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Training your dog to come when called is a lifesaving skill that owners must take the time to teach to puppies and older untrained dogs. But perfecting the response to this command doesn’t happen overnight, especially with easily spooked or distracted dogs. I teach these training games as a safeguard, in case a dog gets loose and hasn’t yet mastered the recall.


You’ve likely seen this scenario, and you may even have lived it: A dog will be running away off leash, and when his owner is six inches from grabbing his collar, he runs off again. One way to prevent this dangerous situation is to teach your dog the “Gotcha” game.

Step 1: Show your dog a really enticing treat and hold it against your body. When he comes over and starts nibbling, very slowly and gently reach for his collar, using the cue word “Gotcha.”

Step 2: After hooking a finger under the collar, open your hand and give him the whole treat.

Step 3: As training progresses, the grab changes from one finger to the whole hand and from slowly to quickly. Offering treats teaches your dog that “Gotcha” is rewarding and fun.

In the event that you need to catch your dog, reach a hand out for him and say “Gotcha.” If he has a strong foundation with this game, he’ll happily come back to you, and let you hook a finger in his collar. Remember that he’ll expect a treat — so be sure to give him one.

“What’s This?”

To play this game, your dog must have an immediate response to his name and be solid at the “Gotcha” game described above. Initially, try this in your backyard or in the house and start with your dog on a leash. As he gets better at the game, progress to a long leash and start to play it everywhere, especially locations or situations where you’re concerned about him getting away from you, like at the front door or after exiting the car.

Step 1: With your dog on a leash, wait until he’s moved away from you, then kneel down, drop three high-value treats (something your dog really can’t resist) on the ground close to your knees, and loudly call his name. Start patting the ground and excitedly saying, “What’s this? What’s this?”

Step 2: After your dog has run over and eaten two of the treats, do a “Gotcha,” and allow him to eat the remaining treat. Important: Do not grab his collar until he’s eaten the first two treats.

Note: During this game, always use high-value treats. If you have to use this game in the event of an emergency, and you do not have treats, at some point in the next 24 hours do a few more rounds of the game with treats. Your dog should never think this game is a gamble of whether he’ll get treats or not.

“Go for a Ride”

If your dog gets loose while you’re out on a walk, you can use a car as a way to trigger a game-based response of coming back to you.

Step 1: If your dog loves car rides, start giving him a cue phrase: “Wanna go for a ride?” before you take him out with you. If your dog doesn’t like the car, use something else, like “Car time!” Only use that phrase when you play this game, not for all car trips.

Step 2: After you say it, run to the car with him on a leash.

Step 3: When you get there, do a “Gotcha” and then have a “party” while standing by the car. Give him tons of treats, play tug, offer a belly rub — whatever you need to do for him to know that running to the car with you was the best decision ever.

Step 4: Eventually, play this game with a second leash. After the “Gotcha,” attach the second leash to his collar, as that’s the most realistic scenario if he ever got loose. Practice this game when you’re out on a walk, running to any parked car so that he understands that the game is not specific to your car.

If your dog breaks free from his leash during a walk, call out your cue to him, and run to the nearest car.

“Chase Me”

Dogs love a good game of chase, and if you can convince your dog that when he gets to you, something awesome happens, you’ll be able to use this game in an emergency.

Step 1: In a safe, fenced area or with your dog on a long leash, say your dog’s name and “Catch me.” Then, run away from him while you keep an eye on him to see if he’s following you.

Step 2: Cheer and praise excitedly to entice your dog to chase you.

Step 3: When he’s in hot pursuit, stop, and when he gets to you, do a “Gotcha,” and reward him with food, toys, play, praise — any and all things that will inspire him to think of you as more fun than anything he could find on his own.

If your dog gets loose, resist the urge to run at him, which will only make him run away faster. Instead, call out “Catch me” and start moving away from him if the path between you is safe for him to cross. He’ll remember the game and try to catch you.

It’s important to remember that these games will help you in the event that your dog gets loose, but you have to teach them in order for them to become functional. Calling out “Who wants to go inside?” to a dog who has no clue what that means won’t help you in an emergency. And while playing these games may work in a pinch, it’s still essential that you work on teaching the “come” command.

From the July/August 2018 issue of AKC Family Dog
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This article was originally published in AKC Family Dog magazine. Subscribe today ($12.95 for 6 issues, including digital edition) to get expert tips on training, behavior, health, nutrition, and grooming, and read incredible stories of dogs and their people.
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