The weather's fine, and you'd love for your dog to get the kind of exercise and socialization that can't happen at the end of a leash. Maybe you even have a new dog park in the neighborhood.
You've got just one problem: Once your dog's off leash, you're not sure you can get him back.
The traditional obedience method of teaching a recall starts from a sit-stay, the command dogs learn to sit and then stay put.
But for the average dog owner, the stay is a huge bother to train, and it's the long way around. You just want your dog to come back; you don't need him to sit first.
And a dog that responds to "come" in a class or in your yard might not do so in the park. Dogs can't generalize the same way humans do. To a dog's mind, you're not asking for the same thing.
"So first you have to train it. Then you have to generalize it," says Pat Miller, trainer and author of "The Power of Positive Dog Training."
To train your dog:
¢ First, figure out what is really rewarding to him, such as getting a treat, or playing tug with a toy or being petted. Observe, don't assume. Some dogs, for example, don't really like being patted on the head.
¢ Now start on the command. "Start with the dog next to you and run away from him and say 'come' in a cheerful tone of voice," says Miller. Get him really romping, says Miller. You want the dog to learn that "come" means "I'm having a party and you're invited!"
¢ Next, start at a short distance from the dog. If you have help, have someone hold and then release the dog when you say "come." Otherwise, Miller suggests leaving a small handful of treats on the ground. Back away as the dog eats them, and then as he eats the last one, call him to come.
¢ Reward the dog when he comes to you. Gradually increase the distance, and don't just stand there as you call, move! Turning and running away is inviting to a dog, but standing and looking at him can be intimidating.
¢ Once he responds reliably to your call, it's time to start generalizing, step by step. First, add distractions in the place where you're already training. A friendly dog is the perfect distractor if you're planning to head for a dog park eventually. Let them play until they start getting tired, then train as above.
¢ Next you'll want to work on the command in a new place without distractions, then add distractions in that location. Keep your tone cheerful, Miller says, don't get more commanding. And never punish the dog if he doesn't come in the new situation - that means you've moved too fast. Go back a step and try again.
"Progressing from one step to the next requires that you get good at understanding and reading your dog," says Miller.
Don't rush the process. You'll probably need to spend a few days on each step.
Some other general pointers:
¢ If you don't have fenced areas in which to train, you can work with the dog on a long line. But be wary of the generalization problem: "Come on a long leash" and "Come off leash" are not the same thing. So Miller recommends gradually switching to a lighter line, then leaving it dropped on the ground instead of holding it, to work up to being off-leash.
¢ Once you've trained your dog, be careful that the call to come never leads to anything unpleasant. Go and get your dog if you need to cut his nails, don't call him to come.
¢ If you have to use "come" to leave a park or playtime, make sure that you sometimes call, reward and let him go back to playing, so "come" isn't always associated with "play's over."
¢ If your dog starts to hesitate or look uncertain when you call him, you've probably accidentally "poisoned" the command, says Miller. Pick a new word and retrain him to come to that.