Come when called

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.


This is what the finished product looks like!

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!

Shocking Information

I bought a shock collar three years ago.

It sat in my closet unused until three weeks ago.

Why did an enlightened, educated, dog-loving person like myself by a “horrible device” like a shock collar?

It was fear!

Ludwig is a black Miniature Schnauzer we adopted from the shelter five years ago to be our then-seven-year-old daughter’s companion.

Our little guy Ludwig

Back in my old days of pure off-leash walks, Ludwig had a problem with chasing deer.  Ludwig’s terrier love of hunting drove his habit of ranging several hundred feet in front of me when we’d hike, and then I wouldn’t see him around a corner – suddenly I’d hear his excited “ON THE TRAIL” yipping slanting up the hillside.  He was utterly unable to respond to my calls to come, even though in normal situations he had a wonderful “come-when-called” response.  One horrible day, he took off and when I heard that yipping, I realized my very obedient young Lab mix “Levi” had run with him.   Levi never had any interest in deer, but he couldn’t resist Ludwig’s enthusiasm.  Both of them were too focused and too far to hear my calls by the time I realized what had happened.  They were gone for four hours…the horror of thinking I’d lost two beloved family members in one day pushed me to buy the “e-collar”.

I’d trained Ludwig to “Come”, like all my other dogs, but his response was utterly uncontrollable when he was hot on a deer trail.  Miraculously, when I started “leadership walking” with my dogs, he quit looking for deer.  I believe he felt more connected to the “pack”, and wasn’t constantly searching for deer trails – he was content to hang out with me and the other dogs during our off-leash play time.

Unfortunately, Ludwig had another problem area that proved impossible for me to solve with my normal training:  When he spotted a dog approaching or walking by, he would run to it utterly heedless of my calling him.  Although his deer-chasing behavior was scary and frustrating, this dog-rushing behavior was dangerous!  Ludwig is only 15 pounds, and seems utterly clueless to dog signals of aggression. He has had a couple of close calls with large, vicious dogs over the years because I could not call him back to me when he got focused.

I never did use the collar for deer-chasing, but a few weeks ago, after Ludwig ran after dogs yet again – nice dogs, fortunately – I knew it was time to try the e-collar.   I brought it out, read the materials, watched the video and made my game plan.  It went like this:

1.    Put the collar on when we get ready to get into the car, to connect the collar with the happy moment of going for a walk.
2.    Sound the reward tone and pair with a tidbit of cheese or meat, so I can pair the collar with reward both close and at a distance, for the first week.
3.    Condition him to run immediately to me when he feels a correction “nick” from the collar, so he doesn’t panic and feel confused.
4.    Start with easy distractions first, like a bit of old garbage, or a spot he rolled in last week.  Sequence:  “Ludwig Here! [he ignores -“nick”-] Ludwig here!” Reward when he arrives.
5.    Use the “nick” correction just like a leash correction.
6.    Continue to practice on low-level distractions:  kids running down road, or the neighbor in her driveway.
7.    Expose him to dogs we know as distractions –dogs we know are safe, in case we fail.
8.    Finally, practice and be ready for the real thing:  when we’re playing off-leash and a strange dog shows up somewhere in Ludwig’s line of vision.

We have made it through step 8 now, and I’m delighted to feel like I have conquered this five-year-long problem finally!  I am very, very happy with this tool.  Now, for the things that scare me about the e-collar:

1.  It is far to easy to hurt and/or scare your dog.  With the level of ignorance, impatience and/or anger I have seen in the majority of the pet dog-owning population, it really frightens me to think of the average pet owner with this tool.  Because of the ease of pushing a button, it’s very tempting to push it, “just in case”, or to get the level wrong accidentally and really freak the dog out, or to use excessive corrections out of anger, or to not have the right timing and correct the dog at the wrong moment, or not stop correction at the right moment.  It’s a very precision instrument.  Of course, people can scare and hurt their dogs in a lot of other ways too…it’s just too easy with the e-collar.

2.  Unless the dog really, REALLY knows the command, (here’s a good article on training the come command),  correcting him for not obeying it is terribly unfair and damaging to his trust in you.  In some instances, shocking a dog who is far away, and hasn’t been trained with rewards and consistency what correct behavior to execute when he feels the shock, can result in strange phobias in the dog.  (Fear of trucks, because he was standing near one when he got “magically” nicked, for instance!)

