I took Emma the Beagle to the vet last week for a relaxing cold laser therapy session, and after we were done, she jumped down off the exam table to trot back into the lobby. Normally that would be our routine, but on this day, we needed Ems to stay on the table longer for the veterinarian to give her anal glands a helping hand as well.
“Emma girl—come back!” I said. Ems continued to trot toward the lobby. “Emma, Ems,” the tech and the vet called. That earned a look back, but she continued away. Finally, in a happy voice, I said, “Komdu,” and Ems stopped in her tracks, looked at me, and then bounded back with joy plastered all over her face.
One of the most important gifts we can give our dogs is to teach them a super solid recall. You may need them to come when called, for example, because they have a habit of dashing out the front door, or for off-leash hikes, or you’re in a situation like I was, where Ems could have gotten hurt if she ran into the lobby where potentially aggressive dogs were waiting. Whatever the reason, by teaching your dogs to come when called, you are helping them stay safe.
The “Pavlov’s Dog” Game
There are a variety of ways you can teach a recall, but the one I like best is built on classical conditioning. Thanks to the work of Ivan Pavlov in the early 20th century, we know that one way dogs learn is by associations. Pavlov ran an experiment where a bell would sound, and then, immediately after, the dogs got food. Because this bell/food pairing happened every single time they ate, the pups figured out that a bell ringing meant that food was soon to follow. So, they eventually started salivating just from the sound of the bell. We can now use that same process to make pups fall in love with one particular word or sound, to give us a professional-caliber recall.
Pick a unique word or sound
In order for this method to work, you need to select a word or sound that your dog won’t hear in other contexts. Every time your pup hears your WORD, it must be followed by food, so that when you need it in an emergency, your dog will still run to you.
My husband and I chose the word, komdu, which means “come here” in Icelandic, to train Ems. (It was a safe bet that Ems wouldn’t be hearing too much Icelandic in Northern Virginia.) If you say, “come,” or “here,” or your dog’s name already over and over, pick a different word. Maybe “Bingo!” or “come here” in a different language like we did, or the Spanish word “arriba!”
Whatever you chose, protect that word so that it is only spoken when you are prepared to give your pooch a party of delicious foods and happies — every. single. time.
Bust out the gooooooood food
Some behaviors that we teach dogs are really easy for them, such as sitting when we ask. But others, like coming when called, are more challenging and require a higher-value reward. We’re asking our dogs to stop what they’re doing (exploring the woods, barking at another dog, sniffing a deliciously stinky dead thing…) and come to us instead. If we want this to work, we have to bust out the goooooooood stuff: roasted chicken breast, pecorino romano cheese, hot dogs, tripe, sardines, etc.
Cut the food up into little pieces the night before you are going to start training, and put it in the fridge where you can easily grab it.
Preparations are done. Let’s train.
(Thank you, Jean Donaldson and The Academy for Dog Trainers, for this training plan.)
- You’ve prepped the food the night before. Leave it right where it is. Don’t even go near the fridge.
- Stand 5-10 feet from your dog and say your WORD one time.
- Pause for one second and then do whatever you can to get your dog to come to you: crouch down, happy talk, slap your thighs, bang on the floor, etc.
- As soon as your dog gets to you, happy talk and run over to the fridge together. Grab the food you prepared, and pour out a nice hefty serving (either on the floor or hand fed). Continue the happy talking while he eats, and then when he’s done, put the food back away in the fridge and walk away.
Do this two or three times a day at random times until your pup no longer needs you to do step 3. If you say the WORD and he immediately flies to you, SUCCESS! He has learned that WORD predicts FOOD.
“She always came to me when I called her in our puppy classes, but when I call her to come to me now, she never listens. She can be really stubborn.”
As a trainer, I hear stuff like that all the time. Heck. I used to say stuff like that myself! But then I learned that the key to successful dog training is to build incrementally. Now when I train a dog to do a certain behavior, it sticks.
Think of it this way: coming when called from five feet away in a quiet room is like preschool-level work. Coming when called 100 feet away in the woods with all kinds of wildlife around is doctoral-level. You don’t go from preschool to grad school overnight. There are a lot of steps in between, and it’s the same for dogs.
Decide for yourself what the hardest thing is that you want your dog to do, and build to that. Here’s an example:
- Say the WORD from 5-feet away, inside the house, prompt anyway you can to get the dog to come to you after you say the WORD.
- Say the WORD from 10 feet away, inside the house, but no prompting. (If he doesn’t come to you without prompting, go back and repeat step 1 until he masters it.)
- Say the WORD from across the room.
- Say the WORD from a different room.
- Say the WORD in the backyard from 10 feet away. (From this step on, you’ll need to bring food with you. Make sure you say your WORD first, and then reach into your pocket to give your dog the treats. Otherwise, if you start rustling with a baggie of snacks and then say the WORD, the dog might learn that BAG RUSTLING predicts food rather than your WORD.)
- Say the WORD in an empty dog park from 10 feet away.
- Say the WORD in an empty dog park from 20 feet away.
- Say the WORD in the dog park with another dog there from 20 feet away.
- Say the WORD in the dog park with another dog there from the opposite end.
- Say the WORD in the dog park from 10 feet away when there are a bunch of dogs there.
You’ll do each step in order until the pup masters the one you’re on. If you push to the next step and your dog doesn’t come to you without prompting, no problem. Just drop back to the previous step. Work it a bunch of times, and then push after your dog nails it.
If you push ahead a couple of times, and your pup can’t grasp it, but still does the previous step well, see if you can split the difference — give him something in between the two that he can do. Then push ahead when he’s got that down well.
And remember: always be prepared to give your dog delicious food every time you say your WORD. You want him to bound to you with joy, because he knows what that WORD means. Just like Pavlov’s dogs knew what the bell meant. FOOD!
Few things actually bring me as much joy as playing the Pavlov’s Dog game with Emma. I know that she will stay safe, because when I say komdu, she has the time of her life — flying to me with her adorable Beagle ears flapping in the breeze. It doesn’t get better than that.
Written by: Tracy Krulik
Check out her blog: Dogz and Their Peoplez
Northern Virginia based certified dog trainer and behavior consultant, Tracy Krulik, CTC is the founder and managing editor of iSpeakDog — a website and public awareness campaign to promote dog body language and behavior education. An honors graduate of the prestigious Academy for Dog Trainers, Krulik writes about pets and their people for publications including The Washington Post, Washington Post Express, The Bark magazine, and The Chronicle of the Dog. She will be the pets columnist for the new Alexandria Living Magazine, launching spring 2018. Follow her blog Dogz and Their Peoplez for more tales of Emma the Beagle (pun intended) and for insights into dog behavior, body language, and training.