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Training your dog to come when called, final installment


A reliable recall might save your dog's life!

In wrapping up my list of six behaviors every dog should know, we'll examine the important step in recall training of teaching your dog how to leave distractions, followed by a few words on the many uses of "sit."

By now, your dog should be responding with a quick turn your direction and an eager expression as he races toward you upon hearing his special recall word.  Thanks to all your early foundation training, he’s learning to anticipate a reward-fest of epic proportions when he gets to you.  That’s perfect!  Remember: the goal in recall training is to teach the dog that his magic word means, "Quick – get to your human as fast as you can because something really, really, REALLY good is going to happen!”
This early foundation step (calling your dog, running away and having a big party), should be practiced and heavily reinforced for the life of your dog.  Practice everywhere: at home, on hikes, on walks around the neighborhood or while out exploring new urban locations.  Consider it your default training maneuver. 
People often ask how often they should practice recall training.  My answer: A LOT!  To be a bit more specific, in my opinion and experience, it takes hundreds of repetitions of pairing your recall word with the huge party to follow before coming when called starts to become reflexive for a dog.  Fortunately, you can accomplish 100 repetitions faster than you think.  For example:
Five Repetitions in a Row x Four Training Sessions = 20 Reps per Day. 
In this example, each training session (five repetitions) can be accomplished in approximately three minutes, for a total of 12 mins a day.  The ability to potentially save your dog’s life with a good recall is DEFINITELY worth an investment of 12 mins a day!  Practice daily and after just one week, you’ll have completed 140 repetitions.
One of the biggest mistakes people make in recall training is to practice a handful of times at home and then expect the word to work out in the real world and against distractions.  It’s critically important that you adequately train your dog before you start testing him.  For now, save your recall word for training.  Our goal is to train the word so much, we’ve successfully stacked the deck in our favor that it will work in an emergency.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle in recall training is teaching a dog to leave a distraction when called.  A dog’s willingness to do so is what makes or breaks an effective recall.  When a dog is loose or otherwise off-leash, he’s going to be distracted.  Therefore, it’s important to convince him that it’s always best to leave distractions and come when we call -- no matter how enticing the distraction!  A tall order?  Sure.  Impossible?  Not at all.
If you’ve been doing your early recall homework for just two weeks, your dog has already been generously rewarded close to 300 times for running to you.  That gives him a great head-start on this next step.  To be fair to your dog, please do not attempt this next step before completing the early training.  Teach your dog to walk before expecting him to run.
With your dog STILL ON A LEASH, walk him up to a low-level distraction like a familiar bush or tree.  Allow him to investigate and as he does, step behind him and go to the end of the leash with your treats at-the-ready, yet hidden in your hand behind your back.  Happily call him with his name (which remember, you’re separately teaching him means, ‘Hey!  Look to me for further instruction!”) and his emergency recall word.  Be ready for one of two things to happen:
  1.  He eagerly whips his head around, leaving the distraction and rushing toward you full speed ahead!  As this happens, remember to move away from him, allowing him to chase you for a few steps and then proceed to party like a rock star with praise, petting, treats and lots of general merriment that lasts at least 20 seconds.  Or:
  2.  Your recall word seems to fall on deaf ears as your dog says, “Talk to the paw!” and continues investigating the distraction.  If this happens, don’t panic.  Simply give a slight nudge on your dog’s leash or run up and playfully poke him in the butt.  The goal is to cause him to quickly turn around and check in, almost as if he’s saying, “Oh, I’m sorry… did you call me?”  When you see his fuzzy little face, that’s your opportunity to hold his attention as you repeat his recall word and run away, rewarding generously after a few steps.  Please be clear: I’m not advocating a vicious leash-pop.  We’re trying to get his attention, not punish him. 

Even if you have to remind him of his job (leaving the distraction and coming to you) you’re STILL going to party like a rock star.  In fact, if he needed the reminder, you almost need to party MORE than if he’d turned and run after you all on his own.  Sounds backward, doesn’t it?  Think of it this way:  If your dog needed the nudge, he’s telling you that he doesn’t yet believe that you can be more fun than distractions.  Your job is to prove otherwise.  If he needed the extra nudge, he’s telling you he needs more practice at the easier level without distractions.  Our goal in training is to teach the dog to want to leave distractions because we’re more fun – not because he’ll get in trouble if he doesn’t.

 In training my own dogs, I make a point to practice at least 10 leashed call-offs (calling them away from distractions) on every walk.  I also use their emergency recall word every time I place a bowl of food.  I’m careful about when I choose to use the emergency word when they’re off leash under normal circumstances (like hiking or playing with dog pals), and I make a point to reward generously each and every time I call them and they come to me, pairing petting and praise with the delivery of treats to raise the value of my non-food rewards.  I also make a point to call my dogs to me several times just to reward them like crazy and turn them loose again – that way, they never suspect that being called means it’s time to leash up and go home, thus ending the fun.
As a result of this continued training and practice, I’m proud to say that both my dogs have respectable recalls.  Are they perfect?  Of course not!  No dog is.  Sometimes I call one of them, thinking I’m 95% sure the dog in question will spin on a dime and run back to me, only to discover that I lost the bet!  I salvage the moment by excitedly calling the dog again with a casual word (“C’mon… let’s go!”) vs. repeating my emergency word, “Here!” and run away to encourage the dog to chase me.  When the dog comes, I still reward like crazy (ALWAYS reward when he gets to you, no matter what!) and remind myself that it’s time for some more leashed recalled training practice.  Whenever possible, I try to pinpoint what distraction caused the recall to fail, and train (leashed) specifically with that.  Remember: Training happens on a leash.  Testing is what happens when your dog is off-leash.  The more you train, the better your dog will do on the test!
Sit: The final behavior in my list of six things every dog should know
No matter how you teach it, sit can be used a number of ways in training.  It’s the perfect alternate behavior to redirect a number of bad habits such as jumping up on people or darting out the front door, and it can easily be used to help an overly excited dog stop and re-group – sort of like a doggy Control-Alt-Delete!  Additionally, a simple behavior like sit can be used as a dog’s way of saying please in an attempt to earn the things he wants, teaching him that compliance is the key to opening the door to everything good in his world.
While the possibilities in dog training are endless, these six behaviors (quick response to his name, coming when called, recreational chewing, play skills, how to be alone and sit) go a long way toward creating a canine companion that is a safe, well-mannered joy to live with.  Best of all, in training these behaviors, you just might find yourself hooked on having fun with your dog.  You both should be so lucky! 
© 2009 Stephanie Colman. This original article is copyrighted. Please do not re-print in full or in part without express permission.