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Teaching "Come"

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"How do I get her to stay with me when she is off-leash?"…"How do I get my dog to come when I call him”? I do and I don't understand the question. I know, as soon as they ask, they already know the answer to the question, but they've read too many training books or they've been watching Cesar Milan too much and over-think it. Or, even worse, they were told by some gimmick dog trainer with a certificate from a 4 week course to put a leash on them and yell come in a deep voice and stomp your foot. It gets a little weird explaining that it's a fault in their relationship that the dog doesn't do it on his or her own. No one wants to hear that, especially when it's not the dog’s fault; it's a fault in them as a dog handler. Every time I am asked those questions I think "I dunno...why doesn't your dog want to come when you call to him???" I know, I know…rude of me.

I ask you this; did you come every time your mother called you? Of course not, and if you say you did, let’s go ask your mother. Here we are, humans with our bigger, more complex brains asking an animal, in a language they do not have the capacity to speak or understand, with a far smaller, simpler brain, to do something that we were not able to do ourselves.

They don't even do it for each other! Have you ever seen one dog call to another dog to go over to it? In a dog's world, they either follow because they want to, or they go their separate ways. So who ever said "a good dog comes when called" didn't have any real knowledge of what a dog is.

The truth is you didn't come when "mommy" called, not because you didn't love your mother. Love never enters into it. You didn't come because her agenda was different from yours. You were busy. Busy in a way she may not sympathize with (by your estimation), so it became a contest...a test of wills! Would she run out of patience before you could "finish the game" or before the end of your favorite television show? Sometimes we chose to risk the punishment. It's the same for your dog. Yes…sniffing that bush is more important to your dog than coming in from the backyard at eleven o’clock at night. You would agree if you were a dog. To know how to make your dog WANT to come when called, you first need to recognize and sympathize with why they don't. Stop teaching dogs "how" to come. They know "how" to run over to you. Start proving "why" they should.

Calling a dog to "come" is one example of why I believe we humans have stripped dogs of their animal rights. I'll prove it. Go to the zoo, any zoo, and ask the animal of your choice to come to you. Somehow, you wouldn't be surprised that zebra, lions, bats, penguins, and even monkeys and apes just look at you strangely. But if a dog doesn't come, it's a huge problem! Even cat, hamster, cattle, chicken, bird and reptile pet owners don't expect their pets to come when called and they're domesticated too. Domestication does not imply slavery. In fact, if you went to the zoo, and you saw someone call an animal over, and it came, wouldn't you be amazed! When a dog comes when called it's just as amazing.

Who wrote the book on how to call your dog, and why is there only one way to do it?I have two ways I call my dog- “come” and “let’s go”. Having 2 (maybe even 3) different ways to call your dog is very important. You can use the same words as me or choose different ones. It doesn’t matter. What matters is #1 how you use them, and #2 that you are consistent. Here is how I define them (to my dog):

“Let’s go”- when you get a chance, could you come here, please?

“Come”- Look what I found. Check it out! It’s amazing!!!!

By having 2 different ways to call my dog gives me 2 different ways to express their importance. It gives the dog the option to ignore it or not. "Not" is an option. If we accept the fact that for the stretch of a 12 year lifespan, our dog will purposefully, but predictably, not come when called, we stand every chance of making a formal recall much more predictable and controllable.

We are recognizing that dogs have a free will. As a consequence, our human/canine relationship will flourish. "Come" is a request, not a command. If you make it a command, the response will be with the same enthusiasm of any received command - begrudgingly. Commands are only as good as their enforcement, and when the leash is off, you won't be able catch them in time. They are way faster than you! Besides, you don't want to be an enforcer. That’s not why you got a dog.

"Let's go" is what I say when I want my dog to come to me. "Come" is reserved for when I need my dog. Be realistic with yourself. When you're standing by the door trying to get your dog in from the back yard, maintain your discipline- don't be selfish! That's a "let's go" moment. Say “let’s go” and pet them as a reward, or flip them a cookie and say “good boy”. However, if your dog gets away from you at the park and is running toward a busy street to play with the kids on the other side, that is what "come" is for! Saying "come" to your dog is like saying "Santa is here!" to a room full of 5 year old kids! There should always a positive result and it blows-their-minds with awesome stuff - every time! Plus, how often does Santa come around? Not only do I make my formal recall (come) really fun, but I keep it rare so I don't have to keep out doing myself every week. If Christmas came every week, it would lose some of its luster over time.

