Come when called, or "recall," as trainers refer to it, is considered by most dog owners to be a fundamentally important behavior for their dog to learn. Even If you never plan to have your dog off-leash in public, there may be many times where you need your dog to come back to you when requested - perhaps they slipped out the front door, someone left a gate open, or you'd like for them to come in from your yard. Whatever the reason, teaching your dog to come when called is a useful skill that can keep them safe in unforeseen circumstances. And while it's easy to train your dog to recall, there are some common mistakes you should avoid in order to produce a solid, reliable behavior.
BE A PARTY One of the biggest mistakes we see owners make when calling their dogs is causing something unpleasant - or nothing at all - to happen when the dog returns. This could include verbally reprimanding the dog (for example, if they have just escaped and returned, or chewed on something inappropriate), restraining them to trim their nails, taking an item away, or putting them in a crate and leaving. If unpleasant things happen when your dog comes to you, they are going to think twice the next time you call. Imagine if your boss criticized or disciplined you every time she called you to her office. Would you be eager to go when summoned? A trainer I knew once advised owners to "be a party that your dog wants to go to," and this advice has stayed with me over the years. When you call your dog, first of all, use excited, encouraging body language and tone. Then, be sure to reward them for their efforts when they get to you - whether it's with treats, praise, a game, or something else they desire (it's best to mix it up depending on your dog's mood.) Even ONE adverse event after coming to you can diminish your dog's response to the word "come!" so be sure to go all out when they reach you - after all, they stopped what they were doing and ran over to you when you requested, so they deserve to be thanked for it.
SAY IT ONCE Another common mistake is repeating the cue over and over again. If you find yourself yelling for your dog to come multiple times, one of two things is happening: either your dog doesn't truly understand what the word means (in which case, go back and train it some more) or your dog is too distracted (in which case, go back and train it some more while gradually adding distractions.) Standing and yelling the cue repeatedly is only teaching your dog that the word has no meaning. Instead, move toward your dog, get their attention with a sound, movement, or smell, and encourage them to come over to you. And remember to reward them when they get there so they continue to learn that coming back to you is a great thing.
BE CONSISTENT Humans are fickle creatures. Most of us have dozens of different ways we call our dogs, depending on the context, mood, location, or urgency of the situation. When you call your dog over because you'd like to pet them, it probably sounds different than if you're calling them as they're running off-leash down the street. To us, it means the same thing: "come to me." But to our dogs, the words and tone sound completely different. "C'mere!" is different from "come!" which is different still from "COME HERE RIGHT NOW!!!" Dogs don't generalize this type of variation very well, so be sure that when you train your dog, you're using a cue that you'll actually use in real-life situations.
PRACTICE X1000 Repetition is the key to learning anything. However, many dog owners make the mistake of getting a few successful repetitions of a behavior and assuming their dog "knows" it, when in reality, the dog only has a slight familiarity with the behavior in a very specific context. If you've only practiced the recall a handful of times with your dog in your living room, what is the likelihood that they are going to understand how to do it in the park, surrounded by squirrels, smells, and other dogs? There's no "magic" number for how many times you must practice a behavior with your dog before they can be considered fluent, but more is always better. Consider the idea that in order for a human to be an expert at something, they must have practiced it for at least 10,000 hours. If you want your dog to respond to your request with an expert-level recall, you need to invest some time in helping him practice the behavior in a variety of settings.
HAVE A BACKUP PLAN So, maybe you have trained, and proofed, and practiced the behavior in many different contexts, and you feel that your dog truly has an understanding of what you're asking. But one time you call and your dog is too distracted by something else. Have some tricks up your sleeve to help guide them back to you without chasing them (which can often make them run away):
Pretend to look at something interesting on the ground. Many dogs will come over to investigate.
Lie down. Dogs will often run over to someone who is lying on the ground.
Run in the other direction - this will encourage some dogs to chase you.
Grab a handful of treats and throw them at the dog. The dog should stop to pick up the treats, giving you time to get ahold of them.
Grab a toy or other object and pretend to be having a great time playing with it. This may entice the dog to come over and join you.
Act silly - jump up and down, spin around, wave your arms, make unusual noises. The dog may come over to see what the fuss is about.
Remember, when you ask your dog to recall, you are asking them to immediately stop being a dog and come to you instead. This is not an innate behavior - they're not born knowing how to do this. Just like any special skill, it needs to be taught, and your dog needs to be motivated to drop what they're doing simply because you asked them to. Be aware of the pitfalls discussed here, which can undermine your training and cause the behavior to deteriorate. If you can avoid making these common mistakes, you'll be well on your way to a dog who eagerly and enthusiastically comes to you whenever you beckon. What's your best trick for getting your dog to come to you when you ask?