3.  Using the e-collar when the owner isn’t knowledgeable enough to know the true cause of the dog’s behavior can cause some nasty consequences.  For example, sometimes people want to solve “aggression” with an e-collar.  They don’t know why their dog is aggressive, they just want it to stop.  Aggression has many, many causes, and needs a more intelligent solution that gets into the dog’s psyche to unravel the puzzle.  An e-collar is a very simple tool, like a leash that you “pop” to give a negative stimulus.  When you push that button, you had better be very, very sure that you know what or whom the dog is going to blame the punishment on.  If he’s staring down the neighbor’s Shepherd, you don’t want him thinking it was the Shepherd who just nipped his neck!

4.  On my model, the hand-held unit doesn’t have a constant reading of what level you’re on – I have to push a button to see it.  I constantly check it so I know it’s at the right setting.  I nicked Ludwig at a too-high setting once, and he jumped completely off of the ground.  On the other hand, if he suddenly takes off at high speed, I need a higher setting than normal fast, and to waste time checking the level when he’s moving into danger at high speed isn’t a good thing.

With a dog who has problems listening at a distance, the e-collar can be a lifesaver.  I’m kicking myself for not using this tool earlier with Ludwig.  I cannot emphasize enough how crucial proper pre-training is though.  Read the manual, watch the DVD the tool comes with, and/or contact a professional for help!

Quiet control: “Come”, Jumping, chasing

As Humans, we can hardly fight our urge to talk to our dogs.  Often a calming, therapeutical, and amusing way to interact with our pets, our urge to jabber can also be counterproductive to your training goals.

Dogs interact with each other, “command” each other, “punish” each other and “reward” each other with body language and very little sound.  They use posture, body position, eye contact, ear position, etc to convey their messages.  Put together into a whole, they emit an energy, or intent, that is as easy to read as a billboard for other dogs.

You can control your dog much easier by resisting the urge to command, shout and beg him to obey.

Do you want him to stop chasing your screeching 2-year-old nephew?  Don’t holler the dog’s name from across the room.  Raising your voice sometimes startles a sensitive dog into stopping for a moment, but more often, actually adds excitement to an already chaotic, unwanted behavior.  Simply go to the dog instead, and using a strong, assertive energy, stand up tall and block the dog.  Use a quick jab in the hip to switch his attention to you, or a sharp “hey” – something quick and strong to get his attention switched from the inappropriate target..  Using your biggest, strongest energy, direct the dog away from his target by pointing, sending him to his bed, or otherwise sending him away from the child.  This can work when the dog is rushing excitedly after anything – the cat, a chicken, a dropped hot dog…you get the idea.  Don’t be afraid to put a leash on him, let him drag it (only when supervised, please!) so you can use a leash to correct and redirect.

Another time people resort to shouting or too much talking is when the dog won’t come when called.  If you have any doubt at all that the dog will not come – do not call!  Go calmly and quietly to him, take his collar and bring him in.  Practice calling him, taking his collar, and feeding treats at non-distracting times to reinforce the come command when it’s not a critical situation.  Calling twenty times, getting louder and angrier each time only teaches the dog that you really only will come to get him when your voice gets to a certain pitch.  After you’ve trained your “come” command with food, in non-distracting environments, call him ONE time in more challenging environments, being prepared to go in to help him by retrieving him by hand.  Do not resort to yelling and repeating.

Jumping on people is another point that tempts people to repeat themselves and yell.  When the dog approaches a person, or you, simply go to the dog with the strong demeaner described above, in the chasing scenario, and block him *before* he jumps.  Tap him back near the hip to switch his focus, then strongly block his way and point him another direction with your hand, arm, body, eyes and strength of intention.  Really crazy jumpers are easier to block and re-train when on a leash.  Dogs must be taught to respect people’s space.  Do not let them crowd your door, your visitors, your children or you.

Use that calm, strong, energy – not your words, and certainly not anger.  Anger and frustration is perceived as weakness to dogs.  Take a breath, and relax for just a second if you need to.

It’s a wonderful thing to indulge in a new quieter, happier, calmer way to control your dog.  (p.s.  Yes, it works with kids and spouses too! )