Updated: Feb 3
You know where I am about to go with this, right? If you yell “COME!” you aren’t likely to get the behavior from the dog that you are looking for unless you have taught your dog that when he comes when called, the very coolest things happen!
Recall must be tied to something wonderful. In the beginning, that means food, but as training progresses, exuberant verbal praise and physical cuddling are something wonderful too. To teach this to very young pups, I use my recall word and high energy as soon as they are old enough to eat something I offer them, such as milk or gruel from a bowl, rather than just nursing from their mother. I do not tie the recall cue to feeding time beyond about 12 weeks of age for the pups because by that age, I am beginning to teach them to be calm when they eat together, as adult dogs need to do. Most of my adult dogs love to come when they are called and bound to me happily because this behavior has always been paired with something they enjoy.
This is called “creating an emotional response” to being asked (cued, not commanded) to come. This emotional response must always be positive – joyful and happy for the dog – for him to be willing to respond to your request. He can just as easily learn a negative emotional response to being called if positive reinforcement training methods are not used.
Maremmas are minimally biddable dogs, meaning that, for the most part, they think for themselves rather than looking for direction from humans. If a dog has had a negative experience when coming when called, just being asked to may worry him. In this case, he has a lot to lose and not much to gain by coming near his owner. He may ignore the cue to come or even disappear over the next hill!
Part of teaching a dog to come when called is knowing when not to ask. This is called “antecedent set-up” – what is happening in the environment just before the cue is given. If I yell come when my dog is chasing a deer, I will most certainly be ignored, and that is as it should be because the dog is doing his job. These are not pet dogs, to which you are the center of the universe. LGDs are working partners who take their responsibilities seriously. The dog may well come to me after he has handled the deer situation, but not before. If I call my dog when I know he isn’t likely to come, I run the risk of teaching him he has the choice to ignore me. With my puppies, I carefully cultivate their enthusiasm for coming when called. I almost never call a dog unless I feel sure I will be successful. If I am wrong and he doesn’t, there is now training to be done – that is a problem of my own making, however inadvertent, and not the fault of the dog.
There may be times that I feel I need to call my dog and pray he comes to me, even if I think he may not, in circumstances such as for his safety or the safety of the livestock. If he doesn’t come, I will go get him!!! When I get my hands on him, I will praise the heck out of him because he let me get my hands on him! Remember, your dog lives in the moment, and if you catching him means that he gets in trouble, he won’t be so quick to make that mistake again. So even if I am truly unhappy with my dog or disappointed in myself for having asked for more than the dog could give me, I will reward him for allowing me to put a leash and collar on him. I will then take him right back to where all this started and do some training and reinforcement (with something good) so that he is more likely to respond favorably next time. All of this is done with a smile on my face – dogs know about smiles – so even if I am frustrated with myself, I will smile because this is reassuring to the dog.
How to teach recall
First, you need the behavior to be happening. Then you can attach your cue to the behavior. THEN you’ll be able to ask for it once this sequence has been trained.
Decide what you want your cue to be. It can be a word, or a physical cue, such as clapping your hands. It should not be the dog’s name; a cue should be distinct and something the dog does not hear in another context. When I am around my dogs, I say their names frequently. They are my friends! If their recall cue is their names, and sometimes saying their names means to come, and sometimes I am just visiting with them, that is pretty confusing to the dog. I may use the dog’s name as part of the cue, such as “Jessecome!!!” or “pupscome!!!”. For me, with my dogs, part of the cue is the tone of my voice – I invite them to come with a high pitch, high energy tone – JOYOUSLY!!!!
Note: Many dog owners believe their dog MUST come when called. If you are one of those people, and you approach training your LGD to come from this perspective, you are setting yourself and your dog up for failure. Recall should be an invitation to a party. Sell it! An invitation to a party is something to look forward to. An order (command) is an opportunity to fail; it is stressful for the dog. An LGD, as the independent, wise, thinking dog that he is, will avoid this situation.
Now, let’s go train….
Be prepared. Think about antecedent set-up before you start your training session. Get your treats, treat pouch, and clicker ready. Your first opportunity to reinforce this new behavior is likely to happen as soon as you step through the gate, so you don’t want to be fumbling with getting ready and miss this early opportunity.
Go out to the pasture and make a REALLY happy noise – yea dog, hi dog!! When the dog looks your way, click (for his eye contact); if he comes toward you and you are SURE he will get all the way to you, use your recall cue as the dog is running toward you. As he is coming toward you, and certainly when he gets to you, make it a party!!!! If he doesn’t do this, go to him and pay him for the click for eye contact (make that also a happy event), then walk a little distance away and try again – if – you think the dog will respond with high energy enthusiasm. If he’s not quite in that mood, change your goal for this session. Click for eye contact, walking alongside you, or calmly standing in front of you, and end this session. End the session with a happy thank you to the dog because ending a training session can be a disappointment for the dog. Leave with the dog wanting more, but do so kindly.
Another way to come at this training goal is simply to be ready to take advantage of every offered situation that the dog comes to you. This is also a good way to keep reinforcing an already learned recall. With young dogs, I use treats; with my adult dogs, just my voice and touch as praise are usually enough. As I work in the fields on whatever task at hand, I watch for times the dogs run to me on their own or I become REALLY exciting (using my voice and body language) so that the dog is likely to run to me. When he is coming toward me, I use my recall cue and then praise the heck out of him/them. Then I go back to work, and they pat themselves on the back for having had this happy opportunity for a little play with me.
Remember that you need to be able to expect a happy, high-energy response from your dogs, so if you have had one success leave it at that for now. Don’t “keep working on it” because your dog will quickly become bored, and you will give up some of the success you just earned.
Many people who own LGDs have trouble with recall. There may even be the preconception that LGDs can’t/won’t learn a reliable recall. In my opinion, this has a lot to do with the training relationship (training bank account) the owner has with his dog, but it also has to do with asking for too much too soon and for “testing” the recall.
Build, build, build for the future. Keep it simple – possible – for the dog. If you think he’ll come to you from 10 feet away, ask for 5 feet instead. Every success you have is a dime in your training bank account. Once you have, say, $5 in there, you may be able to ask for and get recall in a critical situation, such as for a safety issue. That’s a big deal; it takes an investment of time and patience to get to that point, but I assure you, it is possible.