Imagine you’re out walking your dog and suddenly a cat on the other side of a busy road catches their attention. Your dog begins to leap and bark, and in their excitement, they slip their collar and take off toward the street.
How does this story end?
For some, a quick “come!” is enough to redirect the distracted dog and get them back within seconds. But for most, this story ends in tragedy. It sounds dramatic, but for so many dogs, this is the true cost of a poor recall.
If a reliable recall is so important, why do so many dogs fail to learn this key behavior? The answer has as much to do with owners not putting enough time into training recall as it does with the intrinsic difficulties of the behavior itself.
Why Is Recall So Difficult?
When I talk about the “intrinsic difficulties” of recall, I’m talking specifically about the factors that play into performing this behavior in real life situations.
Many owners dedicate plenty of time to teaching their dog to come, only to step outside and have their dog act as if they’ve never heard the word before in their life. There are a few different reasons this happens more often with this behavior than with others.
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First, and most importantly, there are distractions in the real world that make listening and recalling information difficult.
The world is a distracting place. And unfortunately for you and your recall training, many of those distractions are more fun for your dog to engage in than listening to you.
Imagine you’ve been studying all week for a test. You’ve locked yourself in a quiet room and turned off the phone and TV so you could focus on the material. When you go to take the test, you enter a room full of people. The radio is on, crowds are chatting and children are running around. How difficult is it for you to concentrate on the information you’ve learned?
This is how recall training is for so many dogs. You practice sit-stay-come in the living room, where its quiet and free from distractions. Then you take your pup out to this loud, fun world full of smells, sights, and sounds, and expect them to remember what they learned.
This inability for dogs to generalize a behavior from a quiet environment to a highly distracting environment isn’t unique to recall. But, because this behavior is so much more complex than something like sit or shake, it is that much more obvious when you try to use this command outside.
Another piece of the difficulty puzzle that is somewhat unique to the recall behavior is the aspect of rewards.
The treats you pick for your recall training better have your pup drooling at the mouth. If not, it’s worth a trip to the store to find something your dog absolutely loves.
When you ask your dog to come and hold out a stinky piece of hot dog that you have been using to train the behavior, you would expect them to oblige right away. But when your dog is already busy sniffing a bush covered in the scent of rodents, raccoons, and other dogs, they are already being rewarded for not listening to you.
This ‘reward to ignore’ is even more potent if your dog is chasing a squirrel or playing with another dog. Why would they stop what they are doing and come back to you for a measly hot dog or a pat on the head when what they are doing is already so awesome?
The final piece of the puzzle has to do specifically with training. So many owners are inconsistent when they train recall.
>>>Feel like you’re an inconsistent trainer? Trick training is a great way to improve your training skills and have fun with your dog.
In the house, you use cheese and lots of praise to reward your dog for coming to you. Out on a walk, you forget your rewards and hope a “good dog!” will suffice. And then when your dog doesn’t listen until the thirtieth time you’ve said come, you yell at them when they finally get to you and drag them back home by the collar.
Yelling at your dog while they are running loose or after they finally come to you will only convince your dog not to come back the next time you call. Keep your cool, and make sure your dog only receives praise for coming back to you, no matter how long it took them to get there.
All of this erratic behavior on your part only serves to add to your dog’s confusion. Sure, come means tasty treats when we are in the backyard, but it means I’m going to get yelled at when we are at the park.
In addition to inconsistent rewards, many owners are also inconsistent in how they call their dogs to them. Sometimes it’s “come,” sometimes it’s “come here,” and sometimes “come-on Fido, let’s go!”. You would never expect your dog to stay if you randomly changed the command between “stay,” “stay there,” and “halt,” so why do you expect them to recall when you use a different set of words each time?
>>>Have trouble keeping your recall cue consistent? You may want to consider whistle training.
Tips for Recall Training
Luckily, despite all the difficulties that come with come, it is still possible to teach your dog a strong recall. You just have to make sure you are always working to lessen the power of distractions and self-rewarding behavior, and staying consistent in how you reward and utilize the command.
Having a reliable recall means you can feel confident letting your dog off leash to explore their world. This kind of freedom will improve your dog’s life, while not having to worry about getting them back will improve yours.
Here are some tips to keep in mind when training recall and when using it in the real world.
- Just as with all other commands, you need to work up to using recall in very distracting environments by training the command in increasingly distracting situations.
- Before you ever try to use your recall at the park or on a hike, set up a training situation that allows you to teach your dog recall in a controlled version of the situation.
- If you change one variable, such as moving to a more distracting environment, you need to decrease the difficulty of other variables at first, such as decreasing the distance of the recall.
