Dogs who COME when they have nothing better to do

A lot of people think they have trained their dog to obey the "COME" command, but because they have not been consistant in demanding compliance every single time and no matter what distractions or temptations are occurring, the result has been that the dog obeys COME only when the dog "has nothing better to do".
This article concerns remedial training to turn "Come" from an invitation which the dog feels free to decline into a command which the dog fees must be obeyed. The same methods are advised for teaching the command in the first place so that the dog never develops the "I'll obey if I have nothing better to do" mindset.

Dogs who COME when they have nothing better to do

by Pam Green, © 2003, 2019

" He stood and looked at me. I called again, with some firmness to my voice, and he came partway, then got interested in a leaf. "
                                           .............. typical complaint

Well it sounds to me like your dog has figured out that "come" means "come if you have nothing better to do" : he is treating it as an invitation rather than a command, and this is almost certainly because you have unwittingly allowed this to happen by calling him under circumstances where he does have something "better" to do and where you have been unable to enforce the command by compelling him to respond by actually coming all the way to your feet and pausing there for further orders or for a release from you.

Often we fall into this situation while the dog is a young puppy, because puppies under 4 months are usually so dependant on us as a quasi-parental figure that they will follow us everywhere and are eager to come. Therefore it is easy to believe that the pup really knows that he MUST come every single time, and therfore we neglect to keep a long line on him to ensure our ability to make the correct response happen. Too soon one finds oneself in a situation where the dog finds he has something better (more interesting) to do and does that instead of coming , thereby finding out that he actually has a choice to disobey the COME command and that disobeying is very rewarding (enjoyable)..

The terms "enforce" and "compel" have gone out of style thanks in part to the "positive only" trainers. But the "COME" and the "DOWN" command are commands that you may need to SAVE YOUR DOG'S LIFE someday , almost certainly in circumstances that arise suddenly and unexpectedly and in which the dog is very excited and definitely "has something MUCH better to do". So the first step is to accept your responsibility to teach a real no nonsense COME and to use whatever level of compulsion is needed to achieve this goal. If you refuse to take this responsibility, then there is a real risk that you will someday be responsible for your dog's preventable death or maiming.

By the way, I like to train a dog to "Come" to both a verbal command and to a whistle. An ordinary sports coach plastic whistle is ideal, hung on a lanyard or string around your neck. A whistle carries further than your voice and will not betray any fear or anger you might be feeling. When you use your voice always try to sound warm and inviting or happy and exciting.

For most people the method is to have a long line on the dog whenever it is in a situation in which you might need or choose to call it to COME -- or for that matter ask it to DOWN -- and of course the long line can only be used safely when you are present and supervising. Ie you will NEVER put him into a situation in which you are calling him but do not have the capability of using the long line to reel him in. Before you call, get your foot or your gloved hand onto the line so that if he does not immediately turn and head towards you at a brisk gait (relative to his athletic abilities -- for an elderly dog a very slow walk could be sufficient) you can reel him in all the way to your feet and keep him at your feet until you say he may leave. Likewise you will use the line if he pauses or turns away before he arrives at your feet. Call him in and if he does a good recall, praise him liberally and caress him in whatever manner he appreciates (eg the underside of the neck or the center of the front of the chest are good areas for many dogs), then turn him loose again. At this point, having been released, he is free to go do that "somthing better" if it is something that you consider safe for him to do. (But if the "something better" temptation is something that would be UNsafe, then of course do NOT release the dog !!!) Do dozens of recalls every day using the long line.

Start in your own yard, and then after a few days, begin to seek out situations that create the temptation for the dog to think he "has something better to do" than to come to you. Work in as many different environments as you can and with as many different temptations as you can. This can include the Dog Park, where you will call him away from play and then release him to resume play at least a dozen times each visit. The sequence of coming , being praised, and being released again makes coming a pleasant and rewarding thing to do. Being released again to do the "something better" turns the "something better" into what Dr Ian Dunbar calls a "life reward" and is what the academic behaviorists refer to as "the Premack principle." The net result is that your dog will find greater and greater zest in obeying the COME command and COME becomes a joyful part of your way of life together.

Do this for at least two months (possibly much longer) and during those two months NEVER EVER call him without being in a position to enforce the recall with your long line. That means that the LONG LINE IS ON HIM EVERY SECOND YOU AND HE ARE OUTSIDE THE HOUSE -- and maybe for most of your waking and dog-supervising time inside the house as well.

