Dog behavior solutions: Not coming when called

When dogs fail to come when called their behavior falls into one of two categories: active or passive disobedience. With passive disobedience, the dog doesn’t come and it isn’t doing much else besides. Instead it simply stands, sits or lies down and watches its owner call. Either the dog is apprehensive of approaching (a major temperament emergency), or it fails to see the relevance of the owner’s request and simply can not be bothered (a minor training emergency). With active disobedience, however, not only does the dog not come, but also, it has a darn good time not coming. This is a major training emergency.

Why dogs don’t come: Apprehensiveness

If your dog is apprehensive of coming when called, there is only one reason… You! Take yet another look in the mirror. Your dog is afraid of you or of what you have done to it in the past – probably intentionally punishing the dog for coming when called. Whatever the reason, just solve the problem right away. Even though apprehensiveness is a dire temperament emergency, take your time. Get sweet and get small. Keep backing up and calling the dog, tossing food treats if necessary. Once the dog approaches to take food from your hand, practice the ‘grab tests’. Build your dog’s confidence, and its so-called obedience problem will disappear.

Why dogs don’t come: Irrelevance

Your dog understands what you want it to do but it just does not see the point. Also, your dog may be tired, bored, or lethargic. For large dogs especially, it is a big deal to get up and lumber towards the owner. When they get there, it better be worthwhile. Well, it wasn’t! And now the dog is on strike. The dog came when called many times before, but nothing ever happened. Perhaps the owner even practiced recalls to the point of utter boredom. This problem is so common; this is what training is all about. I would say that 95% of a successful training program should comprise not just teaching dogs what we want them to do but teaching them why they should do it! The solution is to revamp the relevancy training program (see sections on Play Recalls and Life Rewards).

If your dog does not come, give it a reason to come. Tell it to “Hustle,” back up quickly and cause some kind of disturbance – rattle the furniture, bang on the door, kick the dog’s food bowl or drop to the ground, kick you feet in the air and let out an eerie maniacal wail. The idea is to get your dog’s attention, and so do something attention-getting. Whatever you do though, eventually your dog will come. When it does, on no account punish or reprimand the dog. Don’t even let on that you are grumpy. Instead, let your dog know what it missed by not getting there earlier. Waggle an extremely tasty treat in front of the dog’s nose, tease the dog with the treat and then give it to another dog, or even eat it yourself. Or show the dog its empty food bowl and say, “Oh dear, dindins all gone!” Or drop the dog’s leash on the floor and lament, “Deary, deary me, slow-poke snail-pooch missed his walky, walky, walkies.” The dog will soon grasp the relevance of coming when called.

Lazy dogs often refuse to come when called because they know the owner will eventually come to them. Many owners start towards the dog the instant they call it. Perhaps the owner has no confidence the dog will come and so, completes the recall himself with food treat in hand, as if auditioning as a waiter. Never go back to the dog. Move away from it, and make it come to you. This advice, of course, refers to a dog that is not coming but is not doing much else. If, however, your dog is sniffing, running, playing, or otherwise having a great time not coming, it is a different story altogether. Every second your dog does not come, its alternative activities are potently reinforcing its disobedience.

Why dogs don’t come: Active disobedience

Dogs run off and/or refuse to come when called because they have discovered play and training are mutually exclusive. Consequently, the dog feels the need to run away to have fun. The dog is afraid to go back to its owner because it knows the good times will end. And some dogs are afraid to return to the owner for fear of punishment.

For a dog to blatantly ignore the owner’s request to come and to flagrantly continue having a good time is a major training emergency. You must do something drastic, and quickly! Every second you dither around and allow your dog to continue amusing itself strongly rewards the dog for not coming. Basically, your lack of action passively trains your dog to be disobedient! The first item on the agenda is to catch your dog. All the time your dog is running at large, its life is at risk. Once your dog is safely on leash, do not even consider letting it off-leash again until you have trained your dog to come when called, no matter what it is doing or what the distraction.

Step 1: Catch the dog

A distracted, fleeing dog is much easier to catch than most people think since the dog is usually running towards a distraction. Just walk up to your dog, put it on leash and give it a treat. If, however, your dog is running from you, shouting and running after the dog usually makes it harder to catch. Instead, it is better to run away from the dog, maniacally laughing and shouting the dog’s name and then, to drop down on the ground, jerking all fours in the air whilst emitting a high-pitched screech. Most dogs come running pronto. Maybe you will not feel inclined to practice this routine in the park in the course of everyday training, but do remember it for an emergency. It works. And it has already saved the life of several dogs.

