Why owners ought to be able to call their dog back to them is clear: It deepens the bond and increases welfare because it allows dog and person to do things together that otherwise wouldn’t be advisable. But even if someone isn’t into trail hikes, beach walks, or multi-use and dog park visits, chances are that sometime in a lifetime precautionary measures fail, and the dog is suddenly running loose and could endanger himself and others.
Most people recognize the importance to have a reliable recall, and yet, with many it means the dog returns 80-95% of the time.
Here are a few common reasons why your dog might not come on cue, and how you should respond, so that, eventually, reliable indeed means 100%.
Your expectations are unreasonable:
Always take your dog’s training level and present ability into account - and regardless of age. What I mean by that is, don’t expect your new rescue dog to come when called just because he’s an adult and “should know it”. Treat a new dog as if he were a pup, and don’t let him off the leash until he is off-leash ready, and until you know more about his social behaviors with people and dogs.
Also understand developmental stages: A 10-week-old pup might come every time, but will likely be much more confident to explore away from you when 10 months old.
You have kibble in your pocket and there is deer poop on the trail:
If “food” in the environment excites your dog more than what’s in your bait bag, up the ante.
You are boring:
If you are doing your own thing - being deep in thoughts, texting, listening to music, yacking with a friend, don’t be surprised if your dog does his own thing.
Be inspiring, and connect to your dog’s mind, not just his stomach, albeit that can sometimes be one and the same, but what you don’t want is a dog who comes, grabs the food, and runs off again. If you want him to stay with you, engage him.
You misjudged distance and intensity of a stimulus and waited too long to call your dog:
When your dog is too close to a stimulus, or surprised by something that moves fast, he has you tuned out. He is not willful or dominant, but magnetized, and doesn’t hear you anymore.
Pay attention to that, check frequently if your dog is still mentally connected with you, recall, reward and release him back to what he wants to do. Don’t purposely trek in sensory overwhelming environments that are full of things too enticing to resist, and if you do, keep the dog on the leash or long line until you built up to that level of training.
If you made a mistake, try to get your dog’s attention. You could stare in one direction, or sniff a bush, but you’re likely much more successful if you are snappy, lively and swift with your body and voice.
If you can’t get his attention, try to get into his space. Don’t approach like you want to jump on him, but move calmly and casually. You don’t want to frighten your dog, but get close enough that he does hear you again, and then encourage him to follow, ideally without clipping the leash on. The moment he does so willingly, the party begins.
You always aim for voluntarily compliance, instead of “making him” on the leash. Only if you absolutely have to, clip on the leash, but do so without frustration and anger. Be pleasant even if your dog didn’t listen to you, because you don’t want him to associate you and the leash with being punished. Walk away from the stimulus, practice a few recalls, highly reinforce, and if possible release him back to what mesmerized him so.
Better yet, join him. Being curious about things that matter to a dog deepens the relationship and the mental connection, extending to the outside where the stimuli are.
Your verbal and non-verbal communication don’t align:
Fast moving toward can be perceived as a threat or play-chase signal, and your dog might either avoid you or joyously accept. In either case, he’ll move farther away from you instead of coming closer.
If you want your dog to come, walk or run away. Running away is also a strong play signal – for the dog to chase you.
However, in real life it is not always wise to run away from a dog who is busy elsewhere, leaving him out of sight, hoping he’ll follow. In these situations, you can move toward and still come out ahead even if your dog runs farther away. This is how: Agree to his game and chase him, but then pause, play-stare and bow – the play bow appears to be one of the few communication signals a dog understands even when a human does it – and then run away. Very likely your dog will now chase you, and then you halt again and chase your dog, and so on, yo-yoing between you chasing and being chased. When he is close, periodically clip on the leash, reinforce and play a different game, and then return to the off-leash chase game if you like.
You moving toward becomes the cue for the whole sequence: you chasing first, but finishing with the dog chasing you. You always end up with the dog, and even putting the leash on is nothing new, but part of the game and not perceived as aversive.
