One of the most critical “tricks” you can teach your dog is to come when called. Professional dog trainers call this skill “recall.”
Just to reiterate (because it’s important), the skill of coming when called is referred to as “recall.”
Every dog should learn this behavior, and every dog owner should make teaching a strong recall a priority in training. Even puppies as young as 8 weeks old can start learning to come when called.
The sooner you start, the more you can reinforce that “coming when called” is always a rewarding choice for your dog, regardless of the distractions that may be present.
Being able to recall your dog may one day save their life. You may need it if they slip the leash, go running towards a busy intersection, or are heading for some other danger that they are not aware of.
This article will give you tried and true techniques to start training your dog to come when called, show how to continually reinforce this behavior, and discuss common mistakes to avoid.
First Things First: Decide on a Recall Cue
The first thing to do when training your pooch to come when called is to decide on the cue that you want to use.
Keep in mind that it will be important down the road to enforce the recall cue by using a “time out” if your dog fails to come to this cue. For that reason, it is best to use a cue other than your dog’s name.
You don’t want your dog to think they have to come to you every time they hear their name, and you don’t want to be put in the position of enforcing a recall punishment every time they don't come.
Instead, choose a specific cue such as “Come!” or a specific sound such as a whistle or clapping sound. It is also okay to use their name, followed by the sound. Many trainers teach their canines to look at them when their name is called, followed by an “action cue.”
Just keep in mind that the Recall Cue should be more than just your dog’s name.
Choosing Markers: How to Reward Your Dog
If you have done any training based on positive reinforcement, you already know that your goal is to pair a specific sound (called a marker) with a reward (such as food). This allows you to let your dog know exactly when they are “doing it right” and will greatly accelerate any training.
The marker should be a sound. It can be a “click” from a clicker designed for dog training, or even a special word such as “Yes!” which is always followed by a food reward, even if you made a mistake in your timing.
Using Food Rewards
There is a reason professional dog trainers use food rewards for most dog training, particularly in the early stages of training a new behavior. Most dogs are food motivated (except dogs that are allowed to free feed). Food rewards can be repeated quickly in a training context and can be easily paired with a marker sound.
High-value food rewards are those special tasty treats your dog really loves: a small piece of cooked chicken, a tiny cube of cheese, a slice of a hot dog. Lower value food rewards can be as simple as a piece of your dog’s daily kibble rations. Food rewards don’t have to translate into a fat dog!
Make a treat pouch for training that includes a mix of both high-value and low-value food rewards, using some of their daily food rations as the bulk of the pouch.
If they are learning something new, or learning to perform in a distracting environment, boost the ratio of higher value rewards to keep your dog’s attention when they are being challenged.
Food rewards can always be faded down the road in exchange for other rewards such as praise, a game with a tug toy, or a toss of the ball. However, you should still randomly practice and reward recall with high-value food rewards at least a few times a week, even when your dog has recall pretty much down.
This kind of random reward deeply reinforces this important behavior and makes sure it will be there when you need it.
The Recall Game
When first introducing your dog to coming when called, it is advised to think of it as a fun game that is easy for your dog to win. In fact, setting your dog up for success by making it easy for them to succeed is one of the little-known training secrets of dog trainers.
One way to play this game is to invite a few friends (and kids really love this game too) to sit in a circle and take turns using your recall cue, rewarding with praise and a food reward for success. Just ignore failure in this very early stage of this game.
If your dog is distracted, try being more exciting. In fact, you can even try running away from your dog excitedly while giving the recall cue. Remember to mark and reward success as often as you can.
Once your dog masters this game in the house in a very low distraction environment, try it outside in a fenced yard. Start close together in the recall circle and gradually increase the distance between the players as your dog gets more confident.
If you don’t have a securely fenced yard, you can also use a long line or long piece of rope to make sure you can safely retrieve your dog should they fail to come when called. Use the same long line to train your dog to recall under more distracting conditions such as at a campground around other people and pets.
Recall and Then Release
Dogs are smarter than we give them credit for. Many well-intentioned dog owners make the mistake of calling their dogs to them and then in some way restraining them. For example, you are out enjoying a romp on the beach, and when it is time to go home, you use your recall command to call your dog to you, put the leash back on, and get in the car to go home.
Removing rewards (such as the ability to play) is basically the same as a punishment for your dog. Make sure that 90% or more of the times that you call your dog to you, you reward and then release them back to the fun. Otherwise, you are sure to make coming when called a bit riskier for your dog, and thus less likely to be effective in a pinch.
Continuous Recall Training
The Recall Game is a great way to get your dog or puppy started with understanding what your recall cue is and how to win a reward by responding correctly. However, if the only time you ever practice the cue is during that specific training context, then it won’t work very well in real life.
To solve this problem, think of dog training as something you are always doing, even when you are not in “official training sessions.”
Start to use the recall cue during everyday life when you feel pretty sure your dog will be successful, and have a treat ready (preferably a high-value one) to reward success.
As your dog gets better and better at coming when called, try to get even sneakier, surprising your dog with something great that they didn’t even know you had. This kind of reward should be done to practice recall at least once a week.
Once your dog is confident coming when called in low distraction environments, it is time to practice in higher distraction environments. Again, use high-value rewards when distraction levels are high until your dog has fairly reliable recall in those circumstances.
More Pro Tips for Training a Bulletproof Recall:
- Light Consequences: Only use your recall cue when you are prepared to enforce it by physically retrieving your dog if they fail to respond correctly. Otherwise, you will train your dog that coming when called is “optional.” Failure to come when called should result in the removal of privileges, otherwise known as a “Time-Out.” Most pro trainers use a 5-minute break in a crate or a room by themselves.
- Avoid Harsh Tones: Never call your dog to you and then punish them or use harsh tones with them when they respond to the cue by coming. Even if your dog was into something they were not supposed to be, it is an instant redemption if they come when you call them. Otherwise, you may train your dog that coming when you call with an anxious tone is a recipe for punishment, causing them to refuse to come out of fear just when you may need that recall the most.
- Don’t Overuse Cues: Don’t make the mistake of using your recall cue over and over if your dog fails to come. If there is a chance they did not hear you, you can repeat it once. Beyond that, prepare to enforce the recall by physically retrieving your dog and treating them to a time-out.
- Try New Environments: Practice recall in new environments whenever possible. Dogs are particularly bad at generalizing cues to new places and around new distractions. The only way to fix this is to practice in as many different environments as possible. Use a long line or a rope to enforce a recall until your dog’s recall is reliable in that new environment.
- Accept Limitations: Recognize there are always going to be limitations to your dog’s recall. This is because sometimes a dog just wants something so bad that it is going to “win” when your dog does the math on the value of your rewards and the value of going after whatever they are going after. Specific breeds, for example, have such a deeply ingrained prey drive that you may never be able to compete with a running squirrel in the park. Never rely on your dog’s recall in potentially dangerous situations such as near busy traffic.
- Retrain if Necessary: You may have already “broken” your dog’s recall by making one of the many mistakes mentioned in this article. If your dog is already on “optional” when you try your recall cue, then it is time to start over with a new cue, using these tips to train it right this time.
- Consistency is Key: Practice, practice, practice! Recall training is never over. Even if your dog is good at it, keep up the practice at least a few times a week to remind them that coming when called is always a winning choice.