can expect the dog to actually do it off-leash, especially in the face of something enticing like a squirrel or another dog. The simplest method to start with:
  1. Have a friend hold the dog's leash.

  2. Get a handful of tasty treats (if dog has not yet eaten, you can use some of his dinner kibble) and show the dog you have them (a quick pass under dog's nose should do.)

  3. Take several steps away from the dog, then say his name in a happy voice. As soon as he is heading toward you (your friend can drop the leash once the dog is heading toward you) say "Come" once.

  4. Reward him with the whole handful of treats

  5. Repeat several times (five is good) this session, and at least one session a day for about a week, then at least once a week and in increasingly distracting situations. This is a skill that you will want to practice periodically through your dog's entire life so that when you really need it--when it may save his life--he knows exactly what it means.

In outdoor situations, you may want to invest in a longer leash (my mother made us each a 50 ft. leash using nylon webbing and hardware she bought online). If you don't have a person to help, you can teach it yourself: let your dog get several feet away on a leash, take a step or two away and say the dogs name happily and then add "come" after the dog has already started toward toward you. A great way to reinforce the "come" is to reward offered behaviors: If your dog is already running toward you, just say "come" and then reward your dog's arrival.

There are several important caveats to consider when teaching "come"
  • Never call your dog to you for punishments or anything the dog hates.

  • Say the word "Come" only once--otherwise your dog will start to learn the command as "Come! Come! Come!"

  • Try not to say the word "Come" until your dog is already heading toward you, and only practice the command when you are assured of success (i.e. the dog is on a leash and can't run away). Using the word when you aren't guaranteed success only teaches the dog to ignore it.

  • Chase games should always involve the dog chasing YOU and not the other way around. If you chase your dog for fun, he is liable to think that you running toward him (a common response by people when their dog has taken off toward the street or has just grabbed the Thanksgiving turkey off the table) is an invitation to play chase, and taking off running may be what he thinks you want him to do.

  • Always reward a successful come! This is one behavior that you want your dog to believe will be rewarded no matter what--it could save his life! If you ever have to use it without having treats available (i.e. in an emergency), always follow up soon with a practice session in which your dog gets lots of rewards for coming when called. (I try to have treats with me on most of my dog walks and hikes as a matter of course--you never know when you will need to get your dog's attention very quickly!)


Steve said...

Great article. I just ran across this article on recalls by Melissa Alexander on Karen Pryor's website:

She advocates not rewarding the dog until you have the dog's collar in your hand. I haven't done that with our dogs but I think it is something I'll start doing with Meeker.

Lisa B. said...

Thanks for the link, Steve. In my flyball class I try to get people to do something similar--hold the reward out but don't let go of it (the dog will be occupied with trying to get the treat) while they grab the dog's collar. Dogs in that class are often highly excited and love to snatch and run, which creates chaos and occasionally some grouchiness. Sometimes it takes a lot of practice to get the handlers into the habit, though!!

But it's a good point to make in the puppy classs, too, and I'll add it to my class notes!

Hey, quick thinking in catching Meeker at the camp when he bolted! It's funny how even when we know the right thing to do, our first impulse is to chase!