I could live in relative bliss with a dog that knew nothing but how to come when called. I mean the screech-to-a-halt, turn-on-a-dime, zoom-back-to-me-enthusiastically -no-matter-what's-going-on kind of recall. A reliable recall is the Holy Grail of dog ownership.
The most obvious reason to teach "come," a k a The Recall, is for safety. If Sam is trained to come when called, you just might save his life if he's about to cross the street in front of oncoming traffic. Or, you might put a stop to felonious mischief, like chasing kids on bikes, and divert disastrous encounters with the likes of Pepé Le Pew... or a rattlesnake.
A rock-solid recall has the power to manage behavior problems you've not yet successfully trained away. Is Sparky barking at the neighbors? Call him away and give him something else to do. Does Fritzie still try to jump on the guests? Call her to another part of the house -- before letting the visitors in -- and give her a favorite chew-toy to pass the time until the coast is clear.
Let Freedom Ring
Once Rex consistently comes when called, you can trust him to enjoy activities like invigorating romps at off-leash dog beaches or walks in the woods. Though most of us crave this kind of relationship with our pets, we have a dilemma. We love our little kindred spirits so much it's hard to imagine imposing our will on them. For many of us the term obedience training is harsh and unappealing.
But wait! You can gently teach your dog to obey through games and play, turning training sessions into something you both look forward to. It's easier to learn something enjoyable and even tedious material can be mastered if presented in game format. In a recent survey, nine out of 10 dogs agreed: learning through play beats formal "because I said so" obedience training hands down.
Convinced? Let the games begin.
Hide and Seek - a fun way to reinforce the "come" command, capitalizing on the dog's hunting instinct and love of play. Hide and Seek can be played as a duet (just you and the dog), with friends and family, indoors or out. Too often, our dogs suspect that "come" means the end of fun - the doggie equivalent of "get in here, clean your room and do your homework!" Ugh. Instead, try playing Hide and Seek to turn "come" into an exhilarating game.
Before you play, know thy dog: if your dog is nervous, prone to separation anxiety or has a habit of running away, make sure you play Hide and Seek in a safe area. The definition of a "safe area" is inside a fenced yard or house. For those clingy, can't-let-you-out-of-my-sight dogs, make sure you are easy to find the first few times you play. This game should be fun - not induce panic or cause the dog to run off in the wrong direction.
Also, your dog needs at least a passing knowledge of "come." If he has no idea what the word means, take some extra time at meals to say "come," back up several steps and feed a handful of food. After a few repetitions, he'll start to have a positive association with the word and you'll be ready for Hide and Seek.
It Takes a Village
Start with two people and a supply of small, soft, smelly treats that your dog would gladly do back flips to earn. Person A holds the dog while Person B waves the goodies under his nose before dashing off to hide. Set up the dog for success by hiding fairly close in an easy-to-find location. The instant the hider says, "Buddy, come!" the holder releases him. The hider should clap hands and encourage the dog during the search, ready to celebrate the reunion with food and praise. If Buddy is crazy for toys, reward with a toss of his favorite toy. The hider can then become the holder and the process is repeated.
Once Buddy understands and loves the game, make it more interesting by increasing the distance and difficulty of the hiding spots. You can even add another person or two, each offering a different (but equally fantastic) reward.
Another variation of the game is to "disappear" when outside with your dog. Make sure you are in a safe area, and the minute Sophie gets distracted by a sniffable item on the ground, step behind a tree and say, "Sophie, come!" At first, remain partially hidden so she can find you with relative ease. Reward and send her off to examine the odor again. Whoa, aren't you THE BEST? Sophie gets to enjoy the thrill of the hunt, receive a high-value prize and then go back to what she was doing in the first place. She also learns to keep an eye on you, you glorious, interesting and unpredictable human, you.
When you use imagination and play to enhance training, it's win-win for both you and your best friend.
Carla Jackson is a certified pet dog trainer who owns and operates Jackson Ranch for Dogs, a kennel-free dog boarding and training facility. Carla is a past instructor at Haven Humane Society and specializes in private training/behavior consultations for the family dog.
For a complete introduction to dog training, check out Cari Bowe's and Carla's DVD, "Your Family Dog, Leadership and Training," an interactive DVD featuring over 60 locally owned dogs learning new behaviors in beautiful Shasta County locations. The DVD provides valuable tips for daily living, guidelines for solving common behavior problems, and the essential skills needed to teach your dog basic commands. The DVD is now available at many local veterinarian offices, Haven Humane Society, and through dogwise.com or jacksonranchfordogs.com.