Puppy Recall

Many puppies learn recall (“come”) as they age. Generally, we say, “Cash! Come here, little guy! Good boy, yes! Come!” and they pick it up — or at least, they mostly pick it up.

Some puppies, though, don’t — either because they don’t make the connection, because it doesn’t happen often enough, or because the people use so many different words other than come (like the pup’s name) that “come” just doesn’t register. If this has happened, or if you just want your puppy to start coming better, there are some easy things you can do.

First off, it helps to know some details about dog behavior. When puppies (and dogs) play, they often start with bouncing. You’ll see them bounce back and forth, typically retreating more than they come forward until they actually engage. This is important, because that retreating is inviting another puppy (or dog) in. When dogs are threatening each other, they stalk forward into the other dog’s space.

What this means for us is that when we try to get a dog (or puppy) to come toward us, we want to back away from them — inviting them into our space — rather than walking toward them — pushing them away.

Second, if your puppy really doesn’t know what “come” means, then you need to start on a leash (or rope). Attach it to their flat collar (the collar their ID goes on), not any kind of training collar. Call “Come!” and, at the same time, pull them in. Even if they braced their feet and skid across the floor, you still praise them, pet them, and give them treats. Now, when I say “praise” I don’t mean, “Good dog!” I mean:

“Oh, Lily! What a good dog you are! You’re so smart and I love you so much, you did that excellently! You’re so good!” And so on. I usually praise for a good 5-10 seconds, petting and scratching the whole time. The more excited you can be, the quicker your dog will figure it out.

Let’s back up. The reason you pull your dog in at the very same time that you say come is because otherwise they learn to wait a beat. If you pull at the same time you call, though, they’ll come the instant you call. We want that instant! Keep doing it, and what you’ll very quickly find is that when you do it on a 10 foot (or longer) rope, you don’t have time to pull them in, because they’re already coming so quickly.

You can also back up or run backward to take up more slack faster on the rope: not only will this take up slack, but it’ll invite them into your space.

Next, we’re going to work on capturing. Capturing is when you take a behavior they’re already doing, put a command to it, then praise them. So let’s say that my puppy is napping in the sun. I walk outside, and she hears me. She gets all excited and scrambles up to come say hi, running toward me. While she’s running toward me, I say, “Come!” Then I praise her for doing it — even though she already was. Now she’s learned that she should also come when she’s not on the rope!

If your puppy is watching you like they’re thinking about coming, you can often trigger it. Run backwards (invite them into your space) or turn around and run away (play the “chase me” game). When your puppy starts toward you, say, “Come!” and start praising.

A couple of other notes on the “come” word.

1. There’s a big difference between “come” and “come here,” “come over here,” “let’s go,” “come inside,” etc. If I say to my dogs, “Cash! Lily! Come on in!” and they don’t come, that’s okay. That’s an optional command. If, on the other hand, I say, “Cash! Lily! Come!” It means come here right this instant. This is important, because…

2. If you say “come” you MUST enforce it. If you don’t care about enforcing it, don’t say come! Say “come in” or “come over here” or “let’s go” or anything else, but NOT “COME.” So if you’re de-boning a turkey and your hands are full of grease and the counter’s a wreck, and you say, “Fido, come!” and then you think, “…shoot. I didn’t mean to say that.” TOO BAD. Take your greasy hands and go find Fido. If he’s not coming, grab his collar and pull him to you, say “come” as you do, and praise. If you think of it beforehand, though, and you say, “Come here!” and he doesn’t come? Pshaw. That’s okay. Let it go.

3. If you say “come” and your puppy comes, he is out of all trouble. This is harder than it sounds. One day, I was out with my dog, Lily, and my then-girlfriend, DK. Lily left the yard. Now, keeping in mind that Lily was an adult and we’d worked extensively on “come” and on not leaving the yard, this was a big bad-dog deal. I said, “Lily! Come!” And there was no response. That’s it, I thought. I’m going to kill that dog. I didn’t say come again, because I wanted her to be in trouble for leaving the yard. I went stalking around the side of the house. Just about that time DK shouted, “Lily! Come!” And that time, Lily decided to listen.

What did I do? I grit my teeth together, banked my frustration, left the yard-training for another day, and said, “Good dog, Lily, come!” Your dog has to know that if they come when you call, good things will always happen. This is because if you shout, “COME!” in a panic as your dog shoots across a busy street, they need to know that they’re not in trouble and it’s safe to come back even if you sound angry (which is just what panic sounds like). Which brings us to my final comment:

4. When you practice “come”, do so in a firm tone as well as a cheerful one. Dogs are more likely to come to a cheerful tone, but you’re not going to sound cheerful in an emergency, so you might as well practice both ways so your puppy knows firm tones are also safe!

All of these are things you can start with your puppy from the instant you bring them home, and with consistent practice they’ll be the best recall dogs ever! (Have a dog that already ignores the “come” command? Try these things first, and if they don’t work — call a trainer! There are tricks you can do to break the ignoring habit, but done wrong they can make things worse, so you’ll never see me post them here. Sorry, guys.)



One thought on “Puppy Recall

  1. Pingback: FAQ: When can I walk my dog off leash? How do I do it? | Jenna McDonald's Feathers and Fur

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