Training a Dog to Come When Called – The Holy Grail of Dog Training

Posted on February 26th, 2018 by FetchMasters in Positive Dog Training

Reliable recall — that is, training a dog to come when called — is the holy grail of dog training. At FetchMasters, we cut our teeth on training a solid recall with high-strung hunting dogs in prey-infested environments in our Positve Gun Dog Training Program.

Our commitment to remaining as positive as possible in our training meant that we had to do a lot of research and leverage every positive tool we could to create a competitive, dependable recall. We once had a reliable recall program, but we soon figured out that recall isn’t a thing that exists on its own. It is a combination of other factors. So, we integrated our reliable recall program into our Level Two Obedience dog training program, which is a lot more comprensive in its approach.

The techniques used for training a dog to come when called is not equal amongst all dog trainers. And while our particular approach has been tailored for training hunting dogs, we also use the exact same approach for training pet dogs. After all, why not? There absolutely is no reason a pet dog’s recall should not be trained as well as a hunting dog’s.

Here is a fun little video of Maddie — a Maltese — who is being proofed in a difficult field environment. (More on proofing below.) She will never be a working dog, but she’ll certainly come when called like one.

Training a Dog to Come When Called – Element #1 – Classical Conditioning

Remember the scientist Pavlov, who rang a bell and fed a dog until the dog would salivate when it heard a bell? Such a reaction is called a “conditioned emotional response,” and it is always the best place to start training recall. By simply teaching the dog to associate the word “come” with a kibble of food, the dog will quikly start coming to you when it hears the word “come” — to get the food, of course.

However, the promise of food likely will not outweigh the toughest of distractions, so more training needs to be done.

Training a Dog to Come When Called – Element #2 – Teaching the Rules of the Game

If you ask ten people what they want their dog to do when they call it, you likely will get ten different answers. If you don’t choose what “come” should look like for your dog, your dog will give it his own interpretation. This interpretation could be a “drive-by,” a partial return before getting distracted, or a come-and-jump-on-you, etc.

Tightly define your recall, and train specifically what you want. For pet dogs, I suggest training the dog to come straight to you and sit in front of you. A defined termination point for the recall process (such as a sit) calrifies to the dog exactly what it is you want. And clarification, by its very nature, adds a smidge of reliability to the recall.

Training a Dog to Come When Called – Element #3 – Proofing in Tougher Environments

training a dog to come when calledFor most dogs, being able to come in your home has little to do with its willingness to come when called outdoors. Proofing is the process of working with the dog amidst ever-increasing levels of difficulty. Since dogs do not generalize information the way we do, they need to be shown the many places “come” applies.

Work with your dog in your home, in your back yard, in the front yard, across the street, at the people park, at the dog park, in a field, etc. Gradually increase the distraction level until the dog can come in some relatively difficult environments.

Training a Dog to Come When Called – Element #4 – The Premack Principle for the Toughest Distractions

The above steps will build a strong recall foundation. But there is more if you hope to develp a truly reliable recall. Training your dog to come away from prey animals, for instance, usually takes a little more work.

Additionally, the previous steps of training have left you with a dog that enjoys coming mostly for treats. And, as I’ve said before, treats will not outweigh the toughest distractions for most dogs.

At Fetchmasters, we like to leverage the Premack Principle – the purest form of positive reinforcement. Without getting all pointy-headed about it and throwing around scientific terminology, the Premack Principle teaches the dog: if you do what I ask, you get what you want.

By using the Premack Principle, you leverage a reward much higher than treats. And you begin to build a reliable recall in the toughest of circumstances.

So, with your dog on a long lead, set out to work on calling your dog off its toughest distractions. Some of these distractions may be squirrels, birds, other dogs, people, etc.

Always ensure your dog’s safety when using the Premack Principle — and any training scenario for that matter. Set up your training scenarios to teach your dog:

  • If you come when I call, I will let you chase the squirrel up the tree.
  • Come when I call, and I will walk you up to that person and let them pet you.
  • If you come when I call, I will remove your long lead and let you flush that bird.
  • Come when I call, and I will let you chase that leaf.

Using Premack, recall becomes the door through which your dog gets the highest-value things in life — NOT the things YOU consider high value … the things YOUR DOG considers high value.

Onward and Upward

Remember to always consider safety when allowing your dog to run after things. A long-lead usually is your best line of defense when training scenarios do not go the way you thought they would.

With some creativity and smart training scenarios, you can train your dog to come off of rabbits, deer … and just about anything you like.

For help training your dog, feel free to Contact Us.