How to Ensure the Recall (“Come”) Command Works

“You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.” 
― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

Brittany Graham Photography

Brittany Graham Photography

I’ll never forget a conversation I had several years ago with a friend who happens to be a (great) vet.  She was asking me about the “come” command, and what my thoughts were about having a special “come” command, or an emergency recall.  A special word that means “come”, no matter what? Did I have a command like that?

“Yes”, I replied.  ”The word is “come”‘.

I have a lot of people who ask me why their dogs won’t come when they’re called.  My usual reply?  ”Why should they?”, which is always followed with some type of justification on the owner’s part.

  • Because I called them.
  • Because I’m their owner.
  • Because I’m their pack leader.

Just “because” isn’t an answer.  It’s a polka.

Hey, I'm Slovak.  What did you expect?

Your dog needs a reason to come when called, and there’s only one reason a dog will come when you call them.  That reason is you have more money is your Piloting Piggy Bank.  You simply must have more money in your piggy bank than your dog does.  Claiming to be Pilot or Leader doesn’t mean much unless you actually are.  I can claim to be Queen of the Scots, but unless I have something to back up that claim, well…Here, I’ll let Bruce explain.

So, to that end, I present to you How To Attain (Near) Total Recall.  Notice the caveat in there?  ”Near” Total Recall.  Because we are dealing with living, breathing animals, not machines who are programmed to respond a specific way to specific sets of stimuli.  No dog will ever have 100% recall.  So let’s do this.  Let’s get Fido to (Near) Total Recall.

 Oh, "Rekall, Rekall, Rekall." You thinking of going there?

Oh, “Recall, Recall, Recall.” You thinking of going there?

A few simple rules about (Near) Total Recall.

1. Remember the three steps to working with your dog:

  • Control Yourself.  Are you angry? Rushed?  Annoyed?  If so, it’s not going to work.  Calm is the only way to get what you want, and that goes for the “come” command, too.  Take a break and listen to the polka music again.  Nobody can be in a bad mood while listening to a polka!
  •  Control the Situation.  In other words, don’t start working on recall when your dog is chasing the mailman down the street.  Start in a controlled environment, say….your living room!
  • Add Stimulation (“Come”).  Let’s get ready to rumble!

2. You MUST use positive reinforcement.  In other words, “COME HERE!!!!” will never work.

Yeah, I always preferred Liu Kang anyway.  He was the only one who didn't seem to be on a roid rage.

Yeah, I always preferred Liu Kang anyway. He was the only one who didn’t seem to be on a roid rage.

Start in your living room, with your dog not too far from you. Make your body into slight letter “S”.  The object is that you don’t look intimidating, but rather, inviting.   Call them.  Remember you are teaching your dog a new language, so repetition is integral.  One word only.  In our house, it’s “come”.  In your house it could be “Pajammas” for all I care, just so long as you are repeating it over and over again. Pat your leg consistently to give them something to focus on,.   Hopefully, they will start walking to you.  The moment they get to you, they get high value positive reinforcement.  If your dog is food motivated, give them a treat.  If they are praise motivated, praise them heartily.  If they are love-bugs, give them a thorough belly/back scratch.  In a perfect world, you will be doing all three.  This is called Touch, Talk, Treat.  You are creating a Pavlovian response by linking these three things.  Pretty soon, you don’t need all three!  The Touch and Talk can take the place of the Treat.  That way you don’t need to rely on treats all the time to get your dog to come when you call.

Now that your dog came when you called, try it again, from farther away.  Pat your leg, move into an “S” shape, and start calling them.  Uh oh.  This time they’ve decided to ignore you. What do you do?

1) If you are home alone, quietly stand up, walk towards your dog, take them by the collar and start gently tugging (not dragging!) them to where you called them, repeating “come, come, come” the entire time.  Once you get to where you originally called them, they still get Touch,Talk,Treat.  There is absolutely no punishment, ever.

