13 Simple Steps to Improve Your Dogs Recall
One of the proudest moments I’ve had with my dog was getting her to stop mid run and come back to me while she was chasing a rabbit. I was dumbfounded. My dog just stopped mid run and came back to me? Oh yes — it is possible.
We achieved it by consistently working on her recall over many months. My trick was to make sure I was always more interesting than her surroundings, so I became a constant supply of treats, games, and praise. It wasn’t easy, and there were frustrations but seeing your dog stop mid run and come right back to you enthusiastically made it all worth it.
How to Improve Your Dogs Recall
Let me guess, your dog doesn’t always come when called? Or does your dog out the door as soon as it’s opened & run away? Trust me you’re not alone. It’s happened to all of us, and it can be really tough during a dogs rebellious adolescent stage.
These 13 methods will help improve your dogs recall & train your dog not to run away.
I Used to be “That” Person
We’ve all seen that person at the park yelling and screaming at their dog to come back, but have you ever thought about what that experience is like through their dog’s eyes? If I were that dog I’d much rather sniff that tree or roll in something smelly than come back to my angry, yelling owner. Frustration and yelling seems to come so naturally to us when our dog doesn’t listen. It doesn’t, however, do anything to entice our dogs to come back to us.
Eventually I figured out that my methods weren’t working. I started doing research on positive training methods and reward based training. I had to train myself to try new methods that were unfamiliar and learn more about dog behavior and motivation.
Why Recall Is So Challenging to Train
Your dog’s recall is arguably the most important command you can teach, but it can also be one of the hardest commands to get reliably. We set ourselves up for failure. By trying to be more interesting to our dog than that squirrel, and then punishing them when we do manage to get them back. If you were your dog what would you do next time? I’d chase the squirrel.
Chasing that squirrel is highly rewarding to your dog, especially if they’ve got a high prey drive. When you’re chasing after your dog yelling “come here” in a negative tone with extra expletives it’s no wonder they’re going to continue to chase rather than come back to you – the angry, yelling owner.
They’ll continue to chase and disobey if their distraction is more rewarding than what you have to offer. It’s always going to be funner to chase that squirrel rather then be put back on a leash and taken inside.
In order to get our dogs to come when called we need to make ourselves someone that’s consistently enjoyable to our dogs; someone that’s always worth running back to.
Overcoming the Extra Excitement
For many dogs going outside is their big “yippeeee” moment of the day; it’s their time to run around, play, and have fun. It’s pretty hard to compete with that, especially if they have pent up energy. Playing with your dog throughout the day helps them burn off some of that mental and physical energy and makes it easier for them to focus later on.
Avoid that instant excitement of going outdoors by playing with your dog beforehand. The more you actively play with your dog and engage them the more attentive they’ll be when it comes to training. It’s all part of establishing a strong bond with your dog.
The trick to getting your dogs recall reliable is to assure them that they’re always making a positive choice, and with a lot of practice. Don’t start your recall training where there’s a lot of distractions; you’d just be setting yourself up for failure.
When Training Recall Use Consistency & Be Patient
Consistency and patience are key when it comes to training a dog. When you begin teaching your dog to “come here” the rewards must be given readily and excitedly. Clearly communicate to your dog that coming to you was the best choice they’ve ever made.
Don’t rush out and try to train a new behavior in a 3 hour long session. Dog’s don’t have the longest attention spans so keep the training sessions short and sweet. If your dog starts to show signs of growing bored pack it in for the day and start again tomorrow.
You Might Not Get 100% Reliability – But You Can Get Close
It’s very difficult to achieve 100% reliability. Not all dogs are as naturally willing to please, and some can are much more motivated to roam than others. Recall can be hard for certain dogs to master – it goes against their natural instinct to sniff, explore, or chase. Even the best trained dogs will find certain distractions more rewarding than their owners from time to time.
The more your practice using positive reinforcement and consistency, the more reliable your dogs recall will be. You know your dog best – when they make the right choice and come back to you make it worth their while with a high value treat or game. If your dog keeps receiving great benefits from obeying the “come here” command they’re much more likely to make that same rewarding choice in the future.
Knowing When to Leash Your Dog
Once you have a reliable recall you might be tempted to go leash free at all times. It can be quite exciting and liberating, and some of the best times are had off leash, but sometimes it’s not worth the risk.
No matter how well you think your dog is trained there are certain situations where your dog may take off. Some dogs will find chasing a rabbit irresistible, while some may take off after getting spooked by a motorcycle. If your dog always comes when called that’s great – but it doesn’t mean you should walk him down the road without a leash.