- Use a long line when first working with recall out on the trails or park so you can keep your dog close and have better control over self-rewarding behavior (like chasing squirrels or running up to other dogs).
- Never use your recall command if you know your dog won’t listen (like if they are playing with another dog or have a squirrel treed); Instead, go get your dog and remove them from the situation without saying anything.
- Always reserve the best, tastiest, highest-value reward for recall training and never use it for anything else. (Table scraps are great for recall training, but here are 10 human foods you definitely want to avoid.)
- Never punish your dog after you call them to you, even if they did something naughty before they came to you; You should only ever praise your dog for coming back to you even if it took twenty minutes and a lot of chasing them around.
- Always use the same command, in the same tone, every time you call your dog and make sure to use a high-pitched, excited voice that doesn’t sound angry or upset.
>>>Love taking your dog with you wherever you go? Here’s your essential guide to doggy beach days.
5 Games to Train and Improve Your Dog’s Recall
Even if you do put all the above tips into practice, you still might find that your dog’s recall is lackluster and spotty. That’s because running through a thousand sit-stay-come exercises is boring, no matter how tasty the rewards.
When you call your dog, you don’t want them to even think about how they should respond, they should just do it automatically. Using these games in your recall training will help make that instant reaction happen.
To help add some excitement to your recall training and to teach your dog to generalize their understanding of the behavior, you should try incorporating some of these games into your practice. Not only will these games help keep you interested in training, but they will help your dog build a knee-jerk reaction to the come command.
Just as you can’t control the way your leg jumps when a doctor taps on your knee, you want your dog to have an automatic, subconscious reaction to their recall cue. By pairing the cue, the behavior, and a tasty reward with high-energy, varying situations, you’ll help instill this type of rock-solid reaction in your dog.
Come for Treats
The first game we’ll look at is similar to the way most people train the recall command, but with a few subtle differences. This game is especially effective when used on young dogs who are new to the concept of come and it is a great way to get your pup started off on the right track.
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My parents recently got a new chocolate lab puppy. Since they wanted to be able to walk him off leash at their land, they started teaching him recall very early on by pairing high value treats with the cue. Not long after they started this training, we were out on a family hike. When my dogs ventured out of sight into the timber, I stopped and yelled come. Not one second later, my parent’s puppy plowed into my legs at a hundred miles an hour. He had such a strong, instantaneous reaction to the word come, that he immediately ran to me even though he had never practiced recall with me before and I wasn’t even talking to him.
When playing Come for Treats, make sure to start with short distances and work your way up to longer ones only as your dog shows an understanding of the recall command. (self-taken)
This is the power of the Come for Treats game.
- Start by selecting the highest value treat you can think of. Pepperoni, bacon, hot dogs, freeze-dried tripe – whatever drives your dog crazy, just make sure it’s something they don’t typically get.
- With your dog standing right by you, say “come!” and immediately give your dog a small bit of the tasty treat. Their mind should be sufficiently blown and their attention stuck on you now.
- Repeat the recall command and immediately give your dog another treat. Continue to repeat this process over and over and over. You want your dog to associate the word come with this amazing reward.
- After about 40 repetitions, let your dog wander a bit. It may take some time for them to lose interest in you, so be patient and ignore them until they start sniffing the ground or take a few steps away. Once they do, give your recall command again and then reward them when they run up to you.
- Continue calling your dog and rewarding them but increase the distance slightly with each rep. You may have to turn and walk a few steps away from them to achieve this. If your dog is stuck to you like glue, have someone else hold them while you move away and then have them let go as soon as you call them.
- Help cement the connection between come and this extra-awesome treat by randomly calling your dog when they don’t expect it. Once they get to you, whip out their very special reward and give it to them. Make sure they don’t know you have it before you call them. You want them to think that no matter what is happening or where they are, come ALWAYS equals this one extra-amazing treat.
Incorporating a lot of energy into your recall training is a must if you ever want your dog to choose coming back to you over chasing a cat. One great way to do this is with a game called “Tag.”
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Not only will this game get your dog excited about recall, but it will help speed up their reaction time to the cue and turn that lackluster trot back to you into an all-out sprint.
Even the First Dog loves a little game of chase. That’s because all dogs are naturally excited by fast movement, especially when that movement is their owner running away from them. Use that natural instinct for chasing to help build an energetic recall behavior.
- In your backyard or other large, contained space, fill your training bag with your extra-special tasty treats. With your dog in front of you, say come and immediately take a couple of steps backward. Once your dog gets to you, reward them.
- Repeat this process, each time, taking a couple more steps away before rewarding your dog.
