Coming to you when the whole wide world beckons is a big deal to a dog.
Having one’s dog come happily, quickly to us when we call, no matter what the distraction, is the ultimate dog owner’s dream. Unfortunately, what most people get from their dog ranges from absolutely no response at all from their dog when they’re outdoors, or a response that’s pretty good under non-distracting situations, but non-existent when a person or another dog, or a cat shows up.
People who seem to suffer the most frustration are those who raise puppies. A puppy is helpless and utterly dependent on their pack, and they instinctually know that. They follow their leaders around, whether they consider their leader to be a person, a cat or another dog. By about five months, the puppy starts feeling a little more confident. This is necessary to their survival, if they were not a pampered pet. They need to explore the world, test their social skills, learn through sniffing and exploring. By about six months old, the pup is nearing sexual maturity, and all of a sudden the puppy who “knows” how to come when called is “disobeying”. What has happened? Often, the owner thought the puppy knew the command “come” when actually, the puppy was coming because they were a helpless puppy, and being beckoned by the human was easy and natural. The puppy hadn’t been taught in a systematic way, with hundreds of repetitions with reward, what that strange utterance “Fluffy, come!” meant. All of a sudden, the darling, “obedient” puppy is a source of embarrassment and anger, as the adolescent runs after strange dogs, people and distractions, ignoring their pleading/shouting owner.
So, how DO you teach a dog to come? I’ll distill this into steps:
1. TEACH the command. At this stage do ***not*** use your command as a way to call your dog to you!!! (Go get him, or make funny noises and run away to attract his attention. Get some pea-sized soft treats. Good ones: tiny cheese cubes, wiener sliced lengthwise into quarters then sliced crossways, leftover fatty meat from your meals cut small… Feed dog treat *while* saying “Kenai, Come!” Do this 20 – 50 times per day. (I’m not kidding here) When you say “Kenai, Come!” with no treat showing, and your dog’s head whips around dramatically, expecting a treat, you’re ready for step two. (If you’ve screamed this word a billion times, you can start fresh with “Kenai, Here!” if you want, or “Kenai, Cookie” – the actual word doesn’t matter to your dog.)
2. EXTEND the behavior. Now, start molding the command into a closer approximation of what you’re going to want. Using your leash, suddenly back up so he’s forced to turn toward you when he’s moving toward you, attentive to you, say “Kenai, Come” give your treat, keeping your hands close to your body so he has to push in close to you. Hold his collar for a moment, so he can get used to that. (There are a lot of collar-shy dogs out there, created by frustrated owners grabbing at them in desperation). Alternately, if you’re in a *guaranteed* distraction-free zone, he can be off leash, and when he’s less than 15 feet away, do something to attract him toward you. (Clap, whistle, sing – whatever!) when he turns and looks at you, move away quickly – either backwards, or jog away a few steps to induce the correct “trotting/running toward you” behavior. Say “Kenai, Come!” as he does this behavior and then reward. If you are walking in a remote, distraction-free, safe place like a closed-in ball field, or a logging road, and your dog is off-leash, give a treat every time your dog checks in with you of his own volition. When he comes over to say “hi”, surprise him with a treat and say “Kenai, come!” just like you did in step one.
3. PROOF the behavior. Start calling your dog away from distractions. You can set up easy ones for him to start with, like a can of cat food with holes poked in the top. When he’s sniffing it, call him. If he ignores you, walk calmly up to him and get his attention back on you by either clapping, tapping his butt or just take his collar and bring him toward you. When you have his attention, say “Kenai, Come” again and feed him and release him for reward. Alternately, you can let him drag a leash, or a long clothesline attached to his collar, and tug him toward you until you get his attention and reward/release. Usually the ultimate, graduate-level distractions for a dog are other dogs and/or people. Practice with friends and family, then move to strangers and other dogs. With the high level distractions, if you aren’t getting success, move to using a long-line (50′ – 100′) or buy an electronic collar and follow the directions well. If you want a dog that reliably comes under even the highest level distraction 100% of the time, the e-collar is your best bet, unless you have a shy dog, or extremely sensitive dog, or if you suspect you’ll shortcut the important pre-training necessary and will simply slap the collar on and start zapping. You can create some serious behavior problems if you do that. So, don’t!
4. WARNINGS: Do not use the “come” command to call your dog to do anything “un-fun” in the dog’s mind. (nail clipping, ending a walk, bath time…you know what those are! Go get your dog and bring him in with treats, by taking him by his collar, with a toy….some other less urgent command, like “let’s go” or “this way” or “load up”) Do not lean or walk toward your dog when he gets to you. Lean back, and walk a few steps backward as he approaches. Even turning sideways is more inviting. Keep your hands with the treats stuck right to your body, so your dog learns the good habit of pushing right into you, not shying away/playing keep away. Do not punish your dog when he finally does come, after he’s blown you off. If you want to give him a negative consequence, do it at the spot he was ignoring you. Walk to him, take his leash/collar give him a collar “jerk” toward you and then remind him, “Kenai, come!” while bringing him toward you and rewarding him. (You won’t feel like rewarding him, but remember, we’re forming habit patterns, not teaching the dog morality!) Do not stop bringing treats on walks and practicing your basic, step 1 and 2 behaviors for the next year. Yes, I’m serious. Yes, this is faster if you use an electronic collar to more easily teach the distraction-proofing.
Enough of the negatives. Like all behavior modification with your dog, he needs hundreds of *correct* repetitions to really get the behavior down. Some dogs do it more naturally than others. Some dogs have natural follower mentalities and aren’t as bold and distractable. Some dogs just get excited and run before their brains are even fully engaged, and barely remember you are still on the planet with them. The former will trick you into thinking you’re an amazing trainer. The latter will humble you, and teach you a lot about yourself!