Come is a poisoned cue:
The term, coined by Dr. Jesus Rosales-Ruiz, simplified means that a word meant to trigger a specific behavior doesn’t work properly because the consequence is unpredictable for the dog.
I once observed a handler/dog team at a dog show I had a booth at. Throughout the day the dog, a Labrador retriever, was “popped” on a choke collar for one thing or another. When I watched them later compete in obedience, the dog joyfully ran for the dumbbell, but increasingly slowed down the closer he came to his human. I saw similar slow returns with young German shepherd, shock collar trained at a dog park.
Yes, each dog still came when called, but apprehensively, hesitatingly, the Labrador curving and the shepherd with a lowered posture, repetitively licking his lips. Some dogs, though, especially when in a new home with new people or unskilled handlers, might not come at all anymore.
In that sense, beware of calling your dog away from something he really wants to do because it is an intrinsic drive, or needs to do because it is a biological necessity – like having a poop. If you do that often, the recall cue announces that something pleasant ceases and it becomes unpleasant for your dog, even when he gets a cookie upon return. Nothing you provide is likely to override the urge to poop, or watch sheep, or whatever it is your dog is compelled to do at the moment.
Come can also be poisoned if it wasn’t enforced in the past. The dog running off, the person calling, the dog NOT coming, the person calling again, the dog still NOT coming, is a common occurrence. What behavior you think the dog is connecting with the word come?
If you say it, enforce it. That’s what the long line is for. If you can’t and you’re not certain that your dog comes, don’t say the word – and investigate how often he is reinforced for ignoring you in other contexts.
If you have a rescue dog, or if you made mistakes in the past, come might be useless. Choose a new word, for example here, close, by-me. One of my friends uses leash, and it works fabulously; her dogs understand the word and have a great association to it. Leash is a conditioned feel good stimulus, like the cue for coming should be.
Using the new word, train as outlined here, and say it in your pleasant, happy or excited voice, not the demanding or frustrated one that makes your dog nervous to return to you. Be equally inviting with your body: smile, be limber, back up with open arms.
Can you ever punish a dog for not coming? Punish, as in threatening, or doing something uncomfortable and painful, no - not ever.
Negative punishment, as in withholding a reward, yes, you could, but you have to be careful with that too. You never want to discourage the rookie learner, or punish a dog who hasn’t heard you, and because I ultimately aim for the dog wanting to be with me, I rarely apply it. Only when I am sure my dog heard me, acknowledges me, but tells me to “talk to the paw” do I make a big deal out of what she could have had, but won’t get because she ignored the come command. I might play with her ball or fumble with very yummy treats, or in the house make a mock sandwich and emphasize the words “cheese” and “butter”, or become animated and goofy. Anything to get her curious enough to check in, and when she finally arrives and solicits for what I’ve got, I meanly ignore her. Eventually she’ll give up and mosey off, and then I recall right away, giving her another chance. Without fail, this time she comes right away, and I reward.
If you have dog who is an experience comer, pay exaggerated attention to him to draw the dawdler in, but whenever another dog is involved I don’t withhold the reward because I don’t want to create competition and animosity between the dogs. Also remember that speed doesn’t matter, only attitude does.
What about hiding to teach your dog the lesson that if he is not attentive he might lose you? It is a common practice that, admittedly, was once in my repertoire as well, but not anymore. Abandonment is distressing, and I don’t want my dog to only want to be with me because she is afraid that I am leaving her behind.
When a dog doesn’t come, it is the handler’s mistake. Don’t be angry with the dog.
Dogs come most reliably when: they understand the command and hear it, it is rehearsed in many situations, predicts a pleasurable consequence, and if they are bonded with their owners. Training that and building the relationship can take some time – with a puppy and rescue dog. In the meantime, don’t let your dog off the leash. Would you give a 16-year-old who has a number of speeding tickets and rarely heeds the curfew the keys to your car?