Coming When Called | SpiritDog Academy

Coming When Called

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Let’s teach our dog to come when called – every time!

Note: It is recommended to play the Attention Games from the Attention Booster Roadmap before diving into this course.

Introduction To Recalls

Are you struggling to have your dog come when called?

Recalls can be the most difficult thing to teach for many owners.

Let’s look into why they can be so tricky to train, and how to make sure the rewards of the environment (as you know from the distraction lesson – those are what we are up against!) do not undo our hard work.

A recall essentially should tell our dog “Come here super fast, this is going to be awesome, you don’t want to miss this!’

A dog is not going to come when called because he feels that it is the right thing to do. He will come because in his experience it has paid off to respond to your recall … or not.

The two reasons dogs ever start to think about whether to respond to a recall or not is that:

  • We call them when it won’t pay off for them (they have to stop exploring, come and we put them in their x pen, take them to the vet, put them in a room because we go to work etc.)
  • They don’t come when called and get to experience HOW FUN this is (because we cannot keep them from enjoying the rewards of the environment)

Every time you call your dog he learns something. It can either go this way:

or it can go this way:

So – recalls are not hard because our dog doesn’t hear us or doesn’t want to hear us. They are hard because every time our dog does not come, it actually really pays off for him.

 

Stop Calling Your Dog!

Tying into the last lesson, the first and most important change you need to make is to stop calling your dog when you think he might not come.

We tend to call our dogs whenever we want them to come (obviously), but we don’t think about the consequences of their choice to not come.

With recalls, there is either good or bad: Every time you call your dog, he will learn to come – or learn to not come.

There are no neutral recall outcomes.

 

Attention Recall Game

We are going to use all the good behavior we have already trained in the Attention Games for our first recall practice.

We will toss a cookie a little further away, and as our dog walks back at us after picking it up we simply say our recall cue.

 

Note:

If your dog has a history of ignoring your recall word (Come/Here/His name/etc.), it will be much easier to start fresh with a new cue.

It is always faster to attach a meaning to a neutral word that your dog has no prior associations with.

If your dog already has a history of hearing his recall cue, ignoring it and getting rewarded by the environment for ignoring it, you will have a much harder time to undo this learning and teach him what the word actually is supposed to mean.

So – if your dog has a bad recall cue already, just pick a new one.

Recalls Need To Pay Off

Bob Bailey, one of the most well-known animal trainers ever once said:

Training is simple, but it isn’t easy.

The same applies to teaching recalls! 

While our strategy is really simple in the sense of non-complicated:

Don’t call the dog when he won’t come. Set up easy situations in which your dog can come. Reward your dog for coming.

The execution of this strategy can be tricky!

Here are two more pointers to make the training run as smoothly as possible.

#1 Your recalls are like a bank account

Think of every successful recall as a little deposit into your bank account.

Like with every account, you will do the best by:

  • Making deposits frequently
  • Not making withdrawals that are bigger than your deposits!

 

#2 Should you stop rewarding recalls?

Well, will the environment ever stop rewarding your dog for not coming when called? Other dogs, people, smells, sounds, lizards … will always be there to distract your dog and reinforce him for not coming when you call him to you.

So since the environment won’t ever stop to reward – you shouldn’t either.

Recall Safety

Using your distraction worksheet from the Attention Games, you can now also practice recalls in gradually advancing places.

In order to keep your dog safe and not end up with a lost dog, I highly recommend you are using a long line and harness once your recall practice moves to outside spaces.

In this video I explain the benefits and usage of a long line and harness for recall practice.

The main takeaways are:

  • We need to make training safe for our dog and keep him from self-rewarding by not listening
  • Our long line should be at least 20ft long and relatively light (flexi leashes do not work for this)
  • The long line gets clipped as far back as possible into the harness to prevent tripping
  • The long line is not a “training tool” in the sense that it does the training for us. It is a safety line that will back us up if the distractions are too much.

Our goal is still to have our dog come because he enjoys our rewards and knows that coming when called pays off.

The line only adds an extra layer of safety.

Recalls Outside

Time to practice our recalls outside. Make sure to select places with gradually advancing difficulty, like already in our Attention Games.

You have an advantage over your initial attention training though, as your dog will already know how to focus on  you in different places – so adding the recall on top of that will not be too difficult!

In this video I show you how to start out training your recall outside, and how to use the long line to get your distracted dog back to you.

Some additional pointers for your training:

  • Don’t train with a tired dog. If your dog has just run and played for an hour or two with his doggy friends, he might be too tired to come fast when called. Your dog should be fresh and ready to go!

