Dog Obedience: Teaching a Puppy to Come
You Called? I'm Coming!
Teaching a Solid Recall May One Day Save Your Dog's Life
One of the most difficult dog obedience problems to solve is that of the dog who refuses to come when called, or, even worse, who runs away. This problem is fixable, but it is far easier to prevent than to cure. This behavior can be anticipated. Most eight week old puppies will come when called, responding to the high pitched "puppy talk" tone of voice that humans tend to adopt with puppies and babies. The puppy will have learned to associate it with cuddles and toys and treats and you will be by far the most interesting being in his life, to date.
Adolescence: A Whole New Ballgame
A four to six month old puppy is a different story. As an adolescent, he's more confident, and he already knows what you have to offer (or not). He has realized that the rest of the world is an increasingly interesting place! He is eager to experience all of its enticing offerings ... whizzing cars, bicycles, other dogs, pets, people, and places, and is completely oblivious to danger. Unless you anticipated this independence and previously trained a solid recall, the day will come when you'll call his name and he'll flick you an ear and flip you his dewclaw, making the decision to continue with his own pursuits over your commands. Basically he's saying, "Not now, I'm busy," and this response is both annoying and dangerous.
Here's How to Avoid That Scenario:
First, accustom your puppy to wearing an appropriate collar from the time you acquire him. It should be tight enough that you can slide a couple of fingers beneath it but you should not be able to pull if off over the top of his head. If you have a dog that likes to back up and duck his head in an attempt to escape, you need a "martingale" style collar, which rests loosely on the neck but tightens when the leash ring is pulled, preventing the dog from slipping out. Some people prefer their dogs to go collarless in the house, and this is fine for a trained dog, but before a puppy can learn leash lessons, he must first be accustomed to a collar.
High Value Treats
Puppy's First Lesson
For the puppy's first lesson, attach a light weight six to eight foot leash to his collar and have him drag it around the house until he's lost interest in it. Teach this lesson at a time when Puppy is likely to be interested in food, and have a ready supply of "high value" treats ... cubed chicken, cheese, something he REALLY likes. When Puppy's attention is elsewhere, unobtrusively pick up the leash and call his name. Wait one second, and then lightly "pop" the leash towards you, encouraging him with a bright, happy tone and backward movement, hand clapping ... whatever it takes ... to come your way. As soon as he comes, praise and pet him profusely, and give him a couple of the high value treats. Then drop the leash, walk away, wait for him to forget you and the leash again, and repeat. And repeat.
Once the dog comes reliably inside the house, get a light weight, thirty to forty foot "long line" ... the lighter the better. You can purchase these online or from dog catalogs in very light nylon, or you can make your own by attaching a light snap to an appropriate length of light cord or nylon rope purchased from your local hardware store. Take him outside, and encourage him to explore the new surroundings. When he's fully engrossed, pick up the line, call his name, wait a second and "pop" the leash.
Give Thought to Your Command
Give thought to the exact command you will use to get your puppy to come to you. This is NOT your formal obedience "front" command, or anything of the sort. This is your "emergency" command, the one you want Puppy to instantly respond to, spinning on a dime, running back to you as fast as he can. I use my dog's name, spoken in a loud, enthusiastic, specific tone, with numerous exclamation points built in. "Max!! Max!! Max!!" The delivery is unmistakable, and it always means good things for the puppy. (Note: never call your dog to you for a reprimand. Should you need to correct the dog, you should go to the dog. Coming to you should always be a rewarding experience for the dog.)
The Perfect Dog Training Game
This "game" is known by various names, but I've most frequently heard it referred to as "Beat the Pop." The goal is for the dog to turn immediately upon hearing his name and run to you. If he's half way to you before the pop occurs, he's won the game! (And so have you!) It's the perfect dogtraining game, because it has both rewards and consequences, and permits the dog to choose the reward and avoid the consequence. Once the dog understands the game, decrease the amount of time you wait before popping to half a second or less. You don't want to give the dog time to think about his response; you want it to be instant and automatic.
When Puppy is performing reliably every time you call him, the next step is to add distractions. He must learn that he is to come no matter what ... so you add in distractions ... things he is even more likely to want to explore ... children playing, squirrels frolicking in the park ... until you know he will always return.
Keep It Fresh
Finally ... practice this game often. Keep the behavior fresh in his mind and the memory of the reward bright ... one day, it could save his life.