Why won’t my dog come back?

4 October 2009 86 Comments
Why won’t my dog come back?

There is only one reason why anyone’s dog won’t come back when called. It’s because you’re boring. If your dog would rather sniff a lamppost, rummage in a hedgerow, scamper off to meet other dogs or people, or chase a squirrel, it’s because they think all those things are more interesting than you are.

To get your dog to come back every time, you have to be more interesting than anything else on earth. A tall order perhaps? Yes, but certainly achievable.

Let’s start with how your dog perceives you in everyday life. Are you the apple of their eye, or can they wrap you around their little pad? Does your dog consider that you are someone to look up to, or do they ignore you when they feel like it? Do you provide affection when they demand it; can you be provoked into a response whenever they try hard enough? Do you have to repeat commands? Is their response variable depending upon what they are doing? If your dog thinks that they are controlling your relationship, they will not pay attention when you ask.  If they can take what you provide whenever they want, why should they come back because you say so? What’s in it for them? The answer should be “affection” or at least “attention”. If the answer is “nothing”, then your dog doesn’t value your affection and attention sufficiently, and you may need to re-examine your relationship.

Once you have your relationship on the right footing, you might just find that your dog pays you more attention generally and is far more inclined to come when called anyway. You might need to do no more than that for a better recall!

Most dogs, however, will benefit from learning a new set of rules about coming back when called and it isn’t rocket science, or a ‘secret’, just plain ordinary training that all dogs can understand. To do that you will need to understand how dogs learn so that you can implement the training in a way that will work quickly, and work for you.

The first stage will be to teach your dog what ‘come’ really means. It means ‘if you come here you will be rewarded for it’, and like all dog training it is best started in a place with no distractions. Indoors is best to achieve fluency before generalising to the outdoors and this training is one of the best games you can play…

The Recall Game

To teach Sandy to come back, and have fun doing it, you will need Sandy, two or more human players and some tasty doggie treats.

  • Ben takes hold of Sandy’s collar and holds it tight with one hand.
  • Maisie shows Sandy a treat and runs away into another room.
  • When out of sight, Maisie calls Sandy’s name and the chosen recall word – how about “Come” or “Here”?
  • Ben lets Sandy go and she rushes into the other room to find Maisie.
  • When she arrives, Maisie takes hold of Sandy’s collar and then gives her the treat (and cuddles and praise).
  • After Sandy has eaten the treat (small ones so she just gets a taste and wants more!) Maisie continues to hold her collar and Ben shows her a treat.
  • Ben then runs away to another room and calls whilst Maisie holds her.
  • When she runs to Ben, he too takes hold of her collar before rewarding her.
  • Turn it into a game of hide and seek, moving each time, so Sandy has to really look for the hidden person to get the reward.
  • Play for as long as Sandy really wants the treat (stop before she gets too full up).

The recall game teaches Sandy to come when called, and not to mind her collar being touched, because both things predict a nice outcome. When Sandy is really good at the recall game, play it in the garden, or on walks.

The Dark Side

It’s understandable that people get very frustrated and angry when their dog doesn’t come back when called. However, when their owner is angry, a dog can tell from their body language and tone of voice that all is not well, and will be even less likely to want to go back to them. So, how do we go about convincing the dog that you are the best thing on offer? By never punishing a dog when they return, no matter how long you have been waiting, shouting and worrying, and always rewarding the dog when they come to you, however long it takes. Punishing includes smacking or hitting, shouting or berating, frowning or scowling, or even just ignoring.

Things to Make Your Dog Want to Come Back

Even if you have played the recall game and your dog is very good indoors, you will still have to compete with distractions outdoors. These are some things that you might consider to help keep yourself the most interesting thing on offer:

Rewards – Rewards can be praise, food treats, playing a game or with a toy, or cuddles. Use a high value reward for coming back outdoors. If you use dog biscuits indoors, use sausage outdoors.

Get Attention – If you haven’t got your dog’s attention, they won’t come. Use your dog’s name, clap or whistle (high pitches are more attractive to dogs than low ones); use exciting tones; crouch down to dog-height; lie on your back and wave your legs in the air if necessary, but get your dog’s attention!

Feedback – Once they start to come, praise, praise, praise. They’re not here yet, but they’re heading in the right direction!

Unpredictability – Don’t be a predictable bore on your walks.
Hide behind a tree or in a gateway; your dog will come and find you! The relief from the anxiety of losing you and the praise you heap on them will be a huge reward.
Run away. Just run in the opposite direction and your dog will come with you (it might be missing out on something). Both of these strategies will encourage your dog to keep one eye on you, as they don’t know what to expect.

Practice – Practice recalls on walks. Randomly call your dog, give them a reward and send them off again. Call them, clip on the lead, reward them and let them go again.

Think about the times when you call your dog. Home-time, end of the walk, to stop it meeting another dog/person, to stop it chasing something, to stop it eating or even sniffing something. From your dog’s point of view, being called often predicts the loss of something. It is an event that they associate with a negative outcome. You can change that by introducing positive associations.

Play – Playing games of any kind on your walks is a sure-fire way of keeping your dog’s attention. Practising some obedience is fun if there is a reward in it and it helps to increase your dog’s positive view of a recall.

Don’t grab – your dog as they run past. This won’t teach them anything except to give you a wider berth next time. Wait until they voluntarily come right up to you, take hold of their collar and reward.

Failsafe – If you really have no confidence that your dog will come back off the lead, you can practice on lead at first, or you can attach a long line (strong washing line?) to your dog’s collar and tie the other end to something sturdy, then play the recall game in a field. When your dog is very good at that, untie the other end of the line and play with it dragging on the ground. Your dog will still feel under control, but is free for a gallop (you can catch the end of the line in an emergency). As your dog becomes more dependable, cut the line in half, then half again and eventually there will be no line at all.

