Update: We now have a step-by-step online training course that’ll show you exactly how to get your dog to reliably come when called. Click here to check it out!
The recall (dog-trainer-speak for “coming when called”) is probably the most important cue you can teach your dog. It’s also probably the most frustrating; it’s hard to get a dog to do it reliably.
Getting the basic behavior on cue is pretty simple and can be achieved in one weekend. Or one beginner obedience class.
But that’s not the tricky part. Where people have trouble is getting the dog to actually respond to the cue when it counts.
- Dog performs perfectly in formal training sessions, but blows you off in any real situation, like when he gets out of the house and runs down the street.
- Dog starts out with a great response to the recall, but over time, learns to ignore it.
Let’s talk about how to avoid those problems and train a recall you can actually use in real life.
First, a review of what not to do.
Why dogs learn to ignore the recall
Watch out for these common mistakes:
Assuming the dog is trained waaaay before he actually is. This leads to people getting frustrated because “my dog knows the recall command. He’s just choosing not to listen.”
Not so much.
Just because your kid has learned her ABCs doesn’t mean she’s ready to write a college-level essay. Just because Rover went to puppy class and knows what “come” means, doesn’t mean he’s fully trained. Teaching the dog a basic understanding of a cue is only the beginning of training.
Trying to level up too fast. So you taught your dog to perform a flawless recall in your backyard. Nice work! But is she ready to take this new trick to the dog park? Not quite. It helps to think in terms of levels. For example:
Level 1: your house on a quiet day
Level 2: your house when guests are visiting
Level 3: the backyard
Level 4: your street
Level 5: the park
Level 27: a hiking trail when the dog is off-leash 100 feet away from you with a rabbit running across her path
Wait til Rover is proficient at each level before moving to the next level.
Calling the dog when you’re not damn sure he’s going to listen. Relates to the previous mistake. Every time you call your dog and he ignores it, the cue is weakened. If you’ve only worked up to level 2, don’t recall your dog in a level 4 situation.
And when you’re in the process of transitioning from one level to another, keep Rover on a long-line (a training leash at least 20ft/6m long) so you can “reel him in” if he doesn’t listen.
Calling the dog to punish her. Doesn’t matter how annoying she’s being, or how pissed off you are. Calling a dog and then scolding her will ruin your recall. Rover won’t understand that you’re punishing her for getting out of the house and running down the street. She’ll just learn “when my human catches me, bad things happen.”
You can see how that might be a problem.
Calling your dog for unpleasant reasons. This will have the same effect as punishment. Don’t use your recall cue when it’s time to give Rover a bath. When you’re going to work, don’t call him to lock him up in his crate. When it’s time to leave the dog park, don’t call him away from his doggie friends. In situations like these, you’ll have to just go and grab him yourself. (Or use your casual recall and not your sacred recall. Huh? Keep reading)
Bribery. Food rewards are good. Food bribes are bad. What counts as a bribe? Showing the dog the food before you call him. In the early stages of training, waving a treat around to entice him to come to you (a technique called Lure/Reward) is cool. But you should quickly level up past that. You don’t want Rover to only come to you when he can see a reward.
How to build a strong recall
You want your dog to think recalls are heckin’ awesome. The aim is to develop a conditioned emotional response of “oh, HELL yes!” when he hears the cue. Two ways to do this:
- Reinforcing the crap out of the behavior
- Building enthusiasm via training games
Reinforce the crap out of the behavior
Reinforcement is anything the dog likes that will encourage her to repeat the behavior in the future. When the dog hears the recall cue and arrives merrily at your feet, the payoff should be huge.
This is another area where people tend to make mistakes. Most people don’t reinforce their dog anywhere near enough. They give mediocre rewards, or they reward only during what they consider the training phase, and then stop rewarding when they figure the dog is trained. Therefore the behavior deteriorates. Don’t make that mistake: always make sure your rewards are damn good.
What counts as a damn good reward?
There are many types of reinforcers/rewards. Your primary reward (at least for now) will be food, because it’s a fast way to build strong behaviors.
Food rewards for recalls should always be high-value, i.e. something the dog reeeeaaaally loves. Normally, I’m all for using treats of different value levels depending on how distracting the training environment is: low-value treats like kibble when you’re working in your living room, and high-value treats like real meat when you’re working in a busy park.
But not with the recall.
Recalls always get the good stuff.
