Dog recall commands need to be reliable to keep your pet safe. But many struggle to get their dog to come when called in the presence of distractions.
Dogs run away because the motivation to be with you isn’t as great as their incentive to be elsewhere. Ingoring the recall command isn’t a value judgement either. Dogs don’t run off because they don’t love you, or because your bond is damaged in some way. It’s just in that moment, whatever they are heading towards is temporarily more appealing.
To stop your dog running away you need to secure them with a leash, or to make being next to you the most exciting, or enticing place to be. I keep my dogs by my side through training, and you can too. By teaching a recall command, proofing it to lots of potential distractions, and most importantly making sure it is never poisoned!
- Why recall commands stop working.
- Why do dogs run away?
- How recall training really works.
- How to stop dogs running away.
Running away tends to creep up on you unawares. Small puppies don’t run away because they need to be near you in order to feel safe. Bigger dogs, not so much! So why is it that some big dogs come when they are called and others do not?
When Recall Breaks Down
Do you remember a time when your Labrador would rush towards you each time you called his name? Is all that changing now? Does he take his time, stop to sniff a leaf, or examine a place where another dog has peed? Does he sometimes look directly at you, then turn away and carry on walking in the other direction? Oh the pain of being ignored!
Are there times when he doesn’t even offer you the courtesy of a glance? You take off his lead, and he takes off over the horizon. And is often gone for several minutes! If so, you have the makings of a runaway dog. And now, is the right time to fix this. Let’s find out how this problem got started.
Why Do Dogs Run Away?
Running off, ignoring the recall and other commands often begins towards the end of a dog’s first year. So is this an age thing? And will your dog grow out of it?
Is my dog a terrible teenager?
In this situation, it is normal to ask yourself – is my loyal friend turning into a stroppy teenager? Is he ‘taking me for a fool’? Unfortunately, putting these problems down to adolescence and hoping the dog will grow out of them, is not going to help you. He won’t. His growing independence is certainly part of the growing-up process, but it isn’t the cause of the running away, and it isn’t temporary. And if you ignore it, the running off will probably just get worse.
Doesn’t my dog like me?
Another common concern from owners of young dogs, is that running off, and ignoring their calls means their dog doesn’t like them.
This is most unlikely to be the case unless you have been treating your dog unkindly. Even then, dogs are very forgiving and really do like to be with their owners a lot of the time. Just not when there are better things to do outdoors.
Is my dog trying to take charge?
This is perhaps the most common conclusion that exasperated dog parents come to. It’s that big D word. People worry that their dog is becoming dominant. Maybe your dog thinks he is the boss? Maybe you need to show him who is in charge? Be a pack leader?
Fortunately, running off has nothing to do with dominance, (in fact very few dogs have any interest in dominance at all – but that’s another story) It doesn’t mean your dog doesn’t like you and it has little to do with adolescence. It has everything to do with a great big hole in your training. But before you get disheartened, this is a good thing. Because holes in training can be fixed! We’ll have a look at that in a moment. But first, let’s consider what a working recall actually is.
Why Do Some Dogs Come When They Are Called?
The recall consists of three components
- The cue
- The response
- The reinforcement
We used to call cues ‘commands’. Cues are just signals that tell a dog what is expected. You provide a cue that let’s the dog know what is required.
In theory, the dog then provides the correct response to that cue, and in this case, heads towards you at speed.
And when the dog arrives, you provide the reward that reinforces that response. Or at least you sometimes do (we’ll look at the ‘sometimes’ part in a moment)
How Recall Training Works
Here’s the really important part. Of course, this cue -> response -> reinforcement process doesn’t happen by accident. You trained your dog to do this. Didn’t you? Let’s have a look
An automatic recall response
This recall response, this ‘happy dance’ between you and the dog can only take place reliably, when the dog’s response has become ‘automatic’. That is to say, the dog does not have to go through any kind of decision making process when he hears the recall, he just automatically begins to move towards you.
The objective of dog training is to get this unthinking, unquestioning response to our cues 99% of the time. Many times, people think they have reached this happy point in training, when they have not. In fact, they are nowhere near it.
Yes, the dog comes when they call, but he is still making a conscious decision to do so. He is thinking to himself “Ah, the whistle! That means cheese! Well, there’s nothing better to do, and all this running has made me hungry, so I’ll go and get some of her finest cheddar!” You can see that when something better than ‘cheese’ comes along, or when he is simply not hungry, or is bored of cheese, the dog may well make a very different decision. So how do we get around this? How do we turn this conscious decision into an automatic response?
Training and practice
The answer is through training. But not just any old training. You need to train in a structured way that builds the automatic response we are looking for in strong, durable, layers. So your dog doesn’t need to think, he doesn’t choose, he just responds. Automatically. This takes a lot of practice and repetitive training.
The bad news is, there really are not any short cuts. The good news is, anyone can achieve this, if they are prepared to put the time in. Because behind every ‘good’ dog, is a lot of hard work.
Context specific training
You need to train that automatic response in all the different kinds of situations in which you and your dog are likely to find yourselves. On the beach, at the park, when other dogs are around, when other people are around, etc. Failure to do this lies at the heart of recall problems. And Labradors, and other keen hunting dogs are very susceptible to these problems. Partly because they have been bred to hunt and chase.