2) If someone is with you, have them retrieve the dog to where you are.  The person bringing you the dog should merely act as a disembodied hand that is bringing your dog to you. You will still be saying “come, come, come” over and over, and yes, they still get Touch, Talk, Treat when they get to you.

Practice this a few times. Pretty soon your dog will come bounding over to you to get their treat.  Now it’s time to start weaning them from the treats.  Now it’s 9/10 times they get the treat.  Then 7/10 times.  Soon it’s 1/30 times.  No matter what, they still get lavish praise and affection when they get to you.  Call them from all areas of the house so they actually have to find where you are.  Get them accustomed to actively looking for you when they hear they are being called.

Now you’re ready for outside.  But there’s a trick to it.  Yes, it’s easy to get your dog to come in the house, but outside they’re, well, loose!  Even in an enclosed back yard it can be difficult to catch a dog who won’t come.  That’s why I use a cotton clothesline initially.  About 20 feet will do.  Tie a big knot about every 2-3 feet along the line, and then attach it to your dog’s collar.  Now let them outside. When you call them, and they won’t come, remember, they’re dragging 20 feet of rope behind them.  Simply step on the rope (the knot will catch on your foot), and you can tug them along two towards you, calling them the entire time. And yes, they still get Touch, Talk, Treat when they get t you.

So you’ve been working at it outside, and your dog has (Near) Total Recall outside. Now you’re ready to lose the clothesline, but if you just instantly take it off, your dog may figure out that they’re completely free again.  Instead, gradually start cutting the clothesline smaller and smaller until there’s nothing left.  Your dog will never know the instant where you can’t catch them anymore.

What does it take?  Effort.  I loathe the people who tell me this doesn’t work, and when I ask them how long they’ve been at it, “Oh, at least 2 days now!”  You are training a dog to be human.  To respond to human speech, and to trust that you make a better Pilot than they do.  To this day, I still work at the come command with my dogs, even thought they attained (Near) Total Recall a long time ago. Work at it, because the first time you call your dog and this happens:

 

…it will all be worth it.

Keep calm and pilot onKerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio

 

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Training (But Were Afraid to Ask)

In character, in manner, in style, in all things, the supreme excellence is simplicity. – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Boots and Bee Photography - By Brittany Graham

Boots and Bee Photography – By Brittany Graham

Entering into a new training session, there are always a few consistencies.  I have only two hours to accomplish many things:

  • Gain the trust of the humans
  • Gain the trust of the dog(s)
  • Ascertain the situation
  • Develop a game plan for addressing the behavior issues
  • Create bonds of communication between dog and owner
  • Have fun.

It doesn’t necessarily happen in that order, but that’s a pretty good synopsis of everything I can accomplish in two hours.  It seems like a lot, but as I’ve stated numerous times, dogs aren’t stupid. I also believe that (most) people aren’t stupid either. There are, of course, occasionally the incredible human exceptions.  Dogs, however, are amazingly simple.  That’s why I’m able to keep my training sessions short and simple.  Remember, there is nothing wrong with your dog; he just sucks at being human.  And most people are pretty decent humans; they just suck at being dogs.  So, simply put, we need some communication going on, not a bunch of rules and regulations about how the two species should interact.  Three steps to working with your dog; that’s all it takes for any situation involving a dog to be solved.

I firmly believe dogs ask questions.  We’ve already agreed that dogs aren’t stupid, so of course they ask questions.  They’re curious creatures, and aside from wanting to know about their world around them, they want to know what you think of the world around them.  How should they react?  Should they react? And most importantly, is it time to eat?!

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All of their questions can be answered, but not all of them necessarily need to be answered.  There are simply some that must be answered.  But more on that in a moment.

Working with your dog involves 3 components: Piloting, Activity and Work, or what we refer to as The PAW Method.  To break it down:

Piloting: Answer your dog’s questions. They only ask “yes/no” questions, so it’s pretty easy to do!  Learn how here.

