I recently adopted a 1-year-old pooch that I’m calling Bo. I can’t use the word “rescue,” because this dog was clearly well loved and has a lot of the basics worked out, but he’s a LOT of dog! My main challenge right now is that I want him to come to me on command, every time. He’s good for the most part, but when distracted by another dog, or squirrel or rabbit, he makes his own rules. His favorite thing is playing fetch at the beach; he loves to swim, and it tires him out. I will have plenty more questions for you as I get to know this goofball, but first is first.
Congratulations on your new family member, and thank you for being an adopter. And you’re absolutely right about “first is first.” Coming when called, or the recall, is absolutely critical for the off-leash dog, and it starts in the home, because the best way to condition a dog is by having success build on success. Dogs are cognizant that they are a captive audience indoors, and that there’s not a thing you can do to make them come — or catch them — when they’re outdoors, off-leash. Until trained off-leash, indoors, the recall response is a salute, outdoors; it’s the finger. So, 15 to 20 times a day, when Bo doesn’t expect it, call him to come. Consistency is important. If the words are “Bo come,” you don’t want to be saying “Here puppy” the next time you call him. Also, don’t repeat the commands. If you keep repeating the command and he’s ignoring you until you’re screaming it, he’s getting conditioned to play “No speaka English” until you’re really angry. When you call him, start praising him the moment he starts heading your way, it’ll keep him coming. The first four or five times he comes, he gets a treat the moment he arrives. After that he gets the treat intermittently, that being a strong way to condition. The attitude becomes, “Maybe there’s a treat; I better go check it out.” If he’s the type of guy who acts deaf when you call him in the house, walk by him and give him a quick pet with a hand that has a treat in it and keep walking. Then call him, because his nose will have told him about the treat, making him more likely to cooperate. If he still plays deaf, let him drag a line, and coax him to come using the leash, giving him the treat upon arrival. He needs to understand that when you call him to come it’s not a suggestion. When his recall indoors is close to perfect, take it outside, ideally in a fenced-in area with him dragging a long line (attached to a harness). This is the time to ratchet up from dog treats to people food treats. If the only time on Planet Earth he gets people food is when he comes when called off-leash outside, the cooperation index rises substantially. A great conditioning game is for two 2-leggeds standing far apart to call Bo to come, earning that piece of chicken every time he arrives. Consistently practicing recalls with dog treats indoors leading to same with people food outdoors will result in great teamwork. However, in my opinion, the outdoor, off-leash recall is not complete without a “leave it” command. With a great recall, many dogs will ignore distractions when called, but depending on the intensity of the distraction, most will not. The food slut or high-prey-drive dog is unlikely to ignore the dropped hot dog on the ground or the squirrel running past. When hearing “leave it,” Bo must disregard the hot dog and squirrel and instead come as called — and that’s another lesson.
Good luck, and once again, congrats!
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