Cheryl May's Questions and Answers

Failing to come when called off lead

Q. I have a Jack Russell, 10 months old, that I have taught to sit, stay, down, come. He is not a show dog, simply a family pet. He does everything perfectly on the lead no matter how many distractions he has. He does everything perfectly off the lead except for come. I live in a development so if he happens to get out of his fenced in environment this can be really scary. It is not so much that he is trying to run away from me as it is that he is curious. His curiosity outweighs his desire for food so treats don't work. Can you give me any suggestions? Please help! - JC

A. Your dog runs off because he can. That's one of the problems with dogs getting away off lead - once the dog learns that you can't catch him if he gets away, then the problem is much harder to fix.

I start teaching the recall to puppies. And I use food to encourage them to come and as a lure to bring them into a neat sit in front following the recall. As a lazy trainer, I see no need to teach them a wild recall with no front that I'll have to fix later. Better to start as you intend to go on. After the dog knows the behavior, you can start to randomize when you give the food. My other goal is to make the training itself so fun and so reinforcing that the food is a pleasant extra, but not the reason for the behavior.

Here are some effective ways to train the recall. Gerianne Darnell, in her great book with Barbara Cecil, "Competitive Obedience Training for the Small Dog," suggests starting recall training with "puppy recalls," whatever the age of the dog. Start with two people, both with a handful of treats. Call the puppy -- or dog -- back and forth between the two people. Dogs catch on to this game very quickly and enjoy it.

Some important points to keep in mind -- do not give the dog a treat unless he comes to you. In other words, don't reach out and grab the puppy as he flies past you -- or go to any trouble at all to get the treat to him. He must do the work. Also, give the command only once. If the dog comes for a quick visit and is off again, this is not acceptable.

Another method: put the dog on a six-foot lead or a flexi (if you are adept at using a flexi). Wait until the dog is distracted. Then call, "Dog's name, come." Wait two seconds for the dog to respond. If he doesn't, pop the lead. Run backwards when the dog starts toward you. Keep the lead loose. Stop. If the dog passes you, pivot and repeat as you step back. The dog has successfully responded when he stops close enough in front of you that you can touch him.

For cookie pushers: Show the dog your wonderful treat. If the dog knows stay, leave him a few feet from you. If not, have someone else restrain him. Call the dog and lure him into a front with the treat.

Because I believe that coming when called is a vital, and potentially life-saving command, I also introduce corrections for failing to come when called. My GSD Lacy understands the "come" command and is happy to come in formal situations, or when she perceives there might be a treat involved. However, we have had a couple of instances when I called her, she looked briefly at me, then chose to sniff grass or play with a toy. I used a correction I saw Diane Bauman use once at a seminar. When the dog failed to come, Diane walked to the dog, took hold of it, and then backed up to the spot where she'd been when she initially called the dog. The dog is praised when it arrives in that spot.

Since attending that seminar many years ago, I've since seen many other trainers use the same technique with success. It worked on Lacy. A few days after using that correction, Lacy was off lead in the house, I called her, and fully expected to have to walk her down. She looked at me, then clearly made a conscious decision to come. She got a big jackpot -- a full slice of her favorite cheese. I think the best training combines both positives and negatives.

back to Cheryl May's Questions and Answers page

back to Cheryl May's Dogsports page