When I was a kid, I loved to swim.
Growing up, my parents regularly joked that I wasn’t a child at all but instead, I was born a fish.
Summers were spent either playing in the surf at the beach, or swimming with friends at our community pool, where I’d gladly spend the entire day in the water, breaking only when forced for a quick lunch and the dreaded “reapplication of sunscreen” (which felt more like the coarse removal of my flesh, than putting on a protective lotion, but I digress).
I loved to swim.
In fact, to extend my time in the water, and to squeeze every ounce of swimming I could out of my day, I carefully developed and executed a strategy to keep us at the pool or beach longer.
Here’s what I did…
I got wise to my Mom’s tells.
I learned her routine.
Whenever she was getting ready to round us up to head home for the day, she’d pick up the sunscreen and place it in her oversized beach bag.
Next, she’d gather up and dispose of any trash we’d created; leftover sandwich bags that we couldn’t dare be bothered to throw away, or the Kudos bar wrapper (because those were a thing back then) that we’d toss haphazardly on our beach chair as we dove back in the water to play.
Then, she’d shake out the towels, getting ready to wrap us in them, drying us off so we could go home.
As soon as I saw any one of her tells, my master plan would go into full effect.
It was brilliant.
I’d promptly dunk my head under water and hold my breath.
If I couldn’t hear her call, perhaps I could stretch out my swimming time just a few…more…minutes.
Inevitably, I’d have to come up for air, but I’d do my best to immediately dive down deep again, hoping to evade capture.
Sometimes it worked. Sometimes, it would buy me an extra 15 or 20 minutes.
But my Mother wasn’t stupid. She knew what I was trying to do every…single…time. So she’d catch me the moment I came up to take a breath or….
To this day, my Mom’s very loud and very unique whistle can penetrate buildings and stop me dead in my tracks.
I wasn’t safe under water from that darn whistle.
And I knew if I heard it, I’d have to go home.
I often reminisce about my pool time shenanigans as I see dog owners struggle with their dogs.
Just the other day I witnessed a dog owner chasing after her wayward pooch, using her best stern voice to get the dog to stop frolicking in an open field.
It didn’t work. And in fact, it took her nearly 15 minutes to finally catch the dog, which she managed to do only because he stopped to relieve himself on a tree.
The dog, in that moment, reminded me of my days spent poolside, as he seemingly put his head underwater and paid no heed to his owner’s calls.
Most people think that getting their dog to come reliably when it’s time to leave the dog park, or when he is chasing the neighbor’s cat, or when she is frolicking at the beach is the stuff of fairy tales.
But believe it or not, the recall is actually one of the simplest commands to teach.
So why do so many people struggle in getting their dog to come when called?
Dogs don’t come when called because…
…they don’t want to!
Here’s the thing. I stuck my head underwater when I was a kid so I could keep doing what I loved. Swimming was my favorite summertime activity and I couldn’t get enough.
Not only that, I stuck my head under the water because I knew that if I got out of the pool, I’d be subjected to getting dried off with that sandpaper-like towel in my Mother’s hands, and then I’d have to go home and take a shower… something I was NOT all that fond of when I was growing up.
There was no incentive for me to get out of the pool. I didn’t want to. The pool was fun! And what was in store when I exited was most certainly not.
The same goes for that wayward dog frolicking in the field.
Dogs don’t come because whatever they are doing is far more appealing than what’s likely in store if they heed your call.
They may be sniffing and exploring (AWESOME!), they may be chasing a cat (REALLY AWESOME!), they may be playing with another dog (CRAZY AWESOME) or even just taking in the views (ALSO AWESOME).
And then, when you call…
You snap on the leash and make them leave the dog park…
You make them go in their crate (I don’t care how many crate games you’ve played to make your dog like the crate – I guarantee they aren’t chomping at the bit to sit there all day while you are at work!) …
You are angry at them or worse yet, you punish them for evading capture (especially true if you have to use your most stern voice to catch your wayward pup) …
….or (and usually!)…
You make the fun stop.
Now you may be reading this and thinking to yourself, “But Meagan, I give my dog a treat when they come….every time!”
And my response will always be: ”Awesome. Is it a treat your dog actually wants? And what comes after the treat? Because that matters too.”
You can bribe your dog all day with a biscuit that he sort of likes (when nothing better is going on) but if you immediately crate him up and walk out the door for work when he comes, that dry and stale biscuit might not cut it.
So what do you do?
Easy. You’ve got to be fun.
Coming to you needs to be awesome…always.
Here are some tips that might help:
- Reward your dog for coming…with what she wants! – Don’t arbitrarily select a reward you think your dog SHOULD like – choose something you know she goes crazy for. And if you don’t know what that is, ask her! She’ll tell you which treats and toys she favors if you pay close enough attention.
- Play with him with his all time favorite toy – No…I mean REALLY play! Don’t just drop a toy to him and assume that will suffice. Grab his favorite toy and play a rousing game of tug or fetch the moment he gets to you.
- Up your treat game – Don’t just give her one treat, give her several. And don’t opt for that stale biscuit. This is a special occasion so break out the big guns and give her that hot dog or piece of chicken she loves so much.
- Make coming when called awesome for your dog, not something he or she dreads – Careful not to make negative associations when your dog actually does come when you call. Don’t punish him for not coming, don’t crate him up to go to work, don’t only use your recall when it’s time to leave the park. Build positive associations with your command to get him coming back to you, every…single…time.
- Don’t resort to bribery – If you want to get your dog coming reliably, don’t wave that magic treat or toy in front of her face to tempt her….unless of course, you want to be stuck bribing him to come for the rest of her life.
- Don’t practice when it’s life or death – Practice recalls often for no good reason, rather than waiting until you need them to break out your command. Don’t use the come command only when your dog is about to run into the street or just as he is chasing the neighbor’s cats. That never ends well and will only work against your attempts to build a better recall.
The moral of the story?
Be fun. Throw a party, play with your dog’s favorite toy, and celebrate your dog if he comes when you call (and celebrate him just for fun on occasion too!). And practice often.
If your dog experiences really fun things everytime he’s with you, he’ll stop sticking his head underwater and instead, wait with bated breath for your call.