With enough practice you’ll be able to gauge your dogs personal distraction threshold and know when it’s better to keep them on lead rather than setting up an instance where they won’t listen or might run into an unsafe situation. If your unsure about your dogs reliability it’s always better to to keep them leashed to avoid potential dangers.
1. Use One Command Only & Only For Recall
Your dogs recall depends on your consistency. The command you’re using must only be associated with positive things. When using the term remember to keep it positive. Every time they come back to you let them know that they made the best choice possible by rewarding them with a yummy treat or quick game.
This was by far my biggest challenge; it’s so natural to say “come here” any time you want your dogs attention. Even after months of training myself I’d still catch myself throwing around the “come here” command on accident.
Make sure you give them a decent reward when they come to you – they’ll begin to associate the “come here” command with good things. If you use the term “come here” for negative things such as bath time or getting their nails trimmed they’re less likely to obey when called since it’s been associated with things they don’t like. The term needs to be associated with great outcomes.
Switch The Command if it’s Unreliable or Tainted
If you’ve been using “come here” for bad things or if you have an already have an unreliable recall with your dog it’s time to come up with a new command. You dog’s either learned that the command is associated with a negative consequence or they’ve learned they can get away with not listening to it.
I use “over here” since I was guilty of using “come here” for many bad experiences like leaving the park, bath time, nail trimmings, or going back inside during play time. It’s no wonder my dog wasn’t motivated to “come here” when I called, she knew it just meant we were going back inside.
2. Take Baby Steps When Training Recall
A reliable recall is best taught in small steps. You’ll want to start with short distances on a lead until you achieve a good recall. Once your dog is reliably coming when called increase the distance. Eventually you’ll be able to add in distractions such as other people or dogs. If you notice your dog not obeying at a certain distance or with distractions go back to your previous step and practice more – your dog wasn’t quite ready to move on.
Like many great things a reliable recall is built over time. Don’t expect success overnight. If your dog won’t come to you in your own backyard they’re not ready to try the command at the park.
3. Be Consistent With Your Recall Command
Dogs are constantly learning from us whether we realize it or not. Don’t slack when it comes to giving out a great reward when they come on command – maintaining recall as a constant positive experience makes it easier on you and much less confusing for the dog.
Dog’s learn well when they’re rewarded for making their own choices; when your dog recalls on command make sure they know that choice was the best decision they could have made. If you forget to praise them they might wonder whether they’ve done something wrong or just decide it’s simply not worth it to listen next time.
4. Make it Extra Rewarding When Your Dog Comes Back
As stated above getting your dog enthusiastic about coming back to you can make recall much easier to teach. We all like getting rewarded for our choices and dogs are no different. Using positive reinforcement during training is clearly communicating with your dog that they’ve done exactly what is expected of them. It also makes it much more likely that they’ll repeat the desired behavior with repeated training sessions.
There’s so many possibilities when it comes to rewards – it doesn’t just have to be treats. Dogs can be highly motivated by play so try a tug toy or lure if your dog likes to chase. If they go crazy for squeaky toys use those. I’ve used everything from frisbees to carrots.
You can make it extra rewarding by making a game out of it. Puppy in the middle is one of our favorite recall games; you and a partner practice calling your dog back and forth. Keep your dog interested by rewarding them handsomely with treats when they come. Step it up a notch by adding in a tennis ball and encourage them to join in. It’s an easy way to practice a reliable recall with multiple members of the family.
5. Start Rewarding Your Dog Before They Reach You
Whether you’re using a clicker or verbal praise let the dog know they’re on the right track while they’re heading back you. If you wait to show any sign of positive reinforcement until they’re completely back to you they’re more likely to become distracted along the way. This is especially true when working with distractions or at long distances.
I personally prefer a clicker because it enables you to respond at the exact moment your dog does the desired behavior with a distinct sound. Sometimes I found myself praising my dog with all sorts of words as she was coming back and eventually I could the positive effect of verbal praise being diminished. If you talk to your dog a lot you might find the same is true – our words can mean less if we overuse them.
6. Change Up The Reward to Keep it Interesting for Your Dog
If your only reward is exactly the same each time you perform a certain action it just becomes expected. Sure it’s still nice but it’s not very exciting after awhile. Your dogs recall command is challenging to teach, the stakes are high, so the reinforcement needs to be exciting. Keep your rewards for your dogs recall interesting by changing them up. Use treats, toys, and games. There’s going to be an extra level of enthusiasm and excitement from your dog as they’re coming back to you if they don’t know whats coming.
When training a puppy the “chase me” game is especially fun. As they’re heading back to you verbally praise them and try to coax them into chasing you. You know your dog best, use the higher value rewards when working with new distractions or from a further distance.