Alternatively, you will have to physically and mentally chase the dog down. Unless you have practiced for emergencies, generally it is a bad idea to shout “Come Here.” If your dog did not come when called in a normal tone of voice, it is unlikely to come if it thinks you are angry. It is much better to shout an emergency, inhibitory command, such as “Sit!” or “Down!” As a rule during regular training, never switch commands on a dog. Once the dog has been instructed to do something, it must do it. The only exception would be switching to an easier, emergency command in times of stress, confusion, or distraction, as in the above example to change from “Come Here” to “Sit.”

Shout “SIT! SIT! SIT!” and continue to do so until your dog sits, and then say, “Good Sit-Stay, Rover.” DO NOT GIVE UP! You cannot give up. You have got to catch your dog. If your dog does not sit, but it looks as though it might, lighten-up on the tone and volume, and repeat the command to “Sssssit!,” more softly, yet with an emphatic tone. Once your dog sits, tell it to sit-stay, and praise it for a while before you try approaching the dog. Continue to praise the dog in a normal happy voice while you approach to take it by the collar and offer a treat. Approach your dog slowly, and do not get angry, otherwise the dog may bolt again. If you decide to call your dog to you, call it eagerly and happily, running away from your dog as you do so.

No matter how long you have been chasing the dog and no matter what the dog has done when running at large, praise the dog as soon as it starts to come back to you. In fact, praise it every step of the way. When you have the dog on leash, praise it, pet it and maybe give a treat. No matter how difficult this is to do, do it! If you want the dog to eventually come reliably, quickly and eagerly, you had better reward the dog on those unreliable occasions it comes eventually, slowly and dejectedly. There is no point in getting angry at the dog; it was you, who made the mistake of letting an untrained dog off-leash.

NEVER NEVER NEVER punish your dog when it comes back to you. If you do, your dog will take longer to come back the next time, when you, silly owner, let your untrained dog off-leash yet again. Even if your dog has created mayhem in the park when it ran off, if you punish it when it comes back, you will still have a dog which creates mayhem, but now it takes even longer to get under control. If you want to punish your dog, obviously punish it when it is in the act of creating mayhem, but then reward it as it comes back. If you are annoyed, angry, furious or beside yourself with rage, for the meantime, hide your emotions. When the dog is safely back at home, go and bite a pillow, beat a breeze-block or otherwise punish yourself. By all means, let off steam, but do not abuse the dog in the process. Do not punish the dog for your mistakes – you, yes you, let the dog off-leash, left the front door open or kept the dog in a yard knowing full-well it was not escape-proof. Please be happy your dog is still alive. Take a break, and then get back to some sensible training.

Step 2: Train the dog

Many owners throw up their hands in despair when their dog runs amuck in the park and fails to come when called. Certainly, training any dog to be reliable in an off-leash and distracting setting can be a daunting prospect which requires a substantial commitment on behalf of the owner. In reality, though, many park-problem dogs are also downright disobedient in a variety of other simpler and safer settings. Few dogs come when called in a safe, fenced dog park. Few will come in dog training class, and some will not even come in from their own backyard. And some dogs will not even sit reliably (as in 100% of the time) when on leash. The point is there is so much training that can be done in safe areas to build a firm foundation of basic control to ready your dog for mastering off-leash, distance, Olympic obedience. Please make sure your dog is reliable at home, in class and on-leash before even thinking of allowing it to run willy-nilly and get itself into trouble in a public place.

There are plenty of safe (fenced) areas to train dogs while they are playing off-leash. The most obvious example would be a dog training class. Or, for example, form a doggy play/training group, and practice in a different owner’s backyard each week. Also, it is worth bearing in mind that your dog may be satisfactorily exercised and trained on a long (50-100 feet) line. It is smart to keep your dog on leash and out of trouble. However, it would still be wise to prepare for future potential emergencies and proof the dog to “Sit” or “Come” when you shout. Otherwise, if you shout at your dog when it is running away, it will probably run faster. Heaven forbid, this happens when your dog is running towards a group of children or a busy street. We want the dog to have the confidence to understand that a shouted command conveys urgency and not anger. Even though you may have no intention of letting your dog off-leash again, another person might let the dog escape. Practice training the dog to sit reliably in safe and controlled, yet much more distracting situations, e.g., when playing with other dogs in a fenced yard.

