Question: Recently, my dog and I were at the dog park and I called her to me. Though she eventually came, along the way she visited with and slammed into other dogs and even ran in the other direction first. Should I have given her treats when she finally did turn up? If I leashed her at that point, did she think she was being punished for coming to me?
Response: Though it feels weird to reward a dog who takes so long to respond, I definitely recommend doing so. It wasn’t the recall you were looking for, but she did eventually leave whatever was so interesting and come to you. If you don’t make her glad she did, she will be even less likely to do so the next time. Whenever possible, reinforce her with treats or toys, then release her to go play again so she doesn’t associate coming to you with losing her freedom.
Dogs often consider being leashed a punishment, so it’s best to avoid it (or anything else they don’t like) once they return to you. Human anger or frustration is another canine aversive; try to stay calm, even if you need to take a few deep breaths to get your emotions under control. If you need to leash her for safety reasons or because she’s bothering others, minimize the negative experience by offering a toy, playing tug, taking a little run or allowing her to choose where to go and what to stop to sniff.
If your dog isn’t responding when called at the dog park, that’s a sign she’s in over her head: you’re asking her to do something beyond her level of training. Putting your dog in a position where she cannot succeed is a setback to her training, and your next step should be damage control. Make her glad she came, however slowly, and avoid associating it with anything negative. To improve your dog’s recall, practice where she has fewer distractions and gradually work up to more challenging contexts (such as the dog park).