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Coming When Called and Making Sure Your Dog Does

March 23, 2015

Selective listening is often the reason for dogs not coming when called. A little bit of training, and we mean fun and enjoyable training, can fix that.

Selective listening is often the reason for dogs not coming when called. A little bit of training, and we mean fun and enjoyable training, can fix that.

My dog loves to play off-leash in our neighborhood park. I’m becoming more and more reluctant to let him go leash-less as he’ll ignore my calls and sometimes it takes forever for him to come. Who knows how long I’ll have to spend calling and waiting. I get annoyed. He doesn’t understand. We’re both frustrated.

The main thing is his safety. My happy off-leash dog wanders far and wide, out of my sight most times. I’m afraid he’ll run into the street and get hit by a car. Or someone might dognap him.

Please help.

Owner of a Wandering Woofer

Dear Wandering,

Sounds like your inquisitive canine has a bad case of “selective hearing.” My mom, a certified professional dog trainer, says this is very common among those in the human species, too. She really understands how frustrated you must get. Fortunately, we can help!

By following a few “coming when called” guidelines, performing some pre-event practice session, and supplying a side order of environmental management, you’re sure to make future outings a “walk in the park.”

Set a Course for Action and Adventure

Let’s look at it from your inquisitive canine’s point of view. When you call him, especially in stimulating outdoor environment filled with all sorts of smells and possible new friendships, you’re asking him to stop what he’s doing and leave the amusement park, i.e. fun time is finished. He’s looking at it like a punishment. You need to entice him to you by offering a much more attractive alternative to what he’s doing. Then, he’ll want to come to you no matter what.

The following guidelines provide dog training tips sure to encourage your dog to “take your call”:

  • How you present yourself: You call more dogs with honey than with vinegar. Make your body language and tone of voice joyful and enthusiastic. Be the life of the party. Send the message that he’s the most wonderful puppy in the whole world and that you’re his number one cheerleader! (Even if you want to scream and cry!) I see it all the time – the underlying anger and frustration displayed in the human’s body language, and when, and if, the dog finally comes, he gets in trouble. Stick with the cute little nicknames and happy voice so your dog loves coming to you.
  • Timing of the request: Are you only calling him when it’s time to leave? If so, he’s probably figured out it means playtime is over, so he has decided he’ll come when he’s good and ready. You’ve got a very clever inquisitive canine, by not coming when called, he avoids getting in trouble AND extends his playtime by running in the opposite direction. Practice calling him to you periodically while out and about, as opposed to waiting until you need to leave.
  • Don’t waste your breath: Call him once and only once. Calling him when you know that he’s not going to listen is a waste of breath and a recipe for frustration. Calling repeatedly teaches him that it’s okay to ignore you. If you need to leave, and you know you’ll be ignored when you call for him, then the best thing to do is to go get him. If this results in the ever-popular game of chase, then motivate him to do what you want by following the steps below.
  • Make it into a game: Playing chase is often fun for dogs, and for humans, too. Whether your dog likes to chaser or the “chase-ee,” it can work to your advantage. Similar activities included in our dog training game, these exercises help expend his energy while enhancing the bond you share. With a chase game, you can direct him toward the area you need to go, such as the park exit, or the car.
  • Be the better motivator: Don’t forget, you’re competing against a “Doggy Disneyland.” To make yourself more appealing than the “happiest place on earth” you’ll need to offer rewards that are more enticing than the smells, things to dig up, chew on, and/or eat that your dog is finding on his own. Food rewards, petting, praise, and playing games that he finds entertaining can all help motivate him to stop what he’s doing and return to you. Food is also a powerful motivator. Carry some extra special yummy morsels that he gets only when he’s at the park. And remember that novelty is key, so vary what you offer to help keep him interested.
  • Trial sessions: We can’t emphasize enough the importance of practicing this behavior over and over (and over) to the point where your dog responds without thinking. You want him to hear the cue and respond immediately. This conditioning won’t happen without lots of dress rehearsals. First, practice inside your home, then in your yard, and then when taking him for a leashed walk. While he’s on-leash, back-up while calling him to you, then reward him. When he’s responding to your requests, try a trip to the park, but first try taking him to a smaller enclosed area, if one is available. If not, practice with a long-line leash. However, if you choose that option, take care, as they can tangle, trip people up, and get snagged on shrubs and trees. It’s best to use long-line leashes in open spaces where there are no other people or dogs.
  • Lay of the land: Explore the area initially, to determine places your dog’s allowed to play in. You can even take him with you, while he’s on leash. This will help you discover places he really loves, and those that don’t appeal to him. You can then check the area for holes in fences or other hazards you want him to avoid. Being of the canine species, he most likely doesn’t understand that he shouldn’t run into the  street. It’ll be your responsibility to keep him safe by preventing him from getting to those areas. Set him up for success, not failure–or danger.

Paws and Reflect
Exploring and scavenging are normal behaviors for dogs; some more than others. Since it sounds as though yours is the adventuresome type, it’s of the utmost importance that he learns the special skills you want him to have in order to make the outings more fun for both of you. With time and patience you can both get what you want: him, a chance to answer the call of the wild, and you, the ability to stay on schedule.


Dear Inquisitive Canine is written by Joan Mayer and her trusty sidekick, Poncho. Joan is a certified professional dog trainer and human-canine relationship coach. Poncho is a 10-pound mutt who knows a lot about human and canine behavior. Their column is known for its simple, user-friendly approach to dog training and behavior, as well as its entertaining insight into implementing proven techniques that reward both owner and dog.

Joan is also the founder of the Inquisitive Canine and developer of the Out of the Box Dog Training Game, where her love-of-dog training approach highlights the importance of understanding canine behavior. 

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