Introduction

Teaching and maintaining your dog’s recall seems easy to start with but can fail in practice. Here’s a guide to training a reliable recall.

A good recall is an essential life skill which makes life with your dog much more manageable and enjoyable.  It is also essential if you are going to be using a long lead or letting your dog off-lead!

Recall is one of the most energy and attention intensive behaviours that we ask for from most pet dogs which makes it is hard for your dog to learn and deliver.  Unlike LOOK or SIT which are often only done in close proximity and use only a little bit of movement and attention.  It’s no wonder then that a good recall is an elusive skill for so many.

Before we talk in detail about the recall there are a couple of fundamentals to cover: (1) signalling your recall and (2) rewarding your recall.

Signalling

There are lots of different ways to call your dog back to you, but one fundamental to make sure you’ve really understood is that dogs are very VISUAL and not very VERBAL. 

There are plenty of studies now which support teaching our dogs with hand signals and using our body language rather than just our words.  Body language is after one of the main ways that our dogs communicate.  A really good signal is arms wide to the side so that you are standing in a T-shape with your palms open towards your dog.  Palms dispense food so your dog may pay particular attention to them.  Dogs are pack animals and tend to move together so when you start teaching recalls you might want to add in stepping backwards too as it tends to ‘pull’ the dog towards you.

Verbal signals need to be kept short and clear.  COME is easier for them to hear from a distance, and after all, it needs to work from a distance.  The one word that you probably use a lot around your dog is their name so they will have learnt that it doesn’t really mean much, often meaning roughly the same thing as when someone flashes their lights at you when driving.  This means that it’s best to avoid saying ‘Fluffy come’ just use a single word ‘come’.  And try to avoid ‘come here’ or ‘come here now’.  Short is better, the more words in your recall phrase, they tend to listen to the last word the most.  Try asking a trained dog to SIT DOWN (for them SIT and DOWN are two separate behaviours) and see which one you get.

Rewarding your recall

Until your dog has thoroughly learned their recall using the stages below you will need to reward every recall.  When you start you can give them a treat for every little recall but as you progress you and your dog will benefit from a wider range of rewards.  You might use a favourite toy to help (see here for more information https://www.harmony.dog/?p=1305), let them know they’ve done especially well, some fuss and praise, or some extra high value treats.   One dry piece of dog food for a recall from the kitchen to the garden at home may be a fitting reward.  But bombing full pelt out of free play with other dogs and running 20m then skidding into a sit right in front of you has to be worth more than a piece of dry kibble especially if you’ve just fed them a bowl of kibble before your walk!  Finding out how and when to reward your dog and in what way is something that is integral to your relationship with them so it’s well worth playing around with different rewards and seeing what works.  Just make sure you’re never dull and predictable or your adolescent dog may start to tune you out!

Using a toy can be a great way to reward a recall

Stages of recall training

The process of teaching and maintaining your dog’s recall has several stages and it’s important that you and your dog progress through each stage.   The early stages involve lots of short recalls with treats and praise for every repetition and may be very familiar to anyone who has been through puppy training.  We call this stage ACQUISITION

Stage 1 – Acquisition

Teaching a dog to acquire a recall isn’t actually that hard.  You need to make sure when you start that there are no distractions around and your dog really wants your reward.   The first few times you are going to LURE this new behaviour by

  1. showing them the reward
  2. stepping away from them
  3. signalling that you want them to recall using visual and verbal cues
  4. reward them for coming towards you

You’ll need to repeat this about five times and then you will be able to start to drop steps 1 and 2.  It is often better to start to FADE THE LURE gradually so in any set of five repetitions you may want to drop the first steps only once or twice.   Once you dog understand that your hand signal and verbal cue mean that if they come to you they’ll get a reward you are ready to move on.

Stage 2 – Generalising

Dog’s tend to need more help than humans to generalise a behaviour that they learnt in the kitchen to other rooms and the garden and finally out onto a walk.  Each time you ask your dog for a recall in a new environment go back and re-teach it at Stage 1 and at this stage keep the distances very short (2m to 3m depending on the size of your dog) and distractions low.  Here are some ways to help your dog generalise this newly acquired skill.