Activity: Keep ‘em moving and active.  Ever experience something called a runner’s high?  Yeah, well, neither have I, but I hear it’s wonderful, and dog’s are addicted to it. They need their Activity, and either you give it to them, or they figure out how to get it themselves, and that’s never a good thing.

sled

Work: Dogs aren’t stupid, nor are they merely knick-knacks strewn about your house to be idly admired: they are thinking beings with cognitive abilities that we still haven’t fully explored in the tens of thousands of years they’ve been with us.  In other words, keep them mentally engaged. A bored dog is truly a destructive force.

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That’s the groundwork, your foundation.  Make it a good, strong foundation, and you can build upon it by answering your dog’s questions. Dogs are binary, which means every question they ever ask you will require a “yes” or a “no”, which is different than “good” or “bad”.  Your dog is incapable of being bad: he will always choose what’s right for a dog, which may be in direct conflict of what’s right for a human.  Remember, you are merely answering questions for your dog, not punishing them, nor should you be inflicting pain or fear upon a dog.

Using “yes” and “no” can be very confusing.  When do you give negatives, and when do you use positives?  Simple.

Negatives/No

1) When you don’t like what your dog is doing.  Sounds simple enough, but you wouldn’t believe how many people don’t understand that “No” is a complete sentence and can be used liberally.  Ask yourself, “Do I like this behavior that Fido is doing?”  If the answer is “no”, then give them a negative.  Anything from jumping, barking, and getting on furniture to the simple questions Fido may ask on a walk: “Do we turn left here?”.  If the answer is “no”, then give them a negative!  Remember negative doesn’t mean bad, it just means “no”.

So how do you answer a dog’s questions?

Use your body language to answer these questions. If your dog is staring at a treat on the floor and then at you, he’s asking if he can have it. If you do not want your dog to have it, answer his question by walking in between him and the treat, facing him, with the treat behind you. This means that you are “claiming” the treat. You can move into his personal space to back him off it a bit.  Once he’s engaged with you, nothing, or everything (in other words, looking anywhere but at the treat), remove your strong body language by walking to the side or away from him. This shows him that he is giving you the correct response: accepting that the treat is yours. If he looks at your treat again, simply use the body language again.

Think of it as a game of hot/cold.  His question is, “Can I have that?”  The answer is “No”. You answer his question using that body language.  When he accepts the answer (looking at you, everything, or nothing, but definitely NOT looking at the treat), then you’re finished.  Remove your negative body language.  You may have to put the negative body language right back on him if he immediately tries to go for it, but that’s natural – it may take him a few times to accept your answer.  Remember, remaining calm is the key.  Anger should never be a part of this exercise.

So again, Piloting is answering a dog’s questions. You would answer the question in the same way if he is asking if something is a threat (stand between your dog and the perceived threat, facing your dog, and simply back him off while standing up straight). Pretty easy, huh? The more you show your dog that you are capable of being in control and the Pilot, the more your dog will be able to relax and actually be a dog. He’ll look to you for guidance instead of feeling as though he needs to protect you and your family from every garbage can, dog and plastic bag in the neighborhood.

2) When your dog is “Yo, Bitch”-ing you.  Wow….there’s a term.  What’s “Yo, Bitch”, anyway?   Symptoms include: slapping you with their paw, trampling you, pushing you out of your seat on the couch.  Basically, any behavior that would translate to : “Yo Bitch, give me a cookie”, or “Yo Bitch, pet me”.  It’s as detrimental to your healthy relationship with your dog as it would be in any human relationship!  Respect yourself enough to expect respect from your dog.  Your dog is perfectly capable of a “May I Please?” instead of a “Yo, Bitch”, and you know the “May I Please?” look.  It goes something like this:

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“May I Please” ….have a cookie?  Go for a walk? Jump in your lap?  All of these can be answered with a “yes” or a “no”.  Your choice.  But if your dog is “Yo, Bitch”-ing you, the answer must be a negative.  Don’t accept a bully dog‘s behavior.

