Help! My Dog Won't Come When Called Unless I Give Him a Treat

Dog running from man
Your dog may not respond to you if you don't have a treat, because he knows there won't be a payoff for obeying your command.

When I call my dog, he won’t come unless I have a treat in my hand. Is there something I can do to get his attention without a treat?

One of the main reasons pet owners are hesitant to use rewards in training is out of a belief that if a dog is taught to do a behavior, like coming when called, in exchange for a treat, he will expect a treat every time he is called — and this will mean that the pet owner is required to carry treats all the time.

But using rewards to motivate your dog during training doesn’t mean treating him every single time. There are a variety of rewards that can be used to reinforce good behavior. And once your dog has learned the appropriate response to your cue, he won’t need to see a treat to do what’s being asked of him.

Lose the Treats, Keep the Behavior

Making a few simple changes to the way you train can help create a reliable recall response without needing to carry treats with you at all times. To begin with, it’s helpful to first understand why your dog doesn’t respond unless he sees a treat.

He's not sure what you're asking. It's possible that your dog doesn’t fully understand the behavior he is being asked to do or that he doesn’t associate your verbal cue or visual signal with the behavior. In this case, he’s just responding to the treat, not to the command. The treat needs to be a reward for completing the behavior, not the reason the dog does the behavior in the first place.

He's distracted and doesn't really hear you. Your dog may also be too distracted by enticements, like interesting smells and the allure of off-leash freedom, to respond to your calls. If this is the case, he may require additional training to advance his ability to respond to your cues in high-distraction areas without an additional draw, like a treat.

To determine why he's not responding to the cue without the treat, try this test: Choose a low-distraction area of your house, like your living room or a hallway. Stand so that your dog can see that you're not holding a treat and call his name. If he responds to the cue and comes to you — even without a treat — he is probably just distracted in other situations. If he does not come at all, he most likely doesn't understand what you're asking him to do. Double-check by calling him with a visible treat. If he comes this time, you can be pretty sure he needs a refresher on coming when called.


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