A milkbone or "cookie" that you would give for "sit" or a "stay" is not good enough for "come". Your formal recall has to be worth at least 3 times as much! Standard treats are fine for “let’s go”, but I said BLOW THIER MINDS! I'd use a huge piece of cheese, turkey, hot dog, roast beef, a meatball, bologna, chicken, ham, a brand new dog toy, pork, peanut butter, etc. Yes, human food, but nothing processed or with sauces, gravy, condiments or additives- just healthy, real food and a lot of it! Let them know that only when they hear “COME!” will they get that kind of reward!

If you don't want to use human food, that's fine....silly, but fine. Let me know if you don't like the idea of using human food. When I am done laughing at you, I will tell you why whatever logic you are using is stupid in the most unsarcastic way possible...I promise. (Allergy sufferers have somewhat of an excuse...sort of)

You know how your dog hears the sound of the cookie jar/cupboard/box of biscuits, or wherever you keep the dog treats, and he comes running excitedly every time? What is the difference between the word "come" and that sound he loves to hear? Just make sure that, like the box of cookies, the sound always ends in a positive way. Santa only means fun. He doesn't assign chores or scold ever. Likewise, “come” should never have a negative result, only a payoff. That's why kids love Santa!

If you don't have a super amazing treat or new toy, that's what "let's go" is for until you’ve successfully programmed your recall. "Come" is a rarer request than “let’s go”. You start off by asking for it twice a day and reinforcing how AMAZING IT PAYS THEM! When they start loving it, you stop using “come” so often and rely on “let’s go” regularly. Maybe asking for a “come” here-and-there, with a super-great treat to remind them. When the real-life emergency moment happens and you do not have a treat, they won’t remember it because 99.9% of the time they hit the canine lottery on “come”. Plus, you can't go around town with a bag of meat in your pocket for 12 years.

Ok...I've given you the tools for getting a perfect recall when needed, but your results will vary depending on your skill as a dog handler. Dog training is an art. For example, a dog owner will do just as I have described, but a real dog lover will think outside the box. A real dog person will know that when they want to put the leash on their dog to go home from the park, they say "let’s go" because that’s not a fun ending to your calling them. Dog lovers say "come" randomly, mega-treat their dog, then send the dog back to play, so that the dog would only associate “come” with good things and sending them back to play immediately means it’s not an inconvenience to their vital play agenda. Imagine if your mother did that for you as a child?

I leave you with a true story-

I was working at an animal hospital, in suburban New York, as an assistant. The doctor and I were the last to leave on a Saturday afternoon. Earlier that day we had received a box of Dunkin Donuts from a very appreciative client, and I love Boston crème donuts. The doctor and I we're leaving out the back door into the empty parking lot of the strip mall and we both had our dogs off leash. Rather than play with each other, the dogs both went their separate ways sniffing for the bathroom spot and exploring. I'm halfway through my doughnut chatting with the doctor when a car turns the corner disrupting our dog’s free romp. Instinctively, we both yell "COME"! The doctor’s dog didn't even flinch, but at that distance, he definitely heard her. My dog, who was further away, stops marking the lamp post mid-stream, bolts in a full sprint to my feet. Instantly upon arrival I hand my dog the remaining two-thirds of my beloved crème filled, chocolate covered, calorie cake. He loved it!

After going out to try and grab her dog before the car came by, the doctor came over to me and exclaimed "I can't believe that you just gave your dog a chocolate and crème donut right in front of me. That's going to make your dog so sick. You work in an animal hospital. How could you?" I replied "Maybe so, but I don't mind my dog sick for a day in exchange for a perfect recall for the next 12 years!” I didn't have to chase my boy across a parking lot either.

She was right, though. He had soft bowel movements the next day. I can't recommend the use of a chocolate donut for you and your pup. I have been seen using a taco (no onions), a ham n' cheese on rye, Doritos, potato chips, and even a piece of pizza for a good “come”. I'm crazy like that. I don't recommend it. I made my dog sick twice in his life doing that for a grand total of about 3 - 4 days. He never ignored "come" though! He dropped everything when he heard me say it.

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