You Scratch My Back and I’ll Scratch Yours

An exchange today on Facebook about a dog that wouldn’t come back when called got me thinking.

Not coming when called is not usually only about ‘training’ as such. Boris knows very well what ‘Come’ means but chooses to do something else instead – something more fulfilling.

Mostly when he hears ‘Boris COME’ called over and over, he ignores it. It is ‘not coming back when called’ that he’s rehearsing and perfecting.

The human who is calling is simply not sufficiently important to him – worth coming back to – until he’s ready.

I go to many cases where the dog comes back reliably for one person but not for another. This backs up my belief that recall is every bit as much to do with the relationship between dog and person as with training.

It’s a big ask for Boris to turn around and come running back when he has spied a muntjack deer. To have this happen, his human needs to be very relevant to him indeed – or not waste their breath. In truth they should not let him free in the first place until returning can be guaranteed.

Treats and games brought out of the bag at the time may well be ignored – and that’s because people are expecting Boris to come back simply for food or for a game.

He should be coming back for them…

…and I certainly don’t mean by that ‘because they are boss and the dog should do as he’s told’.  I mean because they have proved themselves worth listening to. The game or food is a vital ‘thank you’ – payment.

With most dogs that ignore being called, the human needs to be more relevant in all areas of the dog’s life – at home.

If Boris won’t come in from the garden when he knows they want to go to bed, then he sure won’t come back when he’s found fox poo to roll in.

If Boris gets everything he wants upon demand from a human who behaves like his lackey, then ……..well……would Prince Charles come running when his butler called? !

If Molly has food constantly available to eat when she likes – a basic requirement for survival after all – then aren’t her humans missing a trick by giving her control over it so far as their own relevance is concerned?

When one of my dogs wants something, he actually enjoys it on those occasions I ask him to do something in return. You can tell. It’s fun.

It takes effort on my part.

So, he wants to go out? He can sit and look at me first. He wants me to throw the ball? He can drop it at my feet not several yards away. He wants me to fuss him? He can sometimes wait, I may ask him to lie down, he could maybe give a paw (I don’t really like ‘paw’ because it encourages a dog to be pain, pawing for attention). He can do anything else I have taught him or just sit calmly and wait.

Being relevant involves effort and respect (nothing to do with ‘being boss’) as well as love. We have to be meaningful to our dog.

On  a human level we can all think of friends, colleagues, bosses or teachers for whom we would have done anything and others for whom it would have been a chore. Could this be because we find it most rewarding to give the most to those who care sufficiently and put in the effort to expect the most?

I don’t go along with NILIF (Nothing In Life Is Free) training, but certainly not EILIF (everything in life is free)! The dog can at least sometimes ‘Say Please’. Here is a short summary from Quick and Dirty

Building a more solid relationship at home means Molly will come back when called. Doing as yoreca;;u ask becomes a default because you ask nicely, gently, in a tone of voice that expects it to happen – and then you make it rewarding to her in some way.

If Molly has a history of ignoring when called, possibly you need a fresh start – maybe train her to a whistle. Treat it like a battery. Every time the whistle is blown and Molly comes to you, a little bit of juice goes into the battery.

HOWEVER, any time she hears the whistle and ignores it, the battery discharges. It discharges a whole lot faster than it charges up – but that’s life.

Whistling needs to be done over and over and over, hundreds of times, either when Molly is coming anyway or when she’s sure to come – and perhaps also as a game – always using high value rewards whether it’s food, a toy or play.

People tell me that giving their dog a fuss should be enough. I wonder how many dogs actually find a fuss salient and rewarding when they are out in the middle of a field with a festival of smells, sights and sounds?

If someone calls you and when you get to them they just say “Nothing” and shrug their shoulders, you’re not so likely to come when they call you another time, are you.

After a sufficient length of time, responding when called or whistled should be automatic for ex-freelancers Molly and Boris. (Make allowances and cut them some slack – be extra patient – if they have hit adolescence).

But – it’s not actually the whistle, the food, the toy or the tug game that Boris or Molly are coming back for.

It’s you.

For my main website and ‘stories’ of many dogs I have been to, please go to


About Theo Stewart

I am a dog Behaviourist C.C.B (Certified Canine Behaviourist) INTODogs). I have helped over 3000 dog owners over eighteen years. In addition to online consultations all over the world, I cover Beds, Herts, Cambs and Bucks for home visits. A 'Victoria Stilwell' Positively Dog Trainer (VSPDT) and a full member of the IMDT. Graduate ISCP, International School for Canine Practitioners. My main site:
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2 Responses to You Scratch My Back and I’ll Scratch Yours

  1. JP says:

    I hate to ask— but just how many true-bred working northern breeds have you worked with? Huskies and the like will happily come when called by their owners. They love people.

    The problem is that they can be over 1/4 mile away or more in seconds– often upwind (so they don’t have your scent) when they decide something’s fun where the owner hasn’t noticed yet. If you have a dog with a weak sense of direction (either locative hearing– and dog’s hearing is not as precise as humans’ ears, or just plain memory and ability to find places), then you have a huge problem.

    Some dogs just shouldn’t be offleash even if they have a reliable recall onleash or 99% of the time offleash, because they are more likely to put in great distances before they think to check in.

    I’ve had my dog finally recall, but only after he ran past me behind cover (since he didn’t see me), picked up my scent when finally downwind, rounded back and ran up on me… from over 100 feet BEHIND me. I wish I hadn’t named him a word for ghost, because he really can ghost in no time. And the thing is, he does beautiful recalls, too. It’s easy to be tricked into thinking a dog will always recall– but some dogs get bored of recalling.

    Primitive dogs are just like that, to be honest. They listen, they like their people, but they don’t see distances the same way we do. Why should they, they can cover far more distance than we can do.

    Unlike herding dogs which keep an eye on their owner as part of their job, well, a true sled dog/ husky keeps their tail on the owner– they’re bred to run 10-50 miles in a day with their owner right behind, out of sight, on a sled! You’re not going to ever get the continual focus out of one that you would get from a border collie or any other herding or sporting dog breed or predominant mix thereof.

    So unless you have a way to recall a dog 1, 2 miles away, I don’t really recommend ever letting one offleash even if it’s really good on offleash recalls– you only need that one time it isn’t.

    It’s not that these dogs don’t consider their owners important. They can be very attached indeed. It’s just that they are BRED to continually run away from their owners as their…. job.

    That said, I’m still working on my dog (and I had a great offleash dog in my rottie mix and he is smarter and about as cooperative– learns his obedience great) and I hope to get him up to 5-10 recalls in a row (long lead) without him getting bored and blowing them.


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