Positives/Yes

1) The “come” command.  Always, always, always…positive.  Give them a treat. Tell them how wonderful they are!  Scratch their belly.  Whatever it takes to get them to understand that what they did was wonderful.  If you need help with “recall/come”, check out this link.

2) Asking a dog to do a “human” behavior.  Your dog is a perfect dog, and can be expected to do dog things wonderfully.  Being a human, on the other hand…well, that’s a little different.  Any time you are asking your dog to do something that another dog couldn’t ask them to do, you must use positive reinforcement.  For example, a dog will tell another dog to go away, or play, or stay away from their toy.  But they don’t teach each other English (sit, stay, come, etc.), nor do they teach each other tricks.  If you ask a dog to do a human thing, make it worth their while.

3) When they’re calm.  This is the most important of all. I always tell my clients I want “calm” to be like a lottery ticket:

1) you have to play to win;
2) You probably aren’t going to win; and
3) But unless you’re holding a ticket, you’re definitely not going to win.

I want your dog holding a many lottery tickets as possible.  Because the more tickets they have, the better their chances are at winning.  Reward calm any chance you get, and pretty soon Fido will understand that “calm” is like a magic button he can press that will (sometimes) get him exactly what he wants.  If you see your dog sleeping on the floor, give him a gentle scratch behind the ears.  If you’re cuddling on the couch, give him gentle praise for being calm.

And remember, calm is about progress, not perfection. So if you’re dealing with separation anxiety, just reward progress.  If you are crate training, but your dog in the crate and walk into the other room.  He’s going to escalate to a decibel 11….simply wait him out until he goes down to an 8 before re-entering the room.  You are trying to catch a behavior: increased calm.  It’s not always immediate, and it is rarely perfect, but that doesn’t mean the behavior isn’t there to catch.  Make sure you reward it.

So let’s break everything down:

Your dog needs Piloting, Activity and Work (the foundation).  Only once you have given them what the need are you able to build upon that foundation by answering your dog’s questions using “yes/no”.  Pretty simple.  You’ll notice I didn’t give a lot of rules.  I hate rules.  They don’t take into account human and dog personalities.  I know many trainers who:

-Insist a dog should never be on your bed.  Why not?  I sleep better snuggled next to a dog.  Just remember it’s your bed, and your choice who is in it.

-Don’t give your dog people food. Because….?  My dogs get plenty of people food (in a healthy moderation, of course).  If it isn’t on the lethal list (grapes, onions, chocolate, etc.), and your dog isn’t “Yo, Bitch-”ing you for the food, go ahead!  Just remember, it’s their right to beg for food, (“Can I have some?”) just as it’s your right to answer “no”.  

- Never play rope toy/tug/wrestle with your dog because then they’ll know they can beat you.  News flash:  my dog already knows they can beat me.  Using that logic I should never run with my dog because they are faster.  Playing rope/tug/wrestling with your dog is all about setting your boundaries.  We bond through play, and this is a prime way to do it…if you wish.  Set your boundaries.  For example, when Sparta and I play, I have very limited rules:  she’s allowed to knock me down, grab the rope, even (carefully) bite me.  But the second I feel it has gotten too rough, I give her a negative, and she instantly stops.  Some days I’m up for a WWF-style match, other days I’m only good for a drastically diminished version.  Just because we romped hard yesterday doesn’t mean that’s what our game is going to be about today.  You set the rules for each and every match…anything from “no rules” to “not playing at all” is acceptable.  Think of it like Fifty Shades of Grey:  Anything’s okay so long as you are both okay with it.  That includes not wrestling at all.

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So stop complicating your bond with Fido.  No more lengthy list of rules and regulations trying to define your relationship with your dog.  Your bond is unique:  just as there will never be another bond like I had with my first dog, Darwin, there will never be another bond like the dog you have with your dog.  So no more One Size Fits All training style, nor endless rules for working with your dog..  Only you know what you need from your relationship with your dog, and now you have the foundations to build that relationship.

Keep calm and pilot on

Kerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio