When you call your dog, will he come straight away, every time? What if he’s in the middle of playing with other dogs in the park or chasing a possum in the back yard? What if someone is throwing a ball nearby? What if you don’t have any treats with you? Recall training is extremely useful at home, essential if you visit off leash areas, and can be life-saving in an emergency.
It takes a lot of practise and reinforcement for a dog to recall in these situations where they are highly aroused, distracted or otherwise motivated to remain where they are.
Build a reinforcement history
Recall is essentially asking your dog to stop what they are doing and come to you instead. This can be challenging as dogs are often very interested in what is going on around them. Therefore the goal of recall training is to make ourselves more interesting and rewarding than anything else that might be going on. We do this by conditioning our dog to hear your call and almost automatically respond, by practising frequently and in a range of different settings and rewarding generously. This is such a vital skill that it’s no time to be frugal with the treats (and you can feed a smaller dinner if you are worried about their weight). The repetition of ‘call – come – reward’ becomes more and more predictable for the dog.
The key is to time your practise wisely so that you’re not interrupting something super interesting. ONLY call them when you are 99% sure they will come. You don’t want your dog to learn that they can ignore you when it suits them. Rather, you want your dog to come every time, and learn that they will be showered with praise and food and play when they come.
Place your dog on leash, start walking, then get their attention and take a few steps back, encouraging them to follow you. Say ‘come’ or whatever cue you want to use. After a few steps, stop and reward with a treat or toy (which does your dog prefer?). Do this often and be exciting so that your dog thinks it’s super fun to be around you.
Call your dog from across the room when they are awake and alert but not otherwise engaged in anything. Try practising when you don’t have any treats on you – and when your dog comes, have a party and run to the treat cupboard together.
Puppy in the Middle
Have a friend hold your dog by their collar. Wiggle or squeak your dog’s favourite toy, or let them sniff a tasty treat that you are holding, then cross the room. You should already have your dog’s attention; call them, and have your friend release them at the same time. The dog will be motivated to get to you and you will have a reward ready to deliver when they arrive! Take turns calling your dog back and forth between you and your friend.
Hide and Seek
Have a friend hold your dog by their collar. Wiggle or squeak your dog’s favourite toy, or let them sniff a tasty treat that you are holding, then leave the room and hide somewhere out of sight. Call them, and have your friend release them at the same time. Start by ‘hiding’ somewhere easy to find until your dog definitely understands the game, then you can add an element of searching to the game.
Upping the ante
Practise your recall training daily. Gradually increase the difficulty and level of distraction but be aware that moving too quickly may lead your dog to less reliability. If you have to repeat your cue, the environment may be too distracting for their current skill level and you should go back a step. Practising in easier environments will strengthen your reinforcement history and you will eventually be able to progress to more difficult environments.
Some ideas for increasing difficulty and improving your dog’s skills include:
- Walking on leash, wait until your dog stops to sniff something and then call them
- Have a friend visit and play with your dog. Ask your friend to freeze when you call your dog
- Practise recall in an area where your dog can see and hear other dogs
- Place some toys on the ground and call your dog to run past them to you.
- Place some enticing food (such as roast chicken) in a container that the dog cannot access but can smell, and call your dog to run past the food to you. When your dog is successful, run with your dog to the container and reward from there.
- Call your dog and when they are coming towards you, slowly roll a ball past
If any of these scenarios are too difficult and your dog’s reliability drops, stop and go back to reinforcing recall in less distracting environments. Practice often, reward generously and only add in more challenges when your dog is ready!
Many local obedience clubs will help you practise your dog’s recall around other dogs in a safe and controlled way.
Do’s and don’ts
Don’t put your dog on a leash as soon as they come to you. Your dog will likely learn that recall means the fun is over.
Do call your dog, reward them for coming, then release them to return to what they were doing whenever possible and safe to do so.
Do practise recall using a long line to keep your dog safe while they learn.
Don’t punish your dog for coming to you. Even if you were recalling your dog away from doing something naughty, reward the recall!
Jordan Dog Training offers obedience classes for dogs from 5 months of age, with no upper age limit. One membership fee will give you free ongoing access to our obedience classes for the life of the dog. If you could use some help getting started with recall training, contact us for more information.