Calling Your Canine to Come

A few years ago my Border Collie Luke and I were in the fresh green grass of a Wisconsin hillside, both of us learning how to work as a team to split a small flock of sheep into two parts. Called a 'shed,' it's the triple lutz of sheepherding, requiring split-second timing and a level of control and wisdom from both dog and handler usually seen in Olympic pairs skating. With the flock between the human and the dog, the handler calls the dog in to split off some of the sheep and then asks the dog to focus on one group and move it away from the others. As much a novice as I, Luke kept picking up the wrong group of sheep, in spite of my clear arm signal, until a wise handler made it simple with just one observation. "Be sure that your feet and your face are pointed toward the sheep you want your dog to pick up." Voila. Problem solved. Pointy primate that I am, I was pointing with my paw toward the sheep I wanted Luke to drive away. I probably turned my head and looked at Luke in some hapless attempt to influence what he did next. Meanwhile, Luke was watching where my feet and face were directed, and it was always toward the wrong group of sheep. It hadn't occurred to me to pay attention to my feet and face, and I had been busy pointing for all I was worth toward the sheep I wanted him to follow. But Luke's not a primate, he's a dog, and like all dogs, he tends to go in the direction that I'm facing, not where I'm pointing. (Ever seen a dog lift up his leg and point with his paw?)

This ethological observation leads to a practical tip to get your dog to come when called. The best way to get a dog to come to you is to turn away from him and move in the opposite direction (which is actually "toward you" from the standpoint of the dog). This is so unnatural to us humans that I sometimes have to take clients by their sleeve and pull them away from their dogs to prevent them from moving forward. Dogs want to go the way that you're going, and to a dog that's the way that your face and feet are pointing. We primates want to stand facing our dog and talk about it. Look at how we move to close the distance between ourselves and other primates - we walk right at them. But that can be an inhibiting signal to a dog. To your dog you can look just like a traffic cop stopping traffic when you move directly toward him. So if you're calling "Come" and walking forward, your voice says, "Come over here," while your body says, "Stay there." Besides, if you're moving toward your dog, why shouldn't your dog stop and politely wait for you to finish your approach? The most subtle of 'approaches' can have a profound effect on a dog. Even leaning your body forward just a bit can stop a sensitive dog in his tracks.

The best way that I know to visually 'call' a dog to come is to bend down as if in a doggie play bow, turn away from your dog, and clap. Your version of a play bow is the closest signal there is in canine language to encourage your dog to come to you. After all, dogs have no signal among themselves that means "come over here right away." If you look at domestic dogs and wolves, there's nothing described in the literature that means "come right now." I tell people to think of it as a circus trick, not something that we can automatically expect of a good dog. Good dogs don't arrive knowing to trot over when you call "Come" with your voice and yet say "Stop" with your body. Besides, humans don't have a "come" signal either. Do you throw your magazine down and leap across the room when your spouse calls your name? Haven't you ever said "Just a minute" when someone tried to get your attention? Surely our dogs say that to us all the time. "Just a minute, I think I smell squirrel!" "Just a minute, I smell food. I'll be right with you." Is there a reason that your dog should naturally be more accomplished at obedience than you are?

There's nothing I can tell you in one short chapter that will guarantee that your dog will come every time you call. I taught my own dogs to come when "called" by starting when they weren't too distracted by something else. (Good teachers always help their students by starting at a reasonable level of difficulty.) I called with a clear, consistent signal like "Tulip, come!" while I clapped my hands, bent forward a bit in a play bow, turned my body sideways, and started to move away. The microsecond that my Great Pyrenees, Tulip, moved toward me, I started cooing "Good girl! Good girl!" and ran away faster. That action lured her in my direction and at the same time rewarded her with one of her favorite activities - a good chase game. Dogs may love treats and petting, but they love a good run, too, and it seems to be a wonderful reward for coming when called. (If your dog becomes too excited and starts getting nippy as he nears you, stop your run before he catches up to you, turn toward him, play bow, and give him a treat.)

So Tulip, who loves to chase things, learned that if I called her and she stopped what she was doing and moved toward me, she got to play her favorite game. Often I'd throw a ball or treats behind me as she arrived, adding on yet another fun chase game to sweeten the pot. Years of playing this game paid off recently, when Tulip was hot on the heels of a red fox who came tearing out of the barn. Tulip instantly stopped her chase when I yelled "No!" and came running when I called "Come!" I am still fluffed with pride and gratitude. Tulip, who is the size of a small sheep and can run like a deer, was stretched out at full speed, about 3 feet from the fox, both of them ricocheting through the trees up the hill. It's her job to protect the farm from uninvited coyotes and foxes, but there's a hole in the fence, and I didn't want her leaving the farm. Getting a Border Collie to stop a chase is one thing. Getting a Pyrenees to stop in the middle of doing her job is another. Great Pyrenees like Tulip don't exactly dominate the obedience ring: they were bred to spend their lives with the sheep, guarding them from predators, and they are famous for their independence. They are, in some ways, the anti-Border Collie. Border Collies, bred to work in harmony with a human handler, turn simple "sit" signals into an exercise of obsessive precision. ("Sit? OK, I can do that. Would you like me to sit like this, forward a little bit or maybe back an inch or two? I could try balancing on my tail; would that be good?") Great Pyrenees, on the other hand, will consider your request, but to a Pyrenees it's always a request.

I must have played "come" with Tulip five times a day when she was an adolescent. I called "Come" in a happy but clear voice, made my behavior conducive to her coming by turning and moving away from her, and rewarded her with a chase game and then either threw a ball or a treat when she caught up to me. The piece de resistance with Tulip was to take advantage of having more than one dog. A couple of times a week, I'd call all the dogs to come and give treats to the first three dogs who showed up. Since at first Tulip was always the farthest away when I called, and the slowest to respond, she kept coming in fourth. "Oh, too bad, Tulip," I'd say. "I'm out of treats! Guess you'll just have to get here sooner next time." She did, not because she understood what I was saying but because she learned that a quick response paid off.

Will turning away from your dog rather than facing forward get your dog to come when you call her off a running squirrel? Don't count on it, but if you remember to turn away from your dog when you call her to come and reward her with a chase, a ball, or a treat, she'll come more than she used to, guaranteed. (I find it most useful in this circumstance to also teach a dog to stop first to "no.")

I was thinking of all this while I walked my Border Collies at the local dog park recently. We walked for an hour, the dogs 10 to 40 feet ahead of me, at their comfortable ground-eating canid trot. In keeping with dog park etiquette, I called my dogs back closer to me each time that I saw a group of people and other dogs approaching. It was crowded that day, and I must have called them back thirty times. They listened and responded every time, but I wondered what they must have thought of my repeatedly calling them and then walking right back toward where they had already been. Poor dogs; they must think we're crazy.

-- More with Patricia McConnell Ph.D.--

Patricia McConnell Ph.D., is an adjunct assistant professor of zoology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a certified Applied Animal Behaviorist. Her company, Dog's Best Friend Ltd., specializes in family dog training and treating aggression in dogs.

Excerpted from The Other End of the Leash by Patricia McConnell, Ph.D.
Copyright 2002 by Patricia McConnell, Ph.D.
Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.
No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


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