The key to making your dog come back to you when you call them is to give them a good reason to. Even though your dog may love you, or respect you as a pack leader, or simply know you are the source of warmth and food, dogs live in the present and in the present, especially when in the park, there are a myriad of things competing for their attention. When there are smells and sounds to be explored, other dogs and even prey around, why would your dog choose to give those up immediately and come to you, a human they know well and have access to most of the time?
Simply put, you must find the thing that trumps all other interesting things going on, and makes your dog run back to you. Dogs may have small brains and short attention spans, but they are fairly consequent creatures, and like all of us, have no great wish to do things that are boring and have no discernible benefit to themselves. Would you?
There is also the possibility of negative reinforcement, that is, some kind of correction or punishment if the dog does not heed your call. However, while some negative reinforcement has its place at the very early stages of recall training, when the dog is still on the leash, it is not a strategy that can be relied on in the long run. At some point your dog will be off leash, and too far away for you to touch it, and it will know it.
There are, of course, a couple of “remote” correction alternatives. One is the electric shock collar, which I would not advocate unless it was a matter of life and death for the dog to respond to recall. Even so, as I will come on to, recall training never ends, and reinforcements, whether negative or positive, must be continued, and the prospect of relying on such extreme measures as an electric shock collar indefinitely is not an attractive one.
There are also remote control spray collars, which squirt water or citronella when the owner presses a button. I have found that these have limited effect. While worth trying, I think it is a fairly weak deterrent, one which the dog chooses to live with if there is something interesting enough to explore (or chase) rather than coming back to the owner. Plus, repeated use is likely to desensitize the dog to the spray anyway, so you are in any case forced to rely on positive reinforcement in the long run.
That is, and I stress it again, for a reliable, life-long recall, you must provide, and continue to provide, a good enough reason for your dog to come to you. There are a tonne of things working against you, however. The human voice at a normal tone is not particularly exciting or meaningful for a dog. The words “come here” mean nothing in particular. The average adult human standing or walking is not an engaging creature for a dog. Why stand or walk next to them if you could be running, playing, sniffing or chasing? Being put on a leash and taken home is no fun, and being told off for not coming back immediately is even less popular. Indeed, it is a wonder that dogs choose to come back to their owners at all.
Luckily, us humans are clever and dexterous enough to make ourselves interesting, but it takes some effort. Standing stock still and mumbling, “come here, Fido” will rarely cut it. However, as I have noted elsewhere, different dogs will respond to different things, and you need to find what motivates your dog. Many dogs, of course, are motivated by food. Some are pickier than others, but I think most dogs will appreciate some variety. I wouldn’t expect dry old doggy biscuits to be or continue to be enticing to any but the most greedy dogs. The tastier the treat the better, and changing flavours always keeps those taste buds alert. Smelly, wet treats are always good: ham, sausage, cheese. The stuff that your dog wants to eat in your house but isn’t allowed to. You also need to make sure that the dog knows that you have a treat and you intend to give it only if he or she comes back to you – but more about these practicalities in part two.
Dogs that are less food motivated will need the incentive of a fun activity, such as playing with a toy or with you as a reward for coming back. Again, it is important, as I myself discovered with Cassie, to make sure the play is understood as a reward for coming back, not used as a bribe. A short game of tug of war, a few chews on the squeaky, a run after the ball. The difficulty is keeping the reward a reward, and not turning it into play controlled by the dog - running away with the toy. The game must stop, so that it can become an enticement yet again.
In addition, you should make yourself more interesting to the dog: make yourself into something to explore, or even impossible to ignore. Indeed, the promise of treats or play alone won’t always work. If the dog is preoccupied by something else interesting you need to get their attention, and your best bet is your voice and your body. High pitched, loud noses work best to catch a dog’s attention, so use a falsetto voice, repeat their name with variation, warble, yodel and whistle. Sometimes, sharp a sharp “oi!” or a hissing “pssst” will jolt the dog out of their reverie over a particularly fragrant spot of grass. You can’t let embarrassment get in the way, if you want your dog to be interested in you.
Use your body, too. Wave your arms, slap your thighs, crouch down with open arms, run away, dig a hole, and even the old favourite tip, play dead. All or any of these are likely to be much more interesting than simply standing there immobile. When your dog is on his or her way to you, keep encouraging them with your voice and body – become an inviting and exciting goal to run toward. And, of course, reward with treat or play immediately on arrival. Don’t forget the praise and the pats either. Once recall is learned, sometimes these will be enough, but they should always be profuse. Give them a good cuddle and a happy voice – make an impression on your dog that coming to you is fun, enjoyable and rewarded. And, as importantly as making this impression, is keep on making it. Dogs adapt to new circumstance very quickly, and won't be made fools of for very long - if the treats, play and praise stops, so will the "obedience". Indeed, this is why I dislike the word obedience - if you are working towards having a dog that obeys commands you will always be working against the grain. If you, however, learn how to be an interesting creature for your dog to be with, you will find that they enjoy being and working with you, and importantly, coming back to you.
However, before you even get to the stage where you let your dog off the leash and hope for the best, there is some ground work to be done. In Part II of my musings on recall I will consider some of the practical steps to be taken.