I use a lot of plain cooked chicken. I also carry extra-high-value treats for extra-special situations: my dog recalls away from a rabbit on a trail? Time to break out the baggie of steak bits!
(“Holy shit, bro, you give your dog STEAK?” Yes, I understand the knee-jerk reaction but bro, have you seen how expensive halfway-decent store-bought dog treats are? An occasional package of thin-sliced steak is a much better value, in terms of both monetary value and dog training value)
My dog River is a weirdo: she’s obsessed with canned cat food. Canned dog food? Meh. But she would sell her soul (or, more in-character for the ridiculous persona I assigned her on Instagram, MY soul) for cat food. So when I feed my cat, I save a couple spoonfuls for River’s recall practice.
Build enthusiasm with training games
Forget long, boring, “serious” recall training drills. It’s better to think in terms of short, sweet training games. Not because I think the recall isn’t serious business – of course it’s serious. The recall is as serious as it gets.
I want you to play games precisely because it’s serious.
Games are the best way to build reliable behaviors. They teach the dog that coming when called is more exciting than whatever else she was doing. They improve your bond, too; Rover learns that you are amazing and you are the provider of good things.
Another benefit of treating training like a game: humans can get a little tense when we’re doing Serious Training. We tend to be relaxed and happy when we play games. Dogs like it when we’re relaxed and happy, and are more likely to engage with us. Therefore training is more effective, therefore the dog gets trained faster and better.
I learned this lesson when I was taking my first agility class with Jonas. The class was taught with lots of games and an it’s-just-for-fun attitude. Jonas ended up being extremely reliable with his fancy agility skills, while his “serious” basic obedience skills, like Down, Stay, and Come, were uh, not extremely reliable.
Ways to game-ify your training
Most dogs are excited by chasing and fast movement. Incorporate this into your training to build enthusiastic recalls:
Tag: get Rover’s attention, then recall him and run in the opposite direction. When he gets to you, drop his treat on the ground. While he stops to grab it, run away and call him again.
Flying treats: call your dog like normal, but when she gets to you, don’t hand her the treat – throw or roll it across the floor.
Restrained recalls: recruit an assistant to hold your dog’s collar while you walk away. Get Rover’s attention and “tease” him by making noises, clapping your hands, waving a toy, etc. When Rover is revved up, say your recall cue. That’s your assistant’s cue to unleash the hound. Bonus points if you start running.
Think “reinforcement” always means treats or toys? You’re thinking too small, padawan
Yes, I know I was just harping on the importance of good food rewards, but it’s not the only option, nor is it enough. Sometimes, there will be distractions that the dog cares about more than he wants a snack. Anything your dog wants in that moment (within reason, obvs) can be a recall reward.
Teach your dog that he gets what he wants if he does what YOU want. How? You guessed it, more training games.
Training games to distraction-proof your dog
Don’t do these until your dog has had a lot of practice with regular recall training.
To start teaching this concept, use food. Put your dog on leash, then toss a treat just out of his reach. While he pulls to get it, recall him. If he ignores you, start gently reeling him in with the leash. When he gets to you, reward the crap out of him.
When Rover is proficient, expand on the concept:
Take your dog for a walk through a park or field, on a long-line (long training leash). Once in a while, stop moving and recall him. When he gets to you, praise and send him to go back to whatever he was sniffing.
Expand some more: Are there dog or people he wants to play with? Recall, then send him to go play.
It’s raining recalls: practice a lot
The more successful recalls you get, the more reliable your recall cue will be. Every day, get as much recall practice as you can. You don’t need to do long training sessions – in fact, you shouldn’t. You don’t want Rover to get bored. Do two or three five-minute training sessions per day. And get in a few single “reps” at random times. Which brings me to:
Practice in less formal situations
Your dog is observant. She can tell when you’re preparing for a training session, and will go “okay, this is the thing where my human calls me a bunch and gives me good snacks for five minutes. I’m GREAT at this.” Outside of training sessions, they can be less responsive. Throughout the day, when your dog is doing her own thing around the house, do a recall. When she gets to you, do something awesome: either run to the kitchen and get a treat or grab her favorite toy and play her favorite game.
Need more help than this? Check out the step-by-step course
Our online course, Focus & Come When Called, will show you how to get your dog to pay attention to you in public and reliably come when you call them. It includes:
- Video tutorials for all of the exercises suggested in this post
- Everything I do to build a strong recall that ISN’T included in this post
- Access to our community forums where you can ask questions
- A progress tracking system (complete with achievement badges)