Any toys that you designate as training tools should be kept separate and out of reach from your dog. Dogs can easily become bored with toys if they’re given access to the same ones all the time – only use your high value training toys or treats when you’re actually training.
7. Make the Release it’s Own Reward
If your dog was in the middle of doing something fun before you had him come to you give him his reward and then allow them to go back to what they were doing. For this to work you should have a release command such as “OK go.” Something to signify the dog is free to go back to whatever it is they fancy.
This works well when there’s many distractions around – give your dog a yummy treat for obeying and then give them the cue that it’s OK to go back to what they were doing. Chances are if you’re somewhere exciting going back to playing is going to be more rewarding than what you were going to offer anyways. They’ll associate the freedom of the release as a positive consequence.
8. Don’t Assume Your Puppy is too Young to Learn
Puppies grow up following their litter mates around. They’re learning by example and following around other members of the family comes naturally to them. Teaching a young puppy to come here is often quite easy with positive reinforcement.
Puppies love to follow moving objects so teaching them to come to you while you’re running around can be accomplished quite easily. If you can lay the foundation of a great recall with a young puppy it will be tremendously helpful for when they reach their rebellious teenage phase. You can teach a dog recall at any age – it’s often easier to accomplish when started at a young age.
Laying a good foundation when your dog is young will help out in the long run. It builds a stronger bond between you and your puppy and helps build focus.
9. Don’t Set Your Dog up for Failure
Give them choices, but not too many to avoid setting them up for failure. If you can’t reliably get your dog to come to you from 5 feet away at home don’t try it at the dog park. Success comes in small steps and your dog needs to be trained in many different situations before you can expect them to come to you in a highly stimulating environment.
If you do find that your dog is not listening go and retrieve them – don’t yell or make it stressful on your dog – just put them back on the leash and remove them from the distraction. Your dog needs to realize that not coming when called isn’t an option without being overly harsh.
10. Don’t Keep Repeating Yourself
Only use your recall command once, maybe twice. Don’t keep repeating it. If your dog is ignoring you they’re going to associate not listening as an option to keep on doing whatever they’re doing.
It will reinforce “selective hearing” and you’ll end up with a much less reliable recall in the long run. If your dog isn’t listening it’s time to stop the training – the dog is either too distracted, bored with training, or wasn’t ready for that level of training yet.
11. Get Your Friends or Family Involved
Getting other people involved is a great way to enforce positive behaviors. Have everyone in the family practice the recall command. Everyone should use the same positive training methods to maintain consistency.
I’ve seen some families where it’s obvious the dog only listens to one person. Everyone in your family should give a few minutes of their day to actively work on training the dog. As long as it remains positive and consistent you should begin to notice your dog will start to reliably listen to every family member.
Use your friends and family as distractions. After you have a reliable recall when it’s just you and the dog add in one distraction at a time. Up the ante depending on how well your dog has been doing in their environment – if they’re doing well with people around have your friend run around as a distraction or have them grab a toy. Training near distractions is often quite challenging – use a friend to your advantage by keeping the situation under control while they create distractions.
12. Don’t Punish Your Dog When They Fail
If your dog comes back to you after they’ve been naughty it’s pretty hard to stay calm and relaxed. If you give in to your anger and yell or scold your dog they’re going to associate coming back to you with a negative consequence. Sometimes failures will happen and that’s OK. Just make sure you don’t end a training session with punishment after failure. It’s best to just pick up and go do something else.
Dogs that are trained with negative consequences or punishment get stressed out which can lead to other behavioral issues such as fearfulness or aggression. The extra stress can interfere with their further training and ability to learn new behaviors.
13. Stop Training When Your Dog Loses Interest
Some dogs love training, but even the most enthusiastic learners do best with breaks. 15 minute sessions should be sufficient for most dogs. If you go on much longer than that you run the risk of your dog becoming bored and/or distracted. Keep it short and sweet by ending on a high note so they’ll look forward to the next session.
How Did You Teach Your Dog a Reliable Recall?
Realizing that all dogs are individuals I’m sure we’ve each encountered our own obstacles when it comes to training a reliable recall. What works for you and your dog? How did you teach your dog to come when called? Do you have any proud moments of your dog coming back unexpectedly? I’ve had a few really proud moments with Laika’s recall, but as with most training it took a lot of patience and consistency.
It really is the best feeling in the world when you see the success of your hard work paying off right in front of you – running and wagging her tail enthusiastically the whole way back to you.
Further Reading On Training Your Dogs Recall Command
- Teaching your dog to “come when called” by Dr. Sophia Yin
- Gotta Love That Recall by Patricia McConnell
- Teaching a Reliable Recall by Whole Dog Journal