When “Come!” Means “Run the Other Way!”

recall practice crop smallHere’s a conversation I’ve had many times over the years with owners of small dogs:

He won’t come when I call him. He’s so stubborn!”
Could you show me? Can you call him now?”
The dog comes running…and stops a few feet away from the owner.

Why don’t these petite pooches come closer? Are they teasing their poor owners? Do they get near and suddenly smell something bad? No, and no. Those dogs know all too well that when they get close enough, their person will swoop down and pick them up, so they stop just out of arms’ reach. Not only does that swooping motion seem scary from a small dog’s point of view, but many dogs simply do not enjoy being air lifted.

It’s not only small dogs who learn not to comply with requests to come. There can be many reasons, but they all have to do with consequences. Imagine that you need to leave the house for a few hours and your dog, whose superpower seems to be shredding anything within reach, must be crated. You say, “Buddy, come!” Nothing. “Buddy, come on!” Again, nothing. Is Buddy deaf? Nope. Buddy, smart dog that he is, has learned that if he comes to you he’ll be put into the crate, which he does not love. In other words, Buddy has learned that, “Come!” means Run the other way!

Other unpleasant consequences from a dog’s point of view might include being put back on leash after running free, being removed from a dog park where he had been playing (if you’d like to know my feelings about dog parks click here), having to go back inside when he’d been romping in the back yard, being put in the car when the only places he goes is to the vet or the groomer…you get the idea. Coming to you when called should never result in something your dog perceives as unpleasant. Of course, there are times you need your dog to be with you immediately. In those cases, simply go and get your dog, or use a different word or phrase in a high-pitched, happy tone to encourage him to come to you. The reason for using a different word is that you don’t want to sully the magical recall word that predicts good things only.

It’s funny when you think about it. Don’t your dogs come running every time they hear “Cookie!” or “Treat!”? It’s a no-brainer. But are those words really magical? What if, instead of having used those words, you had instead said, “Come!” each and every time your dogs got something yummy? Don’t you think they’d be flying through space at warp speed to reach you when called? It’s all about conditioning. In the first few examples, your dog was conditioned not to come, whereas here, when he’s being rewarded each time he hears that magical word, he develops a positive association with it and is more likely to come whenever he hears it.

Years ago when my German shepherd Soko was alive, I heard barking in the middle of the night. It sounded suspiciously familiar, but it was coming from far off so I didn’t think much of it. When it didn’t stop after a few minutes, though, I ran out on the porch to investigate. Surprise! Soko had managed to get beyond our fencing and had run down the hill, across the dirt road, and up to our neighbor’s property. To say I was not pleased would be an understatement. Standing on my porch at 3 a.m. in my jammies, freezing my butt off while yelling, “Soko, come!” was not my idea of a good time. And yet, I used a pleasant voice, with the same pitch and intonation I used during training sessions, to call her. As she ran to me, although I was saying something along the lines of, “You little s#$)! You are a very bad girl right now!” the words were said in a happy, encouraging voice. When she reached me, I praised her and got her safely back inside. Had I yelled at her when she reached me, which is something I see so many owners do, I would have been punishing her for coming to me, not for what she’d done before that.

Instilling a solid recall is not rocket science, but we do need to be conscious of our actions not only when we’re training, but in everyday life. If we show our dogs over and over that “Come!” predicts only good things, and we are diligent about practicing around distractions, gradually increasing the difficulty over time, always with a positive consequence, our dogs will reliably come when called.
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8 Responses to When “Come!” Means “Run the Other Way!”

  1. C.E.Robinson says:

    Paul, great post! Obviously, I’ve got to change my tone of voice when I call the dogs to come! Thinking back, most times they run away when it’s time to put their harness/leash on. But, that goes for a pleasant walk, or an unpleasant vet visit! 🐶 Christine

  2. I was told on a dog psychology course that a dog has to want to be with you to come on recall. We used the repetition and reward method, with hand signals for distance, which have come into their own again now that Maggie’s hearing is going and we can get her attention. At first it was treats (cheerios breakfast cereal), then fuss amd treats, then more fuss and less treats, but we are proud of her recall and she has put many other dogs to shame. In our case, I think it helps that she is a very tactile dog and very loving.

  3. ccrow says:

    The suggestion to use a different word for less pleasant things is good. I have a klepto boy who needs to be confined when I go out; I tell him ‘time to go in’ or just ‘go in’. He stays in a small hallway with baby gates rather than his crate, but still doesn’t like it. Oh btw, I was interested in your opinion of dog parks, but there doesn’t seem to be a link??

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