Countless people have dogs who reliably come in response to a signal: the whir of a can opener, the sound of a treat drawer or jar being opened, the words “walk” or “It’s time for a ride.” When they hear cues that promise something they like, they come running—every time and with great enthusiasm. Their people should be the envy of dog guardians everywhere! Yet, during behavioral consultations with me, they express frustration because their dogs don’t come when called.
Part of the issue is that all too many people expect their dogs to come when called without having trained them to do so. In fact, when people say, “My dog won’t come when she’s called,” the first question I ask is, “Have you trained her to do that?” The fact is, dogs don’t come into this world ready to respond to the word “come” by trotting to us, much less to do it joyfully or to do it every time. It takes a lot of repetition for dogs to learn what the cue means and to respond to it as we would like them to.
Just as unreasonable as assuming that dogs will run to us when we call them—because they are dogs and we are people and that’s what we want them to do—is to expect them to come in response to their name alone. Personally, I’ve always trained my dogs to give me their attention when I say their name, and to run to me when I say “Come.” So, I say their name to get their attention, then the cue, which tells them what I want them to do. (I suspect that for many of the dogs I’ve known, hearing their name means they should tune in, because more information is to follow.)
At any rate, much is revealed about dog behavior, recall training and learning in general by situations in which people have accidentally trained their dogs to have a good recall and yet report that they have failed in their efforts. Luckily there’s a silver lining here: you can use lessons from these accidental recalls to get your dog to come when you want her to.
Dogs tend to do things that make them happy. That approach to life—seeking joy—is something we love about them, and it makes sense to take advantage of it in training. Teaching a good recall involves developing a strong association between your signal and something good happening for the dog. If your dog learns that coming to you in response to a specific cue leads to good things for her, then she will want to come, and will do so consistently.
For example, once your dog figures out that every time you pick up the leash, she goes for a walk, she will naturally approach you when you pick up the leash. Similarly, if she learns that the crinkling of a treat bag is a sure sign that treats are in her future, it should come as no surprise that this sound prompts her to run to you as fast as her legs can carry her. The key is that you’re doing something that your dog can rely on to result in a positive experience.
This is a lesson that can be carried over from accidental to purposeful (re)training: make sure that something good happens every single time the dog responds appropriately to the cue. While people generally realize they should consistently reward their dogs’ good choices, they’re not always prepared.
When they don’t have a treat because they forgot or didn’t feel like going to get one, they skip that step and give the dog a less-thanthrilling “Good girl, good girl, good girl,” along with a pat on the head, something most dogs generally dislike. Or, they may use a treat that the dog isn’t very excited about—regular dog kibble or a dry biscuit instead of something meaty and smelly and really tasty. (By way of analogy, most of us respond differently to spinach, dry crackers and brownies. I do like spinach and crackers, but of the three, only a brownie is wonderful enough to elevate my mood.)
Sometimes, what the dog receives for coming falls into negative territory. It’s not unusual for a dog to respond beautifully to being called, only to find that she has left the fun of the yard for the boredom of the house, where she’ll perhaps be alone for hours. People also call their dogs to come for things many dogs consider horrible, such as a bath or a nail trim. In these cases, “Come!” serves as a warning. (“Thanks for the heads up—I’ll stay away so I don’t have to stop playing and I can avoid whatever misery you have in mind.”) The result is that the dog is not nearly as willing or interested in coming as she would be if her people had trained the response to this cue properly, as so many have done accidentally.
In addition to starting over by training an intentional recall just as you trained the accidental one, you can also transfer the cue. “Transferring a cue” is a technical expression in dog training that means teaching your dog to respond to a new cue by pairing it with one she already knows. So, if she always comes to you when she hears the sound of a treat bag being opened, you simply say “Come” every time you’re about to open the treat bag, then reinforce her when she complies. Soon, with enough repetitions, your dog will learn that the cue predicts the sound of the treat bag, which predicts treats. Before long, “come” will predict treats in her mind just as the sound of the treat bag does. Then, you can call her to come and reinforce her for doing so without the opening-the-treat-bag sound. The cue has been transferred. Many recalls are trained without thought, yet they are very effective because the training process followed the rules for teaching a perfect recall. Just because a perfect recall does not happen to be in response to saying, “Come!” doesn’t mean that a dog has not learned this most prized and valuable behavior. Accidental recalls are still recalls. Use them to your advantage.