I know, every time you call your dog to “come,” you get a blank look or worse—your dog runs away. What happens (far too often) is you say “come, come, come” when your puppy is in the backyard or mindlessly utter “come” while you get ready for a walk with your dog. But you forgot the most important step, teaching your dog the word “come” means “run to me as fast as possible.” And, unfortunately, if you’ve said “come” to your dog and he’s ignored you, pooped, chased the squirrel anyway, you’ve trained your dog that “come” means nothing.
So, you have to pick a new word. The word itself should sound happy. You want your dog excited when he hears his recall word. In my house, “meatballs” is the magic word. No matter where Finn and I hiked together (we covered a lot of ground) all over the country—Finn would race to me, tongue hanging out of his smiling mouth, when I called out “meatballs”. Other popular words are: “pronto,” “here,” “ven,” “schnell,” or “now.” No matter what word you choose, make sure you’re not going to use the word throughout the day accidentally, and you’ll easily remember your dog’s new recall word in an emergency. Now, it’s time to train.
WEEK ONE: You need a second person, and it’s important (in the beginning) to only practice “meatballs” inside. Your neighbor, friend, or spouse holds your dog’s collar so he can’t get to you (on a leash if your dog is nervous about his collar being held). Then, you stand in front of your dog and get him excited. Please never swat at your dog to do this, or in any game, dogs hate that. Jump up and down, make silly noises, dance back and forth, move a toy around on the floor…whatever makes your dog SO EXCITED that your friend can barely hold onto his collar.
Then, run away. Your dog should be dying to get to you, that’s the point. Stand tall and say “meatballs” ONCE, say it like you mean it. Your friend needs to let go of your dog’s collar so he can run to you. The instant he steps towards you, start happily and excitedly saying “yes”, “yes”, “yes.” When your dog arrives at your feet, reward him like crazy. Many people forget to reward their dog then start chanting “sit, sit, sit.” You want your dog to come? Reward him for coming. Don’t be stingy with rewards, you’re training a behavior that could save your dog’s life. Ten tiny treats in a row are a minimum reward for a rock star recall.
Practice this routine, without distractions, FIVE TIMES A DAY ONLY. If you practice more than that, you’ll get sloppy, your new word loses its meaning, and you’ll have to start over.
If you live alone or it’s hard to align schedules with your roommate, partner, or favorite human, I have an alternative first step. You can either wait for your dog to wander away from you (in a low distraction area like your living room, bedroom, not outside when he’s chasing his ball) or toss a piece of kibble away from him. Whichever method you choose, you then run backward. And AFTER your dog starts coming towards you excitedly, say”meatballs.” Reward him generously, “meatballs” should be the best word he hears all day, five times a day, no more.
WEEK TWO: Your spouse, neighbor or friend shows your dog something of MILD interest (a biscuit, his least favorite toy, keys). Only when you know your dog is interested, your friend walks away from you, but only a few steps. You then say in your best playful, silliest voice ever, “meatballs.”
IMPORTANT: If your dog doesn’t INSTANTLY turn around and come to you, don’t repeat the word. Instead, walk up to your dog and with a treat at his nose walk back to the spot where you called him and reward him—repeat until you no longer have to lure him (stick a treat to his nose.) If he consistently isn’t coming, go back to week one or use a lower value distraction.
In the one person variation of this step, allow your dog to wander to the end of the leash on a walk before you say “meatballs.” Again, if he does not sprint to you, lure him, don’t tug him. It may not seem like a long distance, but you’re giving your pup practice running to you around a lot of distractions.
Remember to only your magic word when you know you can get your dog to run to you. And you’ll make training your dog to come when called MUCH easier by never associating it with negative things such as “bad dog” or nail trims.
Here are some short-term, real-life exercises you can incorporate into your routine to speed up your dog’s recall training. Rather than leashing your dog and leaving the park (and fun) when your dog finally comes near you, touch his collar then tell him “go play.” This helps build a recall around distractions because you give him what he wants when comes to you, more play. If you are blessed with a backyard, have your dog “wait” before going outside and use the coolest, best, highest powered treats when he comes in the house on his own.
If you get in a pinch while you’re training, you can (if you overuse it, it will stop working), use a high pitched “bup, bup, bup” or “weeeeeeeee” to get your dog to come to you. But always reward your dog for coming to you, it could save his life someday.
The above are first step modifications from the book Really Reliable Recall by Leslie Nelson.