If your dog does not accept your treats, stop training. We do not want to teach our dog that if he comes we offer him something he doesn’t want at all! It might be that he is too excited or distracted to accept your treats.
We never want our dog to rehearse refusing our reinforcement, because then – what other means of training do we have?
If your dog refuses your rewards, stop and try again another time in a different place.

More Distractions

Let’s try out a location that is not our front yard. I am in a wooded area here with my dog Fusion.

Of course, if you are not in a fenced-in area or you think that your dog is likely to be distracted, you need to put a long line and a harness on him.

We want to spend our time doing successful training – not chasing our dog around!

 

I am showing you another way to get a distracted dog back in this video.

 

The good thing about distracted dogs is that they are generally easy to be distracted … also from the distractions themselves.

If a dog is really interested in for example a smell, we can usually distract him from that by showing him a treat really close up.

The important part here is that you are very insistent in showing your dog the treat. You want to hold the treat right in front of his nose. It can even touch his nose. Holding the treat a foot or two from your dog’s face is likely not going to impress him. You want to make sure that when your dog breathes in, all he smells is your delicious treat – and that this will break his focus on the distraction.

Recall With Other Dogs

For many dogs, being called away from the company of other dogs is one of the most difficult recall skills.

Now that we have been practicing our recalls in different situations, let’s try it around some other dogs. 

Some pointers to set you up for success:

 

  • If at all possible, practice with “boring” dogs – those are dogs that are laid-back and not interested in play. Senior dogs fit the bill well. Low-drive breeds such as Saint Bernards or some Hounds will also work great. Do not start this with your dog’s best friends. Begin with easier, less tempting dogs and work your way up.
  • Don’t do this specific game with food-aggressive dogs.
  • Start out in a smaller area. The more open space is available, the more likely your dog is to be tempted by the big area and run off.
  • Don’t let your dog run a bunch first and then start the exercise. It can be that he is in an “adrenaline rush” and unable to focus on and listen to you. 

Of course only practice this if your dog is friendly with other dogs. For reactive dogs, skip this exercise and/or replace it with a different distraction.

Mistakes Happen!

In an ideal world, your dog would come every time you call him and you would always pick the perfect situations for your practice – meaning scenarios in which your dog will be highly successful, challenged in a way that he progresses fast but not challenged to the point of making mistakes.

But we do not live in an ideal world and mistakes will happen.

This is why it is important to remember our very first rule:

Stop calling your dog!

 

As you progress your recall to more and more situations, you are likely to encounter some that are above your dog’s current skill level. Maybe this is because of unforeseen distractions: Sometimes our usually empty neighborhood park is bustling with a crowd. Or you simply misjudged your dog’s ability to recall in a new place. 

 

This is ok. 

 

What is very important is that you do not fall back into the old habit of calling, and calling, and calling … and your dog not listening. 

Remember that as long as you are training, either one of the two happens:

Your dog learns to come when called (because he does it and gets rewarded by you)

Or

Your dog learns to not come when called (because he doesn’t come and gets rewarded by the environment).

 

This is why aborting a training session and going home is never a bad idea when you notice that your dog’s skill level does not match the distractions and environment you are in. 

Never feel bad about leaving!Sometimes preventing your dog from unlearning is the best you can do.

Hide And Seek Recall

So far we have used the visual connection with our dog to our advantage: When we called him, he could see us and we would run away in a fun chase game.

But we won’t always be able to see our dog (and have him see us) when we want him to come. In fact, the most important recalls are probably going to be the ones when we cannot see him (maybe because we are in the woods or it is dark) and we still need our dog to trust that it will pay off to come find us!

In this game, we will start with an easy out-of-sight recall. A corner of your house will work perfectly. Do everything as you have done so far, but run around the corner of your house before you call your dog. He now has to trust that you are somewhere close, and that he should come to you as quickly as he can.

Of course, it is obvious for the dog that you are behind the corner. He won’t be challenged by finding you. This is exactly the point though: We need to make the game easy enough that your dog will be 100% successful. 

Only when your dog has done successful repetitions of this easy version you should advance the game. Don’t think “This is too basic! I will hide really far away from the beginning!” because then the danger is that your dog tries to find you, but aborts because finding you is not rewarding enough and the environment is too tempting.

At first we need to give our dog an “instant gratification”-version of the game, so that finding us becomes a no-brainer for him. Only over time should you advance to being harder and harder to find.

Graduation Time

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