Dear Inquisitive Canine,
I like to take my dog to the park to let him play off-leash. However, I’m finding it more difficult because when it’s time to go back home, it takes me too long to get him to come back to me. I never know how long the whole ordeal will take.
In addition, he sometimes runs off so far that I can’t see him. Or, he ends up shimmying under a fence and is off exploring somewhere. I’m afraid he will run onto the street and get hit by a car. Can you help?
— Owner of a wandering woofer
Sounds like your dog is a proficient explorer of the great outdoors. Although we’re sure that you appreciate that trait, we can understand that his “selective hearing” can be frustrating, especially when you need to leave. Fortunately, we can help! Just by following a few “coming when called” guidelines, performing some pre-event practice sessions and supplying a side order of environmental management, you’re sure to make everyone happy while staying on schedule.
Set a Course for Action and Adventure
When it comes to calling your dog to you, especially in a stimulating outdoor environment, keep in mind that you’re asking him to stop what he’s doing and leave the amusement park. For him, this means that the fun is ending. Talk about punishment!
To entice him away, you’ll need to promise a much more attractive alternative to what he’s doing at the moment, so 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: Make sure your body language and tone of voice are joyful and enthusiastic, and that you’re the life of the party. You need to send a message that he’s the most wonderful puppy in the whole world and that you’re his No. 1 cheerleader — even if you want to scream! As a certified professional dog trainer, I see it all the time with people and their dogs: The underlying anger and frustration are displayed in the owner’s body language, and when and if the dog finally comes, they get in trouble. Stick with the cute little nicknames and happy voice so your dog loves coming to you.
» Timing of the request: Practice calling him to you periodically while out and about, as opposed to waiting until you need to leave. If the only time you call for him is when you’re taking off, then he’s probably figured this out and decided to come to you when he’s good and ready. He sounds quite clever. By not coming, he avoids getting in trouble, and even manages to prolong his entertainment by running in the opposite direction.
» Don’t waste your breath: Do all you can to say the phrase once and only once. Calling him when you know deep in your heart that he’s not going to listen is just a waste of breath and a recipe for frustration. Calling repeatedly teaches him that it’s OK 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 going toward him 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 chase or be chased, this can work to your advantage. Similar to some of the activities I include in my 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: Remember, 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 or 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 the most 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 to the point where your dog responds without thinking about it. You want him to hear the cue and respond immediately. This type of conditioning doesn’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 as you desire, try a trip to the park, but first try taking him to a smaller enclosed area, if one is available. If not, provided there are any, you can also 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 fences. It’s best to use long-line leashes in open spaces where there are no other people or dogs.
» Lay of the land: You’ll want to 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 that knows a lot about canine and human behavior. Their column is known for its simple common-sense 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, where her love-of-dog training approach highlights the importance of understanding canine behavior. If you or your dog have questions about behavior, training or life with each other, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.