Coming when called is an essential skill for our dogs. Many pet parents have the beautiful mental image of Lassie bounding over the horizon and sprinting vast distances when little Timmy calls, but real life tends to not be so picturesque. Lassie never had to contend with the temptations of chasing squirrels or finding food in the grass at the park! In this big wide world of distractions, how do we get our dogs to have a reliable recall cue?
Start with the basics
It is very important that we always reward our dogs for coming when called! If your dog reliably appears every time you crinkle a treat bag, we can take advantage of that same consistency to have them recall to a word.
One of the best ways to start recall training is teaching your dog a hand target. To teach this, start with your dog in front of you and a treat bag or pocket full of goodies.
- Hold out your flat palm to your dog and say "yes!" or click a clicker the instant you feel their nose as they reach out to sniff your hand. Follow this up with a tasty treat.
- Once your dog has the hang of "booping" your empty hand with their nose, you can add your verbal cue of choice. Some popular options are "touch," "here," "come," or "hurry." Simply say your verbal cue one time, present your hand target, and always follow up with a treat.
- Start off by practicing over short distances and with minimal distractions. Working in the house or backyard at first is a perfect way to begin. Once your dog has mastered recall in the house, you can start to work in public areas and incorporate longer distances. Make sure you use a long training leash for safety when out in public!
- If your dog ever ignores your recall cue, follow it up with fun noises and movements to entice them to come to you. Usually, if a dog fails to respond it just means you need a little more practice in that environment or under those conditions.
Give your dog a raise
When it comes to recall, we recommend pulling out all of the stops when it comes to high value treats. Training a reliable recall is about stacking the deck in our favor and building a long, consistent history of reinforcement. It's not about the treat you have in your pocket when you give the cue, but the strong training you and your dog have put into that cue over time. Kibble isn't quite going to cut it when you are asking your dog to leave something they love. Try saving bits of rotisserie chicken, string cheese, steak, and other delicious but dog-safe "people" food to use exclusively for recall training. Certified dog trainer Don Hutton of Running Dogs coined the brilliant phrase "give your dog a raise" for training recalls, and you can check out more creative treat ideas by browsing the hashtag #giveyourdogaraise on social media.
Don’t be the fun police
Our dogs can learn very quickly that listening to recall cues does not pay off. We are often guilty of accidentally punishing our dogs for listening to us by calling them away from something fun to do something less fun. If the only time we are calling our dogs is to leave the dog park, close the door to the backyard, or get in the car to head to the vet, they are definitely going to start developing some selective hearing. Do your best to avoid using your dog's name or recall cue in those scenarios, or at least until your dog has a rock solid recall with a ton of reinforcement history to back it up.
To counteract this, you can play a game where you wait for your dog to be mildly distracted, call them away and give them a treat, then release them back to the distraction. The more our dogs understand that recall doesn't just signal the end of the party, the more likely they are to listen.
Less is more
Once your dog is more reliably listening, it can be incredibly reinforcing for the human end of the leash to start using that recall cue left and right. Resist the temptation to call your dog all the time! Even if you are rewarding your dog for recalling, being frequently interrupted can be, well, a little irritating. You are better off calling your dog just a handful of times on your adventure, paying them handsomely with delicious treats, and allowing them to go back to exploring.