3. Come Back When Called

Exercise 3.5 - Cues at a Distance

In Exercise 1.6 we talked about the concept of ‘proofing’ behaviours as the need to teach your dog the same behaviour in many different locations and under progressively increasing distractions for the behaviour to become truly reliable.


Of particular importance is preparing for when he is at a distance and distracted. 


When you have reliable distance control over your dog, he/she can enjoy a quantum leap in terms of quality of life!  Distance control goes hand in hand with recall training  - once mastered your dog may be allowed off lead in safe areas because you are now secure in the knowledge that the dog will respond when requested to do so.


If we think about it, sitting or downing promptly when requested can prevent or resolve pretty much any situation we may find ourselves in out and about on a walk and this is why teaching your dog to respond at a distance is so important.


I love how all these exercises can be varied so there is something for everyone whatever level you are training at.  If you have a puppy you might still be concentrating on getting a 90% success rate with your verbal cues and then progress to training Sit & Down with you approx 5 ft away.  For more advanced teams you can try the Send to Target, Stay then Change Position variation Ash demonstrates at the end of the video.


Recap on ‘Proofing’ behaviours


Even though you may think your dog sits fairly reliably now, he probably will not sit if he is at a distance. In fact to begin with he may not sit if there is any variation in the training scenario at all.  If you turn your back on him and ask him to sit, he probably won’t. If you lie on your back and ask him to sit, he probably won’t. If you ask him to sit in heel position as you continue walking, he probably won’t. 


He isn’t being disobedient.  Rather, like all dogs, he is an extremely fine discriminator and has only learned precisely what you have taught him — to sit if he is right in front of you, or if he is by your side in heel position.  So, you need to teach him to sit in every possible situation and especially, if he is at a distance and distracted.


The dog’s failure to comprehend is difficult for owners to understand at first but teaching dogs is very different from teaching people. A person will generalise from one training scenario to all others, whereas a dog only learns exactly what you teach him. To teach a dog to sit in every possible situation, he needs to be trained to sit in every possible situation.


Before you can teach distance cues, you need to make sure that your dog’s verbal comprehension is at least 90% reliable when he is right next to you.  Why?  If your dog does not sit promptly and reliably when verbally instructed to do so when standing right in front of you and staring at your face, what makes you think he would sit when forty yards away and chasing a squirrel or charging another dog!  When your dog is running away from you, or even when his head his turned, he cannot see your hand signals or body language (which are really easy for him to understand) and so, verbal cues are the only way to get him to respond. So, first you must check that your dog understands verbal cues when he is close to you before expecting him to respond to verbal cues at a distance.


So, first of all, let’s check how well your dog understands proximal verbal cues.


In a low distraction place verbally instruct your dog to perform a Sit, Down, Sit sequence using verbal cues only; no hand signals or unintentional body language with 5 seconds in each position.  Do this 10 times and keep track of how many verbal cues are required before your dog responds with the correct body position change. 


Maybe have somebody video this exercise for you so that you can accurately assess your dog’s performance afterwards.  Often we have got into the habit of moving in a particular way as we say the cue and you may find that if you concentrate on keeping really still your dog may have trouble responding.  As you watch the video back you may spot little nods of your head or other gestures you weren’t even aware you were doing and these little wrinkles need to be ironed out first. 


If you find yourself having to repeat a cue, for example you said “Down” 20 times to get your dog to lie down on the 10 attempts then your percentage reliability is  10/20 x 100 = 50%.  Not good enough yet, so keep practicing.  Once your dog’s reliability exceeds 90%, you can easily teach him distance cues.


When teaching new and additional cues, the sequence is always the same — we follow the new (unknown) cue (the one we are trying to teach) by the old (known) cue, which serves as a lure to prompt the desired response.  In this instance, first we ask the dog to sit from a distance and then immediately afterwards we ask the dog to sit from close up.


Because the two cues always occur in the same order, the dog learns to anticipate, or predict, the known proximal cue every time he hears the unknown distal cue. So, after a few trials he begins to respond as soon as he hears the distal cue.


I like to teach distance position changes from a Down-Stay but you don’t have to.  You could have your dog on-lead and hook the lead around a fence post or you could ask a helper to hold your dog for you.   


  1. Ask your dog to “Down-Stay” (or have someone or something hold the lead)
  2. Take one step back and then say, “Sit.” If he sits, praise him profusely and offer a couple of treats. If he does not sit within a second, quickly step back to stand toe-to-toe in front of your dog and say, “Sit” (or give your body language Sit cue which is my preference).  This time he will probably respond. Praise and give him a treat. 
  3. Note: in the video demonstration of this step I am saying ‘Red’ to Ash (a word he doesn’t know) instead of Sit as he knows Sit too well and it would be difficult for me to show you this step otherwise.
  4. Now take a step back with him in a sit-stay and this time instruct him, “Down.” Praise and reward him profusely if he responds correctly and if not, simply step back and ask him to lie down again.
  5. Please remember, if he doesn’t respond he’s not being slow or disobedient, he just doesn’t understand distance cues yet.  After just six to eight pairings of the distance cue followed by the proximal cue, he will soon start to respond as soon as he hears the distance cue. Now training speeds up and you will find he quickly learns to sit when you give the instruction from two steps away, then three steps, then five, ten, twenty, and so on.

To get your dog used to working in different environments, first practice with your dog off lead indoors and in your garden.  Then, when on walks, practice asking your dog to sit when he is at the end of his lead.  Then practice with your dog on a long line.  Finally you’ll be ready to practice with your dog off-lead in safe areas.


Top tip: When training ask your dog to hold each position for at least 5 seconds so he doesn’t learn to anticipate the change of position and move on his own.