Here is a commonly presented problem:
My dog is very well behaved at home and when on leash. He used to come every time I called. Now when it is time to go home from the dog park he won't come and I end up chasing him or bribing him. How can I teach him to come when he is off leash?
This is a pattern that often develops when the term "come" is accompanied by a "punishment" - like the end of a play session. That you didn't intend it as a punishment isn't the point. It's just one of those unconscious things that we do that affect our dogs without us knowing.
So the thing to do is to change the pattern so that "come" results in something the dog wants, more often than something the dog doesn't want. Go back a step and use a very long line - using a command you can't enforce is worse than useless. Start a play session, call the dog, give it a reward (toy, treat or praise), continue the play session. Do this at least six sessions - at the end evaluate - is the dog breaking off play and coming immediately and happily? If not continue until you get to that point. If it takes a very long time, then so be it.
In the meanwhile if you have a fenced, safe place for off leash play, then fine - BUT DO NOT CALL THE DOG. Instead, carry treats with you. When the dog comes to you, or near you, say "cookie?" or some word you are from know on going to be using as a question, not a command. Offer the dog the treat, the reason for the word is to get the dogs attention, not to tell it what to do. (If you don't like using treats or if the dog isn't rewarded by them, then use whatever is rewarding. It could be a quick game of tug, a thrown ball, a hug, a pet or just your enthusiastic voice. Lots of difficult to reward dogs respond well to a chance to play with a hunk of rabbit skin.) Using it every time will get the dog to associate the reward with the word. Every time the dog shows up after being on a play romp, reward the dog. After three of four of these times take the dog, put its leash on, praise, take the leash off and let the dog go back to playing. Do it again.
Your treats can be very small - I use the size of one cat kibble for my 60 pound dog. At the end of the play session you must use great restraint - DO NOT CALL THE DOG - do nothing different (this is where someone watching you can help - is your tone, body language different - are you holding your leash differently, standing differently whatever) just wait for one of those times the dog shows up, offer the treat, click on the leash and this time no release - just calmly leave - other than that nothing different, no extra praise, no extra food.
When that is working well start offering "cookie?" when the dog is a little further away . . . and then further . . then start adding a hand signal so that you can do it still further . . . remember, however we still aren't commanding, just getting rid of the association that coming equals end of play, or bath or something else the dog doesn't want. And at the same time we are working on the command come on leash when we can make the dog do it, but still keeping it light and positive.
Eventually you will not reward every time, you will taper it off (every other time, every third time, randomly) until it is just occasional. If you are using toys or treats you will start substituting praise, but gradually you will tone that down and make it rare also.
Once the dog is reliable on a long line then you can combine the two. In your safe, fenced off leash area, the dog is allowed to play, when it gets close you can then command "come" reward and release. If all goes well the situation will tell the dog that coming will not result in the end of play, and the word "come" will indicate a command and the dog will do it happily. Once that is working well I like to have the dog do one or two things before returning to play, a sit, a down, a short heel, what ever. I interrupt some play sessions with 30 seconds to a minute of work at random intervals. Play time is not "I don't have to listen to Mom time"
So recently someone writes and tells me that they are "confused about the concept". Well shoot. I didn't think I made it that complicated. But it became clear with the next part of the problem. "When we go to the beach and I let my dog off the leash he goes nuts racing after
the birds and does not respond to my calling". Apparently the reader didn't understand the part where it says "using a command you can't enforce is worse than useless." So let me make this more clear
Do not say "come" unless you know your dog will obey. If you tell your dog "come" and the dog does not "come" then stop saying "come" and go and get the dog.
If you cannot go and get the dog then it is your mistake, not the dog's mistake. You have failed your dog by putting your dog in a situation it was not ready for.
You may desire to have the dog off leash during the learning period. If you choose to do that you must still follow that rule Do not give your dog a command that you cannot enforce. So that means you much choose your off leash situation wisely. You must be in a situation where you can get your dog without calling the dog. Did you make a mistake and go to the beach and turn the dog loose where it is having fun without you? To get your dog back you are going to have to find a way to be more interesting than whatever the dog is doing - if you can get close enough to catch the dog's attention. Dance, wave a toy, throw treats, run the other way. throw something and chase it yourself, just do not use the command "come." You may have to take a seat and wait. Eventually the dog will get tired and will be willing to see why you are being so boring. Then resolve to go back and give your dog the foundation before putting it in that situation again.
So what is the wise off leash situation? It is one in which you can be more interesting than the surroundings. It is one in which the dog will not be in danger if it takes a long time before the dog decides to check in. It is a controlled off leash situation. It is a situation in which it is perfectly safe if you have to just wait. It is the situation in which you do not need to call your dog.
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Created: May 11, 1998 Updated January 1, 2008
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