What does your dog do when you call them to come to you? If they think about it a while or veer off to something else on their way, you may want to rethink your recall. There are several layers to building a cue that teaches your dog there is nothing better in the world that could happen than you calling them to get to you. One layer that often needs reconsideration with rescue dogs and family pets is the end or completion.
Though “come” is commonly seen in dog sports with a formal finish where the pup sits facing the handler, it is completely unnecessary when training our companion animals to have the skills that make our lives more enjoyable together. As a matter of fact, it can actually inhibit your pup from wanting to get to you at all! A nervous dog isn’t going to look forward to returning to an uninviting, intimidating posture and may even try to avoid getting close to you at all. On the other hand, if your confident dog associates their recall cue with running to you to sit, that’s not likely to engage them when they’ve got better things to do. It may suffice if you’re calling them from another room in the house, but what about when they’re outside playing with another dog, barking at a passerby, digging a hole, chasing a critter, swimming in the pond, or greeting the neighbor?
Make recall more reinforcing for both of you by adding some fun at the finish. Ditch the mundane, staring sit and find things that cause your dog to race back to you again and again. Try adding some of these to the completion of your come when called:
- Chase: When you call your dog to “come” and they’re getting close, turn and run away encouraging them to chase and catch up to you. After a few steps, reward with a treat, toy, or praise to continue the engagement. You could also switch up the chase by throwing their favorite ball or toy to pursue after they reached you. Be sure your dog is the one doing the chasing and you don’t end up running after them.
- Find It/Scatter: Imagine you call your dog to “come”, and they are met with you excitedly scattering a buffet of high-value treats at your feet. End your recall with that a few times and see if your dog starts getting to you more quickly and consistently. This is also a helpful tip for troubleshooting dogs who will get close to you when you call but dart off at any movement you make toward them.
- Through Your Legs: We definitely don’t want your big dog taking you out, but you’ll be so much more interesting to your pooch if you can deliver reinforcement creatively. You can get them used to going through your legs by practicing outside of the recall. Stand in front of your dog facing them and throw a piece of kibble, treat, or a toy through your legs for the dog to follow and pick up behind you. Once they get the hang of it, call them to come and reward them with following the food or toy through your legs instead of in front of you.
- Tug: Obviously, this isn’t going to incentivize a dog who doesn’t enjoy tug. However, if you have a pup that is always plopping a tug toy in your lap and loves to play tug-of-war with you, then complete their “come” with a rowdy game of tug instead of a treat.
Finally, feel free to recall your dog and when they get to you, praise them like crazy and run back with them, or release them to whatever they were doing before you called. Getting to you shouldn’t be the end of their enjoyment but a bridge to relishing good things together. Variety is the spice of life, and most dogs will respond with enthusiasm when called to join you in fun rather than being commanded to quit their individual exploration.