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Training your dog to come when called

Dog training

dogschool 3Dogs need to learn to respond to a call in a variety of situations, for example at the end of a walk. They have to be called away from other dogs or people they find interesting, just as they have to be called in from the garden, or after escaping out of the front door after a cat.

Teaching the dog to come when called is one of the main reasons most people attend training classes.

Ideally the training should begin with your puppy around the house and garden. Letting a puppy off the lead in a field or park at 12-14 weeks (as soon as they have had their vaccinations) is a scary prospect – but in fact it’s the best time as they are very dependent upon you. Waiting until the puppy is six months old, a teenager, knowing where he is and how to get home, reduces the likelihood he will return to you, or even care where you are. If a dog, of any age, has a problem returning when called, then you’ll need to re-train from scratch.

Firstly we want them to respond quickly to the sound of their name. This can be achieved by calling the dog’s name when he is nearby, and rewarding him with praise or a treat when he looks round at you. The name is the attention getter! Then we have to teach them another word that means ‘come back’. Words like ‘come’ are poor – dogs always respond better to two syllables, like ‘come here’. In the house, walk past your dog and call him – ‘Buddy, come here!’ – but keep walking away from him. Offer big praise, or a quick game the instant he catches up with you. If you’re using a clicker, this is the time to click, and then give a ‘sweetie’. Do this off and on throughout the day, around the house and garden (repeating this over and over again will often bore a dog so try not to overdo it).

Once a dog starts coming when you call him (which could take a few hours or days), we need to change the number of times we give him a sweetie for doing it. Dogs like to gamble. A dog can make a decision, we see it every day. ‘Shall I steal the steak off the kitchen table?’ it wonders, its nose twitching and scanning for goodies. It decides quickly, depending on the value of the prize and how easy it is to steal. Even dogs that have previously been caught pilfering will check where we are and do a swift risk-assessment. The basic factors in their decision-making are ‘where’s the loot?’ and ‘what risk is there in getting it?’ This is no different to the dog who hears his owner calling him, weighs up his options, turns tail and runs off in the opposite direction. Some even look back as if to say ‘not yet!’ The poor owner is left stranded, with no option but to shout, stamp his feet, wave his lead in the air and blow on his whistle. All good frustration outlets, but they don’t get the dog back. Telling the dog off when he finally does return can reduce your frustration, making you feel temporarily better. But all it teaches the dog is that ‘come here’ really means ‘come here and be punished!’ ensuring the dog is even more reluctant to come back next time.

What we need to do is stack the odds in our favour. Make the choice easy. We hold the reward, and it is one worth having, but it is only available if the dog returns quickly. However, giving a reward every time a dog comes back to us starts it thinking ‘Do I want the biscuit, or shall I go and sniff in those bushes’? It’s better to mix the rewards with praise – we should always be happy to see them – and perhaps offer some dog food for a reasonable return, but give them a very special treat for turning on a dime and racing towards the owner at full speed.

The special ‘come here’ treat must be something the dog prizes above everything else. It needs to be changed frequently, to keep the dog really interested. Showing the dog the reward before you allow him off-lead hones his senses as to what he could earn. Dogs understand the rules of a game swiftly, and the ‘come here’ game can be taught in a couple of sessions in the garden or on an extender lead, using a multitude of rewards with a differing range of values.

To read more about dog training, read our article “Dog training: what you need to know”.

Dr Shahad Mohammed
Veterinary Physiotherapist
National Association of Veterinary Physiotherapists
Dr Shahad Mohammed