Why your dog doesn't come when called...

Is it an attention problem or a motivation problem? 

Springtime is here and most of us respond to the warmer weather by taking our dogs out more often. If we are lucky, we get to take our dogs to places where they can run around off-leash and truly indulge in their ultimate dog-dom. Before summer hits full-swing, spring is a perfect time to spiff up your dog’s ability to come when called. But what if he doesn't come?

Do you have an attention problem or a motivation problem? 

There are two main components of a successful recall: your ability to get your dog’s attention and your dog’s interest in returning to you. We often focus on one of these components and neglect the other. These are two sides of the same coin, and to truly have the best recall, we need to strengthen both independently. 

If your dog doesn’t even turn around to look you when they hear “Come!” you have an attention problem. If your dog turns to look at you, but doesn’t move toward you, you have a motivation problem. 


Can you get your dog to stop and look at you from 50-100 feet away? 

Can you get your dog to stop and look at you from 50-100 feet away? 

Name recognition is the first step to a solid recall. Obedience classes are full of attention exercises, only trained on a 6-foot leash, so many people think they have name recognition when they really don’t. By practicing it daily, in varying situations, and always pairing with high-value rewards, you can truly build reliability and value in name recognition in ways that will benefit a solid recall. This is important because almost all recalls happen when the dog is off-leash and more than 6 feet from you. 

Ways to practice attention for recalls:

  • Dog is stationary, 10 feet from you.
  • Dog is stationary, 20-50 feet from you.
  • Dog is stationary, 100 feet from you.
  • Dog is stationary and sniffing
  • Dog is facing away, moving slowly. 
  • Dog is facing away moving quickly. 
  • Dog is running full speed
  • Dog is engaged in play/interaction

    These are often ways that we want to practice our recalls, but it’s an important way to practice your dog’s name recognition. Calling a dog can often put a dog into conflict, since we are calling them away from something they are interested in. Focusing on rewarding name recognition before calling the dog allows us to build value in turning to look at you for more information. This behavior will ultimately benefit our recalls, and it doesn’t put the dog into conflict because you’re not asking him to leave an interesting activity. In training terms, this is called splitting criteria. We are separating the goal behavior into small attainable pieces and training those pieces individually. 

Does your dog run to you full-tilt when they hear the word "Come" ? 

Does your dog run to you full-tilt when they hear the word "Come" ? 


So now that your dog is responding to his name in distracting situations, we need him to come running at full speed when he hears “Come!” Resolving motivation issues can drastically improve recall issues, so it’s important to know why you might have a motivation problem. Oftentimes students wait until their dog is at the dog run to practice their recalls, and this automatically puts the dog into conflict: Should I come to owner or play with friends? Starting with lots of practice in easy environments and high-value rewards will reap the most benefits, since it minimizes conflict. Also make sure to only furnish rewards after your dog has come to you, not showing them the treat or toy first. Think paycheck, not bribe. Plastic treat-baggie sounds and hands that hover near treat-pockets are bribes, and it will hurt your dog’s recall reliability if they get tuned into it before actually coming to you. 

Reasons your dog isn’t motivated:

  • Your rewards are low-value 
  • Not enough daily practice
  • Over-use & desensitization of recall word
  • Compliance leads to something dog dislikes (ie: leave dog park, come in house, give up sock)


Next time your dog doesn’t come to you, diagnose the issue by deciding if your dog had trouble with attention or motivation. This will help you focus your next training session and you’ll be well on your way to better recalls!