“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
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.
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.
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.