I recently spent a couple of days running workshops for Better Pets and Gardens about how to have a well behaved dog. During question time there were a few common problems that came up over and over again. One of them was how to get a dog to come back when called. To effectively resolve problems such as these it is important to first understand why the dog does what it does.
For most of us our dogs live in suburbia spending the majority of the day at home either in the house or backyard. This environment is not very stimulating for the dog so that when we take him to the park to be exercised it is an incredibly exciting and fun time. There are hundreds of sights and smells to take in and often other dogs to play with. The average trip would involve walking on lead to the park, running off lead and lots of exploration. But then, once we’re ready to leave, we call the dog back, put him back on the lead and take him home. To the dog, this can make us the “fun police” since we are the ones that signal the end of fun time.
So how do we change that? As hard as this may be to hear, for a lot of dogs their owner just isn’t that important to them. These dogs get food when they want, attention when they want and toys to play with whenever they want. They don’t have to wait for anything.
If this sounds familiar, you are giving your dog no reason to place any importance on you because they get what they want irrespective of what they do. One of the first things to do is make yourself far more valuable to your dog than you are now, vastly improving your relationship with him.
Start by controlling all the things that your dog wants so that these are no longer ‘free’. For my own dogs, this mind set begins as soon as they join the household. It involves me always getting what I want first before they get what they want. If they want me to give them their dinner they must sit first. If they want to go out the back door, they must sit and wait before I give them permission to go outside. If they want their toy, they must offer me a behaviour such as ‘sit’ or ‘down’ and when we get down the park or beach they must all wait in a ‘sit’ or ‘down’ position while everyone has their leads taken off and only then do I release them all at once to play. All of these things make me automatically valuable to my dogs as I’m the gateway to what they want.
It is also important to incorporate a recall as a basic dog training skill just as you’d teach him to sit or stay. When starting to teach recall make sure that you present a situation where your dog will most likely be successful. I strongly advise that you don’t attempt your first lesson down the park when it’s full of lots of other dogs and people. If you let your dog off the leash under these conditions it is unlikely to go well.
Instead, find a quiet spot somewhere away from everyone else and leave your dog on a long leash so that, if he makes the wrong choice, he doesn’t get the opportunity to ignore you. Take high value treats such as cheese or sausage so that when he does come back, he receives something that makes him believe that it was a very good thing to do. He will then be more likely to repeat the behaviour. It is also very important that once the dog has received his reward that he is released back to sniffing and exploring so that he doesn’t learn that every time he is called back, it’s the end of his fun.