Troubleshooting the Dog: Getting Him To Come When Called

The Troubleshooter is collaborative advice from CKC's team of canine enthusiasts, professionals, and trainers. For severe behavioral and/or health issues, consult a local veterinarian, professional trainer or animal behaviorist. 

Dear Troubleshooter,

I can’t take my eight-month-old goldendoodle anywhere unless he’s leashed, not even dog parks. As soon as I unclip Stevie’s leash, he’s off and running and won’t come when I call. Inside the house, Stevie’s fine, but when I take him outside to places like parks, he acts like another dog. When it’s time to leave the park, I call and call, but he won’t come. So I keep him leashed most of the time. I want to take Stevie to the park and let him enjoy the experience, but I can’t if he won’t come when it’s time to leave. A friend told me that Stevie’s behavior is a dominance problem and that he’s proving he’s dominant over humans by not listening. But I read CKC’s [post] about dominance myths. So if it’s not a dominance problem, then what is it and how do I fix it?

The Come Conundrum

Dear Come Conundrum,

While your friend may offer great advice on some subjects, your friend is wrong on this one. Way wrong! Stevie is not asserting dominance. He’s behaving according to the pattern you’ve reinforced. As with most typical dog “misbehavior,” the owner’s behavior is the root.

By constantly leashing Stevie and only calling him when it’s time to leave the park, you’re creating the situation you’re trying to avoid. Yes, dogs need to be leashed at times, but a leash is not a stand-in for training. By relying on the leash to control Stevie, you’re not training him to behave correctly and you’re not giving him the opportunity to release his stored-up energy, which will cause him to be unmanageable when unleashed. He will interpret that your companionship means restraint and he will seek escape.

From what I’m reading, you only call Stevie when playtime is over, so he has associated “Come, Stevie” with “Fun is over.” (Boo-hiss. You’re a killjoy.) Why would Stevie want to willingly end all the fun he’s having? Your behavior has reinforced Stevie’s behavior to avoid you when he’s off-leash. To correct this problem, you have to retrain your own behavior before you can rewire Stevie’s. With time, patience, and consistency, you can train Stevie to associate recall with positive outcomes.

Start in your backyard where the space is confined and the distractions are minimal. Start with high-value rewards and short intervals. Unleash your dog for play. After a minute, call him. When he comes, reward him with his paycheck. (Wet, smelly food is usually a winner.) Let him resume play. After another minute passes, call him again and reward his obedience. Repeat this in ten- to fifteen-minute sessions over the next week, increasing the intervals between cues to five minutes. This teaches Stevie to associate recall with reward. He’ll understand that coming to you is positive and fun. Never raise your voice. Be patient as Stevie relearns recall. Shouting will only produce fear and confusion, and Stevie will avoid you.

Once Stevie has mastered his weeklong backyard practice, graduate him to a dog-park visit. But remember, your behavior will determine his behavior. Don’t forget to cue and reward him every five minutes or so while he’s at the park. The only way to get consistent results is with consistent practice. For the first few park visits, use an irresistible paycheck for a job well done—peanut butter, for example.

After several weeks of consistency, Stevie will willingly come when cued, and you can eventually substitute the food paycheck with praise.

The Troubleshooter

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