Many dog owners casually let rambunctious dogs off-leash to play and then leash the dog after it comes when called. Now, if an off-leash romp is the reward de rigeur in suburban dogdom, then ending said walk must represent the biggest disappointment or punishment, i.e., unruly behavior is reinforced, and obedient responses are inhibited. This is back to front. At the very least, instruct your dog to sit-stay before letting it off-leash. And if the dog wants to play, obviously the best reward for coming when called is to let your dog go play again. The answer to most recall problems is to repeat “Come Here – Sit – Go Play” over and over throughout the entire play session.

Training game: Play recalls

To reliably come when called, your dog must learn that play and training need not be mutually exclusive, i.e., coming when called is neither the end of the world nor necessarily the end of the play session. By integrating recalls into play sessions, your dog will learn that if it comes immediately, you will say “Go Play” immediately, whereas if it does not come immediately, the play session is temporarily terminated until the dog eventually comes, i.e., the dog has to come anyway. Basically, we have put Rover’s destiny in Rover’s paws; Rover can end play by being disobedient, and once the play session has been terminated, only Rover can restart it by obediently going to his owner. By giving the problem (playing with other dogs) a name (“Go Play”), the problem behavior becomes a reward for coming when called. Every time the owner interrupts the play session and requests the dog to come, the owner may then say “Go Play” and thus reward the dog for coming. To keep the play session going, all the dog has to do is to continue to come when called.

Work in a safe area – indoors, in a fenced yard, tennis court, training class or dog park. Initially, work with your dog and just one other – his favorite doggy friend. Whisper-request the dog to come – “Rover, Come Here.” If your dog comes, take hold of its collar, praise, pet, pat, hug and treat the critter before saying “Go Play”, i.e., just a short, enjoyable time-out from play. If your dog does not come, command it to come – an instructive reprimand – “ROVER!!! Come! Here!” Do not progressively escalate volume and tone over several commands (this would systematically desensitize the dog to your voice). Go from the whisper-request to the all-out, attention-getting command within one second. We want the dog to learn what comes out of our mouths is meaningful, not meaningless.

If your dog comes in response to your reprimand, praise the dog, touch its collar, waggle a food treat in front of its nose but do not give it to the dog. It would be silly to reward your dog after you had to call him twice. Instead, bait the dog with the food, invitingly whisper-request “Come Here,” back up two steps, take the dog’s collar, give it the treat and say “Go Play,” i.e., in order to get a treat and be told “Go Play,” your dog has to come immediately following a single request. If you have to tell the dog twice, repeat the recall until the dog gets it right. The hardest part is getting the dog’s attention when it is playing. Once the dog comes, you now have its attention, and it will likely follow the next instruction.

If your dog does not start towards you within one second following your reprimand, the other owner immediately takes hold of Rover’s playmate to curtail the play session. Once Rover’s playmate has been successfully corralled, it is now your job to get Rover to come. It does not matter how long it takes, Rover will come eventually, if only because there’s not much else to do. Once your dog does come, repeat the recall (as described above) until Rover comes on the first request, and then, tell it “Go Play” at which point the other owner instantly releases Rover’s playmate, and the play session resumes once more.

Getting your dog to come the first time is the hardest. But, as with all troubleshooting procedures, it gets easier with each attempt. In fact, have the other owner time how long it takes for you to get your dog to come, and you will soon have proof of dramatic improvement within just a few trials. Alternate “Come Here” and “Go Play” over and over, until your dog reliably comes instantaneously in the presence of its favorite playmate. Then, work with another playmate, and then, work with all three together. Eventually, your dog will respond reliably within a large play group.

Excerpted from How to Teach a New Dog Old Tricks, by Ian Dunbar.

Ian Dunbar is a veterinarian and animal behaviorist, founder of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, and the author and star of numerous books and videos on dog behavior and training. He lives in Berkeley, California with his wife, trainer Kelly Dunbar, and their three dogs. The Dunbars are contributing editors to DogTime.