Conclusion

The more positively your dog views you and the keener they are to interact with you at any time, the more likely they will come back whenever you call them.

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86 Comments »

  • Joyce C said:

    Hello We have a 7 month old Labrador and a 13 year old Labrador. The 7 month old one is our 4th Lab and whereas the other 3 have been no problem training, all 3 never got distracted by looking for food !! However, the pup can be really good and very obedient for a few days then he will not return when called, and as I have seen from other owners it happens a lot !! The problem is that I am unable to take him on the long walks my husband takes him as I am unable to walk a long way due to illness. I would hate not to be able to let him off the lead as I have been able to do with the other 3. Any advise appreciated.

  • David Ryan (author) said:

    Hi Joyce,
    7 months old is a difficult age, when he’s starting to become more independent. You have a couple of options. First is to use a long line: attach a line to his collar and let it drag when he is running free. If he doesn’t come back you don’t have to catch him, just the line. It also inhibits him slightly as he knows he is not free to run off. Second option is to increase your own attraction with games or food treats for regularly coming back to you on walks. Call him back, reward him and let him go off again. Also reward him for checking in with you voluntarily. You basically need to make yourself more interesting than the other things on walks and you can use whatever it is that he finds attractive.
    Regards,
    David

  • Joyce C said:

    Hi David. Thank you for quick response. We will certainly try the advise you have given us and hopefully it won’t too long before he is coming back first time and leaving the crisp packets and takeaway food boxes alone !! 🙂

  • David Ryan (author) said:

    Ah, yes, the difficulty is making yourself more attractive than a crisp packet to a Labrador – not as easy as it sounds. However, you have his youth on your side. There’s a good, “leave-it” game you can play. Take two people, treats and the crisp packet. Initially place the crisp packet on the floor just to one side of you but in reach. the other person should hold the dog by the collar. Second person call the dog and as they come close say “leave-it” in a nice pleasant tone whilst showing the (very nice) treat in the hand. Then reward the dog with the treat. Make sure you can quickly grab the packet if need be. The second person should then call “leave-it” in a nice tone and reward the dog for coming. Each time the dog leaves something it gets a reward. You can then progressively increase the salience of the packet (slightly further away or with a few crumbs in it) and each time your dog will leave it for something they think is better. If you are very careful and take it slowly you can progress to your dog jumping over a plate of food to get to you for a small piece of sausage. Tiny increments where you succeed every time is the key.
    Good luck,
    David

  • Clare said:

    Hi David,
    I have an 11 month old German Shorthaired Pointer dog pup who is not neutered I have trained him from 8 weeks old. He is very bright and easily learnt to sit, stay, lie down, and recall from voice and whistle at home from different rooms and the garden and out on walks. I always practise the recall, play games and hide from him on all walks. He would also come back when we met other dogs but now this behaviour is getting worse. I have started putting him on the lead if I see a dog approaching and keep him on it until they are out of sight, but the other day as soon as I let him off after a good while after meeting other dogs he tore past me and charged back along the path and over a bridge and down the river to catch up with the other dogs. He wouldn’t listen and I had to retrieve him. He is displaying a lot of scent marking and licking the grass where I presume other dogs have urinated. There are areas where we have met bitches in season and now if I walk him there he will charge around like a crazed teenager looking for the dog. He does come back to find me but will hare off again as soon as he finds me. I have resorted to putting him back on the lead in these areas. Will this get better? I am not against having him neutered but I feel I should be able to train him without resorting to this. He’s such a lovely affectionate family dog who is great in every other way but I don’t want his hormones to over rule the next 10 years everytime we are out. Any advice would be greatly appreciated. Thank you

  • David Ryan (author) said:

    Hi Claire,
    Some dogs are just more focussed on the hormonal influences of others, so it could be that your GSP has a greater tendency in that area. However he’s at the age where hormones can run riot, so there’s also a chance that it will be a temporary measure he will grow out of to some extent. But there’s no way of knowing which. If the plan is to neuter if it doesn’t improve, allowing him to practice in the meantime will reinforce the behaviour and make it more resistant to extinction.
    To improve control rather than have options of only on or off lead I would use a long line that he can drag. It gives you a half-way measure where you can work your socks off to make yourself more interesting so he wants to stay with you, but ultimately he cannot run off because you can stand on the line. Of course the nub is that he must want to stay with you, so you have to become more attractive than other dogs are.
    Regards,
    David

  • June said:

    Hi David
    I have a year old border collie. She’s been a bit accident prone with a toe that fractured twice and had to be amputated and a cut pad, all resulting in a lot of confinement and rest from 7 to 11 months. A crucial time in any puppy’s life!
    She is generally a good dog and I have stepped up the training now, attending 2 classes a week. Her recall is good, comes when called and to a whistle, except when meeting other dogs which she loves! I have had some success in distraction with a tuggy toy but once she starts to play that’s it! I am invisible and she is deaf!
    Do you have any advice please or do you think she will grow out of it?
    Many thanks
    June

  • David Ryan (author) said:

    Hi June,
    Sorry to hear she’s been indisposed, but glad she’s able to get back into circulation. As she loses puppy behaviour it will become less important to run up to other dogs, but if she enjoys playing with them it may well continue. The crux is that you need to be more fun than they are so she prefers to play with you, so you may need to ramp up the fun for a while. Try to get her attention when the other dog is still a long way off – “if there’s a dog on the horizon, it’s time to play with mum!” You could also keep her on a long line so that she has no option but to focus on you.
    Keep up the training and it should all come together for you.
    Regards,
    David

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