Updated: Sep 15
The "come when called" stands as a pivotal command in the realm of dog training. It's essential for both the safety and effective management of your dog in diverse settings. For every dog I train, I instill three distinct variations of this command.
Firstly, there's the formal command: this instructs the dog to approach you, adopt the sit-front position, and await either another command or a release. This is reserved for scenarios demanding structured obedience. Secondly, the informal command signals the dog to come closer, staying within a 6-foot radius but not necessarily assuming a specific position. It's ideal when you need your dog close but not in an exact place. Finally, there's the whistle recall, tailored for sanctioned off-leash spaces. This distinct whistle sound can pierce through ambient noise, ensuring your dog always hears the call to return. For those employing a remote training collar, its tone or vibrate feature can also be used as a "come" signal, convenient when environmental noises might drown out your voice. Regardless of the variation, I initially introduce these commands at short distances, extending the range as the dog becomes more acquainted with each command.
The Formal Come When Called
For the formal "come when called" command, the goal is the sit-front position. This means when the dog comes, it sits centered right in front of you, as close as possible without touching you. In essence, the recall becomes a position, but the dog needs to come over first to achieve it. Every command I teach begins with ensuring the dog comprehends the action through a physical cue before introducing the verbal command. For this recall, we initiate with the 'backwards follow exercise.' Here's the procedure:
Utilize both hands. The supply hand holds all the treats, while the reward hand lures and dispenses treats to the dog. Developing proficiency in the swift transfer of treats between these hands is crucial. With the supply hand stocked, position your reward hand directly beneath it, centered and adjacent to your body, and slightly elevated above the dog's head. This positioning ensures the dog remains close and centered and tilts their head up slightly. As you walk backwards, the dog pursues the lure/reward hand, accepting treats while in motion. Each consumed treat should be promptly replenished from the supply hand.
Conclude the exercise with the sit-front position. To achieve this, halt and elevate the reward hand, cueing your dog to sit. If they sit squarely facing you, mark the behavior and reward them! It's imperative to dispense the treat with your hand held close to your body; this maintains the dog's proximity during the sit-front. If the dog's sit is misaligned, revisit the concluding steps and make another attempt. You might need to adjust your hand movements slightly to perfect the sit-front. If the dog vacates the designated position, it's not a concern. Simply reposition them and recommence. If you're keen to see a demonstration of this exercise, I recommend viewing this video.
Once your dog consistently responds to the physical cue for the sit-front position, it's time to give this action a verbal command. In dog training, saying the verbal command before showing the physical cue is crucial, helping the dog understand and anticipate what's expected. A big mistake many people make is using verbal commands and physical cues simultaneously. When this happens, the physical gesture often overshadows the spoken word, making the dog focus only on the hand motion. This is called "overshadowing", where the dog zeroes in on one cue and ignores the other if presented at the same time. Keeping that in mind, here's the training sequence: Start with your dog in the sit-front position. Say the "come when called" command, pause for a half second to avoid overshadowing, then use the physical cue we practiced in the 'Backwards Follow' exercise. Walk back a couple of steps, ensuring your dog stays centered and close. Stop and raise your hand, signaling your dog to sit-front, mark, and reward.
Teaching a dog new behaviors involves breaking them into small, manageable parts, then assembling them into the final picture. A slip-up that many encounter during the "come when called" training is incorporating the 'stay' command simultaneously. It might seem logical: have the dog stay, move away, then call them. This is fine for seasoned dogs, but for beginners, it can weaken the 'stay.' Why? Repeatedly doing this might make your dog think, "Whenever my owner steps back, I'll soon be called." As a result, they might break their 'stay' prematurely. To build a rock-solid 'stay' foundation, remember this: "If you can't touch your pup, don't free them up." This teaches the dog that they will be released only when you return to them, ensuring a reliable 'stay.'
You might be thinking, "How do I teach my dog to 'come when called' from afar without using 'stay' first?" Well, there are several ways. First, during casual moments when your dog isn't right next to you, simply call them. This practice reinforces 'come when called' without affecting 'stay.' Another method is 'treat and retreat', a neat trick I picked up from expert dog trainer Robert Cabral. With your dog in front, toss a couple of treats to the side. As your dog fetches them, step back quickly. Once they finish eating, call them and use the steps we discussed earlier. Lastly, there's the 'around command.' For this, you'll need a traffic cone. First, guide your dog around the cone with a treat, then reward them when they complete the loop. After practicing with guidance, introduce the verbal command followed by the physical cue. Reward their success. When they've got the 'around' down, incorporate it into 'come when called'. Ask your dog to go 'around,' and as they complete it, call them over. Reinforce with the earlier-established physical cue and reward them when done.
As your dog improves with the "come when called" command, it's crucial to begin lessening the reliance on the physical cue. This technique, known as "fading," involves gradually reducing the physical cue until it's unnecessary. When you call your dog, stand still without any cue. As your dog approaches, maintain your position. If you notice your dog straying or hesitating, that's your cue to reintroduce the physical signal. The more you practice this, the better your dog will grasp the command. Eventually, you'll issue the command, and your dog will assume the perfect sit-front position without guidance.
The Informal Come When Called
Next, we'll explore the informal "come when called." Make sure you use a command different from your formal one. This drill is meant to be upbeat and fun. Stroll within an open, fenced, or enclosed space and voice your informal command, perhaps something like, "Come on, pups, let's go." Squatting can also serve as an added enticement for your dog. When your dog approaches, reward them with affection and treats as they stay by your side. This laid-back recall is a favorite of mine since it brings them close without the need for precision. Moreover, if the dog doesn't respond, I don't need to enforce the command as I would with the formal version, offering more leeway without compromising our structured training.
The whistle, tone, or vibrate recall
The whistle, tone, or vibrate recall is designed explicitly for off-leash designated areas. To train your dog with this recall, treat the signal as a marker. Always have their favorite reward at hand, such as a tug toy or ball, reserved solely for this training. Using the free-shaping technique, signal your dog whenever they display a behavior you appreciate, either by blowing the whistle or activating the tone or vibrate feature. When they respond and look your way, present the reward and engage in an extended play session. If your dog knows the 'drop it' command, use it. If not, conclude by employing value transfer to exchange the toy for a treat. Then, offer praise and wrap up the session. Consistently practice this technique daily. Employ this recall when your dog is too distant or when ambient noise is high. Upon hearing the signal, they should promptly return to you. Reward them with whatever is available; if nothing, simply offer praise and petting. Remember, this recall serves as an emergency tool. If it's used without presenting the typical reward, its effectiveness may slightly wane. However, a week of consistent daily training should restore its potency.
What happens if your dog doesn't respond when called? You have a few options. Firstly, consider revisiting the training to provide more repetitions. This ensures your dog comprehends what you're asking. It's also crucial to expose your dog to various environments during training. If you've only trained at home, your dog might not generalize the command in different settings. A dog needs training across multiple scenarios for full comprehension. If your dog is familiar with the command across various situations and has an 80% success rate, then introducing corrections might be the next step. However, it's essential to approach corrections with caution and understanding. When done incorrectly, they can cause more harm than good. I'll explore this subject in more detail in an upcoming article, covering all critical aspects.
Embarking on the training journey, especially mastering the recall command, is a profound testament to the deep connection shared between owner and dog. This command is not just a functional tool; it's a call to safety, a symbol of trust, and a reflection of the bond you share. As you employ the various techniques detailed in this article, remember that the ultimate goal is not just obedience, but a harmonious relationship built on trust and mutual respect. Let every training session, every "come" command, bring you and your pup closer, forging an unbreakable bond that stands firm through all adventures.