Teaching a reliable recall or “come”


Are they having more fun without you?

The recall is easily the most important behaviours to teach your dog, and also the most common reason dog owners will want to attend a dog training class or get a dog trainer out to their home.

Most dog owners will say that their dog comes when they call them at home, or when they have food, or ‘when their dog feels like it’.

So how do we teach our dog to come when called when WE want them to?

Firstly, there are some very common mistakes we make when we call our dogs. These include calling our dogs when we are about to leave a dog park or take them away from anything else they’re having fun doing. We also might only be calling them when they are completely distracted and playing with another dog, before we have taught them reliably to come when called when they aren’t so distracted. Many dog owners also call their dog when they want to put them outside, take something from them or even yell at them and scold them once they do come because they didn’t come as quickly as the owner wanted. All of these scenarios are actually punishing your dog for coming to you even though we may not mean for it to.

Instead, we need to teach our dogs that coming when called is a rewarding experience, and gradually increase how challenging the recall is over time.

So how do we teach our dogs a reliable “COME”:

  • We ALWAYS have to reward our dog for coming to us. Coming to you has to be associated with a positive experience, and therefore we can never reprimand or correct our dog when they come or the next time we try to call them they will be very hesitant to return to us. I see many dogs getting very good at staying out of arm’s reach of their owners as they’ve learned they’ll be grabbed and stuck on lead. If you think you are ‘punishing’ your dog by scolding them on return for not coming as fast as you wanted them to or for ignoring you for a minute first, unfortunately our dogs will not make that connection. The only association they will make is that coming back to you is a negative experience so they will make sure to avoid your capture next time you call them.

  • Initially teach your recall (‘come’) in a low level of competing distractions, such as your home or backyard. You can use any cue you like, just make sure it’s consistent. It may be ‘here’ or even using a whistle. Make it fun and engaging by waiting until your dog is mildly distracted, calling their name, and moving off in the opposite direction. Once they reach you, reward them heavily with whatever they enjoy whether it be food, play, pats and praise. You can even use another family member or friend to do a recall ‘ping pong’ where you recall your dog back and forth, making it a fun and rewarding game for them, and each person gives them a treat once they come to them.

    Low distractions, long line, loads of positive reinforcement.

  • Once your dog is starting to offer this behaviour more readily, start to add the cue of ‘come’ or ‘here’. Our dog’s name doesn’t mean to come, it simply means to pay attention. Add the cue of ‘come’ once your dog is coming towards you so that they learn the ‘come’ word means to run towards you.

  • Make yourself attractive and loads of fun. Run the other direction so they will be driven to chase after you, use high pitched tones in your voice, get down low so you are less intimidating and more inviting. You can even use squeaky toys if your dog is highly motivated by them.

  • Do NOT chase after your dog! Dogs love a game of chase and if they think ignoring you means they are going to be chased after, they will definitely choose this game instead. Dog’s love a good game of chase, so insteadrun the other direction so that they are driven to chase you rather than the other way around!

  • Set yourselves up for success through gradually increasing distractions and distance in new environments. Don’t assume because they come when called at one place, that they will in any new setting. If there are a lot of dogs around and they are playing, wait until they are less distracted before trying to call them and work up to being able to recall them when they are more and more distracted.

  • Control access to competing motivators in the environment through using long lines when testing your recalls in new environments. This way if you are calling your dog and they are ignoring you, you can prevent them being rewarded by ignoring you and getting to engage in whatever else is grabbing their attention. Using a long line is an excellent tool to test your dog’s recall reliability as they get further away from you. If they don’t come initially, run off in the opposite direction and bring them with you using the lead and reward them once they come and then try again.

    Practicing coming away from one dog first while close by.

  • If your dog does come, especially in a new and distracting environment, jackpot them! A jackpot is giving a two, three or more treats for an extra awesome effort so that your dog knows it paid off to leave such a fun distraction! Gradually build up distance OR distraction intensity one at a time. We need to do this gradually so that our dog is set up for success, not failure. Doing a recall in your kitchen and a recall at a dog beach are completely different exercises with hugely different levels of competing motivations and rewards for ignoring you if you don’t have control over your dog with a lead.

  • If your dog is ignoring you, wait until they are less distracted, get closer to them, and try again. Don’t continue to call and call your dog while they ignoring you as we are simply teaching our dog that ignoring us has the only consequence of continuing to have fun and freedom. They will also learn that repeated commands are just a nagging noise that they can ignore.

  • Don’t only ever recall your dog when you are going home from somewhere fun or you’re going to put them outside for example. Be careful to not create negative patterns and associations with recalls, but instead that it is simply a chance for a positive such as a treat, and that they get to go back to what they were doing again.

  • Teaching your dog to come when called should be a fun and positive relationship building exercise. We always want our dogs to associate coming to us as a rewarding and worthwhile experience. Practice it as much as you can in as many different scenarios as you can. The more your dog learns that interrupting what they’re doing and coming to you simply means an intermission from what they were doing to get a treat or some other form of reward, and then being released back to whatever they were doing.

If you’re concerned about your dog’s behaviour, contact a qualified rewards based trainer for further specific advice for your dog and your current circumstances.

Laura Mundy