Your dog knows how to come. You’re sure of it. You’ve spent hours working on it in the house and backyard, along with all the other basics like 'sit', 'down' and 'heel'. Every time you call, your dog comes running, hoping for a good treat or toy, but happy to accept an ear scratch and an “atta boy”. You have no concerns as you bring your dog to the dog park. Surely she will behave herself. Several hours later when you are ready to go home, you are humiliated to find that you are the one chasing your dog all over the park, calling until you’re hoarse. Anyone would think your dog had never heard her name before! All those longs hours of training--wasted.
Your training wasn’t wasted, and although it seems like your dog has forgotten it all, she really hasn’t. It’s just that when we introduce distractions, it becomes much more difficult for our dogs to obey. This may be because your dog hasn’t developed the self-control to overcome the desires inspired in her by all the new distractions, or it may be because your dog doesn’t understand your command to come in this new context of a dog park, or it could be because your dog is testing the limits of your authority. Most likely it is a combination of all three.
Dogs that are bred to follow their nose or chase down game may have a harder time overcoming distractions and coming when called than retrievers or general purpose work dogs. Dogs that track or chase have been bred to be independent of their owner and focused on their quarry. In the field, such dogs have typically been followed by their owner until the prey was treed or taken down, depending on the breed. Because of these predispositions, such dogs may have a harder time coming when called, even if you work very hard. For such dogs, additional tools like an electronic collar may prove useful.
Successfully training your dog to come with distractions depends on a good deal of patience. Having your dog run off on you can be extremely frustrating, and feels like a betrayal. It does no good, however, to lose your temper. Your dog is not refusing to come because she doesn’t love or respect you, but because of complex factors, many of them beyond her control. Identify why she isn’t coming and work gradually with her towards success, while using external controls like barriers and long leashes to keep control of the situation and keep everyone safe.
Training your dog to come with distractions is similar to training her to come without distractions. You need to have something that can motivate her to come, like yummy treats, a favorite toy, and of course, your enthusiastic praise and affection. If she is already coming reliably without distractions, you already know what motivates your dog. Bring these same tools to the distraction training.
Some additional tools are useful in teaching your dog to come with distractions. A more distinct attention-getting device than your dog’s name, like a whistle or horn, can prove useful in cutting through distractions. Long lines, especially a lunge line with some elasticity, are extremely useful both for having ultimate control of your dog and for nudging her into paying attention. An elastic line is good because it prevents a sharp pull if your dog suddenly bolts against it. This protects both you and your dog. Finally, for dogs that are struggling to break out of their focus on other things, an electronic collar can be a great tool for getting their attention. If your goal is to work with your dog off-leash in open country, a GPS collar is a good idea to find your dog if she should get lost.