If I could only teach a dog one single command, it would be to come when called. Recall is a vital skill that can save your pet’s life. Imagine if your dog slips his harness leaving the groom shop next to a big road. If he doesn’t come when called, will you be able to save him?
Teaching perfect recall isn’t actually hard, but many people inadvertently train the opposite in their pet’s daily life. Before we can go over how to teach your chihuahua to come, let’s go over how to avoid sabotaging your efforts.
Rule #1: Don’t call your pet for anything unpleasant
This is just common sense, but it’s surprising how many people call their dogs to come get a bath, to do their nails, or to do other things they find unpleasant. If you know what you are going to do won’t be met with wild approval by your pet, go and get the dog, don’t call them.
This also calls for ending fun. If the only reason you call your pet is to clip his leash on and take him away from the park, you’re going to quickly find yourself getting ignored. If you know calling them to leash up is going to be important, make sure you call your dog regularly during park play and other off leash time just to hand them their most valued food item and send them on their way. They need to think there’s at least a 50% chance you’re calling to give them a big meat chunk instead of ending play.
You may also want to snap the leash on, feed the chunk, and then unsnap it so they don’t get savvy and realize the leash in your hand means play time is over.
Rule #2: Never punish your dog when they come
A surprising number of people will scream “NO!!!” In their dogs face, often after a particularly long chase when the dog refused to come. This is satisfying to the owner because it’s a release of anger, frustration, and possibly a bit of fear. In the owner’s mind they’re yelling, “No!! Don’t run away!”
The problem with this is the dog can’t possibly know that. You yelled at them for the last thing they did, which was to allow themselves to be caught. Next time, they’ll be sure you won’t catch them.
No matter how angry you are, praise your pet and reward them once they’ve been caught. Let them know that being caught is what you wanted.
Rule #3: Don’t sabotage your recall training with body language
Humans and dogs have conflicting body language when it comes down to whether they should come or go. When we want the dog to come to us, we face them. If they don’t come right away, we may move closer to them, thinking it will make it easier.
In dog body language, facing someone head on means, “Stop!” If that doesn’t work, the second behavior to demand more space is to step forward, into their space.
Recall training must be so confusing to our little ones, because you’re essentially waving a stop sign while demanding they ignore it.
To make it easier for your dog to learn this cue, you can use body language to your advantage. Try calling them, and then turning and walking away a little bit.
Rule #4: Don’t repeat the command
Dogs have a very hard time processing human language. “Bella, come!” Is not the same thing to them as “Come, Bella!” If you always repeat your command, your dog will either think, “Come-Bella-Bella-Come-Here-Bella-Oh-For-Heavens-Sake-COME-HERE-RIGHT-NOW!” is the full command and they shouldn’t make their way over until they hear all of that, or they’ll just tune you out entirely.
If your dog doesn’t come the first time, go get them instead, and make a mental note to work in that situation more.
You should also think over what your command word is and make sure you use it, in that exact sequence, every time. Life is confusing enough for a dog, so let’s make it as easy as possible.
Rule #5: Practice every day
It’s tricky to know when a dog understands your recall word and what it means. You might think a puppy knows to come when called because it eagerly comes every time at first—but pups have a strong greeting urge and also come to kissy sounds, crouching people, and other friendly gestures.
It’s common for people to think they have their dog’s recall trained because they come readily for dinner, only to discover the dog is magically deaf when exploring out in the backyard.
It isn’t that the dog is ignoring you, only that they didn’t connect your verbal cue with the act of coming over. It may also be that there’s too many distractions where you are asking. We start all our training in a distraction free room for good reason.
Rule #6: Never use the clicker as a recall button
In my clicker training class, I’ve had people proudly tell me how they stopped their dog from attacking another dog by clicking, since they knew the dog would abort the attack to come get the treat. Yes, your dog will likely come if they hear the click, but you also told them, “Yes! Attacking this other dog is what I wanted! Good job!”
Remember that the click is a reward for the action they are doing when they hear the sound. Don’t click for behaviors you don’t want!
Beginning Recall Training
You’ll want to start your recall training in the house. Catch your dog’s attention by saying their name, and then crouch down (slanted a little sideways) show them a treat or toy and make encouraging sounds. Your dog will likely come. Oh boy! Fun time!
If they are clicker trained, click once they are approaching you, but not until they’re in motion to come to you. This reinforces the recall, plus it guarantees they will come over now to collect their reward.
Once you’re willing to put money on your dog coming to you in the house, put the command word to it. Instead of simply “Stella” it is “Stella, come.”
Now you can make it a bit harder! Make a game out of it. Call them and then turn and playfully start to walk or run away. They have to catch you if they want their treat! When they catch you, reward them lavishly.
Next, try hiding and seeing if they can find you. (If they can’t, peak out and give them big hints that they should look for you.)
Why play all these different games? First, it makes recall fun. When a dog associates recall with games and fun, they’ll be much more likely to come when it’s a serious matter. The other thing it does is help your pet to generalize the recall command.
Dogs don’t generalize well at all. It takes a great many repetitions in a great many different places before they understand “Come” means the same thing in every situation.
You’ll be better prepped when you move outside to begin the next stage of training.
Once your dog comes reliably in the house, it’s time to add a distraction. Take your dog to the most boring outdoor location you can think of. If you have a fully fenced backyard this works great. If you don’t, putting your dog on leash and working in their potty area is just fine.
Take the dog outside and start at the beginning, as if your pup has never heard the word “come” before in their whole life. (Remember, dogs don’t generalize so this is not the same thing to them at all.)
Crouch down, make kissy sounds, show treats or toys, what ever it takes to guarantee they’re definitely coming to cash in. Let them get their reward and then let them go to sniff, potty, and most importantly learning coming when called doesn’t mean you’re going inside.
When you know they’ll come cash in on their reward, use the recall command and practice until you know they’ll reliably come in a boring zone.
Don’t try recalling them if you know for a fact they won’t come. It will only desensitize them to the command.
Getting ready for the big world
Now it’s time to move your pet to a new location and try practicing recall there. Take them to the pet store and practice on leash in a back aisle, practice in the parking lot going in, practice at the park on leash, etc.
Each new location, you need to all but start over. Assume your pet does not know what come means until you’ve proofed it in that zone. Also remember that recalling on leash at the park is less distracting than off leash, and dog friends are more distracting than being off leash alone.
Every time you add a distraction (a dog friend, a new place, etc.) you need to lower your standards for training until they’ve learned to focus with the new element.
You’re never done training recall
Recall is something you should make a point of practicing every day. Call your dog randomly throughout the day for a snack. Call them when they’re off leash a handful of times before leaving just to give them a snack and reinforce with the clicker at regular intervals to keep recall valuable to your dog.
If you’re worried about their waistline, just feed less at dinner time. A hungrier dog is keener to work anyway and working for their dinner can be a great source of enrichment.
If you aren’t passionate about dog training, make recall your focus. You never know when you’re going to need your dog to come back right now to save their life. You don’t want them pausing to calculate what’s in it for them.
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