  1. Practice in every room of the house and then between rooms
  2. Practice with just the hand signal and no verbal cue
  3. Try being out of sight so all they can hear is the verbal cue
  4. Playing ‘ping-pong’ recalls between different family members in the garden making sure everyone uses the same cues and everyone rewards the recall
  5. Standing side on or even with your back turned

Stage 3 – Increasing distance and duration

The next stage is best done using a long lead of 5m and a fixed length.  Recalling over 5m is tiring so this is the time to start using some better rewards.   If you have a garden then practice there first and then practice on a recreation field or out on a walk.  The distractions are likely much higher outside so again be free of distractions and have worthwhile rewards.  At this stage it is often helpful to add in a SIT in front of you when the dog arrives and to give them an extra two or three treats for staying in the sit with you.  If you have a safe fenced field in which to practice you may want to try some recalls where you have dropped the long lead in order to add in extra distance or to allow you to ‘hide’ slightly out of sight.

Stage 4 – Proofing

This is the stage where most recalls start to fail.  If your recall has started to fail, then it’s likely you reach a Stage 3 recall fairly easily and decided your dog was ready to go off lead.  You’ve probably had some great recalls, and then some intermittent recalls, and then some where you know you may as well save your breath and wait for them to come back when they are ready.

Instead, you need to spend time practicing your recalls around distractions.  You need to start really small and then incrementally increase the distractions.  Here are list of ways of proofing your recall:

  1. Place a toy on the ground out to the side of the line over which you are going to recall your dog.  It needs to be far enough away that you can guarantee your dog will still do a successful recall.  They gradually bring the toy a little closer on each recall.  If they go and see the toy before recalling to you then make sure you don’t reward this repetition and go back to working with the toy at a distance.
  2. Repeat the above with an empty food bowl and then a food bowl with a piece of food in.
  3. Allow your dog to go off and sniff at the end of the long lead on a walk and then recall them away from the sniff

This brings us on to another aspect of recall, which is when to reward.  Some recalls last several seconds and might involve them starting by looking away from a sniff, then running for several meters, past some really interesting distractions.  While your dog is learning you can praise them DURING the recall and not just for coming into a sit.

You’ll need to have thoroughly proofed your recall against all of these staged distractions before working around other dogs as these are often an overwhelming distraction.  You need to be able to practice recalling around other dogs first before trying to recall them from any kind of social interaction.   Training classes provide an ideal environment to practice long distance recalls safely around other dogs at close quarters.  Look here for general and recall specific sessions https://harmonydogtraining.simplybook.it/v2/

It is only when you know that you can recall your dog away from anything and everything that you should have them off lead in a public area.

Here is a video example training session with Annie the border collie at just 13 weeks old when she’d been with us for just 1 week which illustrates stages 1 through 4.

Stage 5 – Maintenance

Once your dog has a well ‘proofed’ recall you still need to reward your dog’s recall AND you still need to do the odd set up.  Like any skill you and your dog need to practice!  When you first reach this stage, you might want to work on a ratio of at least 9 practices for every 10th recall in earnest. 

“What should I do if I try to recall my dog and they don’t come back?”

If you find yourself in this position you need to assess what happened and which stage you need to go back to.  Sometimes if your dog is simply playing ‘keep away’ then you may want to ignore them.  You may need to go and physically retrieve them, however, if they are being a nuisance to another dog or member of the public.  If they are steadfastly ignoring you then running away and hiding may also work.  The worst thing to do in this situation is to be cross with your dog as they are even less likely to come back and IF they do eventually do a perfect recall you need to praise and reward before putting them back on the lead. The important thing though is to really admit that your recall failed and go back and do the practice the aspect of the recall which failed before letting your dog off the lead again.

Case Study – Rory

Teaching and maintaining your dog’s recall should easy and fun if you stick to these simple guidelines. If you are having problems though please feel free to contact us for small group or 121 training support https://www.harmony.dog/contact/