The other common problem is that because they are often very friendly, sociable dogs, Labs often love nothing better than to play with other dogs and meet new people. So you will need to put some work into teaching your dog to come away from other dogs. This kind of context specific training is called proofing. And it is the key to success. Most people whose dogs are already in the habit of running away have one or more of the following four problems
Running away problem 1 – your dog has no basic recall training
This may seem obvious, but as we have seen, the unquestioning recall response we are looking for, has to be trained. Dogs don’t automatically know how to do this. Even though they may trot around after you as puppies, a good reliable recall response has to be thoroughly trained and rehearsed. But don’t worry! You can start training that recall response today. That link will takes you through the whole process. Without it, things will only get worse.
Running away problem 2 – your dog’s recall has not been proofed
This is the most common recall problem of all. This dog comes beautifully when he is called, unless there are better things to do. Trying to call him away from other dogs is often the hardest thing of all. Sadly, dogs are very poor at generalizing that the recall whistle means the same on the beach when he is playing with that poodle, as it does in the garden where he is moping around, hoping you’ll finish watering your flowers, and go make his lunch.
Running away problem 3 – your dog has a poisoned cue
Another, very common cause of recall failure, is the ‘poisoned cue’. What do we mean by that? In order to be effective any ‘cue’ that you teach your dog, needs to be firmly associated with the response that you require. With recall, we want the cue to become associated with running towards you. Fast.
The correct response becomes weaker
If the cue accidentally becomes associated with some other behavior (such as running away from you), the correct response will become weakened and die. With recall, this poisoning of the cue commonly occurs because people use the recall cue in situations where a recall response is unlikely, or cannot be ensured.
For example, if you have not trained your six month old Labrador puppy to recall away from other dogs, he won’t respond to your shouts when he is playing with, or running towards, a dog he has met out on a walk. This is not your dog’s disobedience. Your cue has lost it’s meaning
The wrong response becomes stronger
Unfortunately the results are more far reaching than you having to sprint after your dog. Because he now has in his brain, a new link or ‘association’ The recall cue is not just associated with running towards you. It is now also associated with playing with other dogs. Next time you call, or blow the whistle, he will have two competing associations in his head. And this is not a good thing.
Fixing a poisoned cue
Put simply, a poisoned cue has lost its meaning. And it can be difficult to regain the original meaning of that cue for the dog. Sometimes, the simplest solution is to retrain the recall with a completely different cue. It depends how much damage has been done If your dog has ignored the cue just a few times, you may be able to save the situation.
But it is really important now that you generate lots of scenarios in which the dog is able to complete a great recall in response to your cue. Creating automatic responses are about building up great pathways in the brain. And just like pathways through a field, the pathways in the brain become clearer, more obvious, and more easy to follow, the more frequently they are used. You are effectively rebuilding those good pathways in his brain, cue leads to response, without hesitation
Running away problem 4 – you are not rewarding your dog effectively
The final problem we are going to consider, is the problem of dwindling rewards. Whilst it is good practice in dog training to fade rewards to some extent, once a skill has been learned, it is not good practice to stop rewarding a dog altogether. Yet this is what many of us do to our dogs, once they have learnt a new skill. Not just with recall.
We just stop bothering to reward them. Or we offer them rewards that they don’t actually value (like a ‘pat’ or a ‘good dog’) It is important to remember that responses to a cue that are never reinforced, will eventually die out. No animal will keep on indefinitely doing something that is of no benefit.
Low value rewards can wreck your trained response
Infrequent or low value rewards are a common cause of recall breakdown in an older dog. Just like us, dogs need to have their good behavior reinforced. So we need to ensure that sometimes, those responses are followed by a really valuable reward. So from time to time, when you set off for a walk, slip a delicious treat into your pocket. And give your dog a surprise reward after a really fast and enthusiastic recall.
Why is your dog running away?
Your dog could be running away for one or all of the above reasons. The solution to running away is the same. You need to train and proof an automatic recall response. If your dog’s recall is getting sloppy, or never really got going, have a think. Did you really finish training that automatic response? Did you ‘proof’ in lots of different situations? Or do you need to do a little more work there?
Did you poison your cue by calling your dog repeatedly when he wasn’t going to come? Then maybe you need to start again with a nice ‘clean’ cue. Or did you forget to reward your dog from time to time? If so, surprise him with some really tasty treats next time you go out. Remember no-one (and no dog) will be repeatedly co-operative, if there is never anything in it for them.
How to stop your dog running away
Here is that important training guide link again: Teach your dog to come. It takes you through the training process step-by-step. Including the all important part where you teach your dog to recall even when there are lots of distractions around him.
Whilst you are out and about with your dog, you might also like to give the About Turn Walk a try. It works wonders for a jaded recall response. You can find lots more ideas and information in my Training Tips emails
And you can check out my online training courses over at the Dogsnet Online Training Center. You’ll find lots more training articles there too. Good luck with your recall training!
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The Labrador Site Founder
Pippa Mattinson is the best selling author of The Happy Puppy Handbook, the Labrador Handbook, Choosing The Perfect Puppy, and Total Recall.
She is also the founder of the Gundog Trust and the Dogsnet Online Training Program
Pippa's online training courses were launched in 2019 and you can find the latest course dates on the Dogsnet website