Even if you have no interest in advanced training of any kind, a basic education will make your dog a better-behaved, more confident companion and make you a happier dog owner. So, get your dog and let’s start training and learning!
A reliable recall—meaning your dog comes to you when you call or signal—is one of the most important trained behaviors he can learn. First of all, responding promptly to your call could save his life someday. And let’s face it, you will save yourself a lot of frustration if your dog comes when you want him. But how many dogs do you know who come reliably when their owners call them? By calling their dogs without taking the time to teach them to respond correctly, most people actually teach their dogs that they don’t have to come when called. If you follow the plan outlined here, your dog will understand that he must come when you call, and he will want to do so.
Before You Begin
Before you begin teaching the recall, I’m going to suggest a few things that you can do to increase your chances of success. First, if you don’t yet have your dog, now is the time to set the stage for teaching him to come every time you call. Plan for success, and when your new puppy or dog joins your life, follow the guidelines and avoid the potential pitfalls right from the start.
If you have an adult dog, you’ve probably already tried to teach him to come when you call. If he’s reliable most of the time, great—use the information here to reinforce what he has already learned and to improve his performance. But if he’s not exactly spot-on when you holler out the door, you need to rethink your strategy and start over. This training will go more smoothly if you treat the recall as a new behavior you are teaching rather than as a faulty one you’re repairing.
To make it “new,” find a different word to use to call your dog. If you’ve been yelling “Come” while your dog continues to sniff the bunny trails in the yard, start over with “Here.” Your dog ignores “Come,” but he has not learned to ignore “Here.” The hardest part will be retraining yourself to use the right word.
As with many behaviors, you can use a combination of techniques to teach and reinforce the recall. You can use capturing and shaping techniques (the simplest method) to reinforce your dog’s natural inclination to come to you, or you can lure him.
Teaching Recall Step by Step
Capturing and Shaping
You can make a game of teaching the recall by having household members stand in a circle, calling your dog back and forth and rewarding him. Just make sure that only one person calls at a time.
The sit—meaning “put your tail end on the ground”—is a useful command in many situations. For one thing, it gives you a means of telling your dog to control himself when he’s excited or when you’re out and about meeting neighbors, watching cars and bicycles go by, or visiting the vet. The sit also provides an alternative behavior when your rambunctious pooch is doing something you don’t want him to do. By telling him to sit when you think he is about to do something you don’t like, you turn a negative behavior to a positive one and reinforce him for being a “good dog.” A dog who understands the sit command also can be reassured in stressful situations—if you tell him to sit, he knows that you’re in control of the situation and he’s relieved of having to make a decision or take action. If you plan to compete with your dog in obedience, rally, or agility, nice quick sits are indispensable.
If you’re like most dog owners, you’re probably thinking, “Oh, Rowdy already knows how to sit on command. He always sits for his dinner.” Good for Rowdy! But does he remain sitting until you release him? Does he sit on command no matter where he is or what’s happening around him? Does he sit when you tell him just once? Many pet dogs will sit for a second or two, often for food or a tennis ball toss, then pop right back up and resume whatever they were doing before. That’s a start, but if Rowdy won’t sit the first time you tell him no matter what and stay sitting until you release him, he isn’t really trained to sit on command. This section will show you how to get a reliable sit every time.
Before You Start
You can capture your dog’s spontaneous sits by marking and rewarding them, or you can shape the sit by marking and rewarding closer and closer approximations of a complete sit, but those techniques take time, especially if your dog is not yet very familiar with the “mark-and-treat” game. You also could try to model the sit by pushing down on your dog’s hips to force him into position, but I don’t recommend that for a couple of reasons. First, if you position your dog, he doesn’t develop the reaction to the command and the muscle memory that enables him eventually to respond automatically. He may learn to rely on the physical signal of your hand on his posterior rather than the verbal command, or if you teach one, a hand signal. Another reason I don’t recommend butt pushing is that your dog’s natural response to pressure is to exert his own pressure in the opposite direction. You push, he pushes back. You pull, he pulls back. Why have a shoving contest when you can work together? Worse still, you could injure your dog’s spine or hips by pushing down on them.
Luring, on the other hand, is a good technique for teaching the sit command.
Teaching Sit Step by Step
A sloppy sit, in which your dog rolls one hip sideways instead of sitting squarely on his “butt bones,” is probably no big deal for most pets. But if you plan to train your dog for competition, it’s a good idea to insist on nice square sits from the start. To teach your dog that “sit” means “sit squarely on your butt,” be sure to mark and reward only nice, square sits. That way, your dog will learn that the only position that counts for this command is the straight, square sit. As your dog learns to respond reliably to the sit command, you can up the ante if you want to. Reward him only for faster and faster responses. Have him hold the sit longer before you reward him.
Material adapted from Training Your Dog for Life (T.F.H. Publications, 2009), used by permission.