Now the one exception to never calling without being able to enforce the command would of course be if somehow the dog got loose by accident and it seemed to you that he was in a position of potential danger. In that case of course you have to call him, because you have to get him back to safety any way you can, including pretending to offer food, or crouching down, or turning and running in the opposite direction -- this latter is often the most effective way. If your car is nearby and if your dog loves car rides (as most do), opening the car door and using whatever words or gestures you usually use to invite him to go for a ride is likely to work. Anything that works is fair game because you are doing it to save him from danger.
The one thing that does NOT work is chasing the dog. At best he'd think that's a great game and run further and faster. At worst he could become fearful (especially if you are angry), and run right into worse danger. (One of my former foster dogs died this way.)

How long will all this take ? Well the longer the dog has been disobeying , the longer it will take to make obedience an unshakable habit. Figure that it will take at least two or three times as long to UNlearn a bad habit as it took to learn that bad habit. And you may need to cut the long line down one single foot at a time, cutting each foot off only after at least one hundred absoltely perfect recalls in a row. You may need to leave the last few feet of long line, now referred to as a "tab", in place for many additional weeks or months. Hey, it's better than a dead dog !

Why have I not mentioned giving a food treat as a reward for an obedient response to COME ? Because I really don't trust most people to use food correctly, which means to make it an unexpected and very occasional jackpot. To use food correctly , you have to become a "slot machine" in your payoff schedule : occasional small payoffs and very rare large jackpot payoffs. Also the hope of a food reward will NOT be strong enough to outweigh some of the joys of the "better things to do" , eg chasing a cat or squirrel or rabbit or sheep. Now after the long line program has been in effect for at least a month , you could maybe put one or two food treats in your pocket to additionally reward a recall response that is far superior to the dog's usual response.

If you DO really understand how to use food or a ball toss as a "variable schedule" , ie "slot machine" , reward, then DO include such rewards. Dr Sophia Yin's book "How to Behave So Your Dog Behaves" is an excellent primer on use of positive reinforcement. Excel-erated Learning by Pamela Reid, PhD. is a more sophisticated book on the topic, with examples from various dog sports.

Why have I not mentioned using a "shock collar" or "remote trainer" to enforce the COME ? Because again I don't trust most people to be able to use it with the absolutely exquisitely perfect timing and with the absolute emotional self-control that is needed. Frankly if misused even slightly,your attempts to teach COME with a remote collar can all too easily teach the dog just the opposite, ie that "come" means "run for your life !" Before you can profitably use a remote collar, you must first teach a really good recall with the long line anyway. Then and only then can the enforcement be switched over to the remote collar, and during the transition you will be using both the collar and the long line. In my opinion, the use of the remote collar is only for the skilled trainer : to hand one to anyone without the required expertise and emotional self control would be like handing a scalpel to a pre-med student and allowing her/him to do brain surgery.

Now I did also mention DOWN. While you are working on COME , you might as well also work on some kind of Halt command. For most people the DOWN is the command of choice for immobilizing the dog and keeping him on the spot. (For herding situations, I much prefer a standing halt, ie "stand" or "whoa"; but for the myriad of everyday situations, especially those where I need to immobilize a dog to save him from running into danger, there is nothing as good as a DOWN.). Again with your foot or your hand already on the long line,pick a time when the dog is headed in a direction away from you , then give the command and if the dog does not obey you will use the line to halt him (or at least halt him from going the direction away from you) and you will walk towards him (either walking up the line with your feet or reeling in excess with your hands) and place him into the commanded position. Whether you place him gently or firmly or even jerk him into position would depend on the dog's temperament and his attitude in declining to obey. I'd suggest doing quite a few gentle to firm placements before you ever get harsh about it. Have him hold the position, initially with you in close and then later with you moving away , still holding the line of course, and ready to make a second placement or correction if he moves out of position. Then return to him ; some of the time leave again or stand a while before you give a "release" command, some of the time return and release after only a heartbeat or so of wait, and some of the time you may want to give some other command such as a change of position or a "heel". Then again at some point give the release and let him go back to doing whatever he likes for a while. Then of course comes another COME or another DOWN. Again do this with the long line in place and ready for use for at least two months before you test it off line.

Job Michael Evans has a wonderful chapter on remedial training for COME in his superb book "People , Pooches, and Problems", a book I heartily recommend to every dog person.


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site author Pam Green copyright 2003
created 7/10/03 revised7/10/03, 11/23/2019
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