- Once they get the hang of the game and are sprinting to catch up with you, try turning your back and running a few steps after you call your dog. Your pup should sprint up to get in front of you. Reward them once they do.
- With each rep, run farther and faster from your dog. Don’t forget to reward and praise them each time they catch you.
- To add another dimension to this game, ask your dog for a sit once they catch you. Reward them only after they sit in front of you.
- Continue asking for a sit each time they catch you until they start offering the sit on their own. By adding an ‘end behavior’, you create a more concrete picture of what a come looks like in your dog’s head and add a bit of control to the end of the behavior so your dog can’t just take off again once they run up to you.
>>>Like playing games with your pup? These 7 games are great for teaching your dog impulse control.
Look at Me
It doesn’t matter how good your dog’s recall is if they don’t hear you give the command. In instances where there are a lot of other people and dogs present or when your dog is extra focused on something else, using your dog’s name before calling them is key to a successful recall.
When you first start playing Look at Me, it may take a bit for your dog to actually look up at you when you call their name. But once they figure out that they won’t get more treats until they look up, you’ll start seeing faster and faster response times. This will translate to faster response times with recall as well.
The Look at Me game will teach your dog to give you their full and undivided attention whenever you say their name so that you can give them further direction.
- For this game, all you need is a hefty supply of kibble and an open room.
- Throw a few kibbles down on the floor to your left. Make sure they land a few feet away from you.
- As your dog slurps the last kibble off the floor, immediately say their name. The moment they look at you, throw another few kibbles on the floor to your right.
- Again, as they slurp up the last kibble, say their name. As soon as they look at you, throw a few kibbles on the ground to your left. If at any point your dog doesn’t look at you after you say their name, just wait until they finally do.
- As your dog gets the hang of the game, change it up. This time when they look at you, toss the kibbles over your shoulder or to the far end of the room. By switching it up, you will keep your dog from anticipating what happens next. They’ll be forced to focus on you in order to see where the treats are being thrown. This direct attention will come in handy next time you need to recall your dog in a distracting environment.
>>>If your dog struggles to give you their attention, you may want to consider training them to give you eye contact before training recall.
Hide and Seek
One way to get your dog excited about recall is to engage their natural curiosity and hunting drive.
Dogs love to play hide and seek, almost as much as kids! This is a great game to get the whole family involved in. Not only will multiple players help force your dog to pay attention, but it will encourage the whole family to work on your dog’s recall training.
Running back to you is fun and all, but having to find you when your out of sight is way more engaging to the predator’s mind. That’s what makes the Hide and Seek game so fun for your pup. And on the plus side, it is also a lot of fun for you as the owner.
- This game works best in the yard, but can also be played inside in a large room. Start by letting your dog turn their attention away from you. As soon as they begin to wander away, give your recall command and run to the nearest tree, bush, or couch and hide behind it. Since your dog saw you run, they should quickly run up to you. Reward them once they do. If your dog is really motivated by just finding you, praise works fine in place of a treat reward.
- Again, let your dog wander away from you. This time, make your way toward a hiding spot before calling your dog. Right before dodging out of sight, yell, “come!” Reward them once they find you.
- As long as your dog is excitedly engaged in the game, keep upping the stakes. This time, hide before calling your dog so they really have to search you out.
- Continue hiding and calling as long as your pup is interested. To make it more exciting, as soon as your dog gets close to your hiding place, take off running and don’t reward them until they catch up with you.
>>>Even a well trained dog can be a danger if they are too reactive. Before you take your reactive pup off-leash, you may want to consider a muzzle, just in case.
If your dog really struggles to tear themselves away from distractions when you call them, this is a great game to play.
If your dog ever reacts to the recall command by only looking at you or slowly trotting to you, up the energy by turning and running away. Only turn and reward them when they are running full speed to catch up with you.
To play Round Robin with your dog, you will need at least one extra person. The more people, the better. Make sure everyone involved has plenty of those extra special, tasty treats.
- Stand about ten feet away from the other person, or, for multiple people, make a ten-foot-wide circle. Call your dog to you and give them a tasty treat once they get there.
- Immediately after you give the treat, the other person should call your dog. Have the other person use knee slaps, claps, and other exciting noises to entice your dog to run quickly to them. Have them reward them the moment they get there.
- As soon as they take the treat from that person, recall your dog back (or have someone else in the circle call them).
- Continue taking turns calling the dog. If you have more than two people, mix up the order so your dog has to pay attention in order to go to the right person.
- If at any point your dog gets sluggish or doesn’t immediately react to the recall, have the person who called them take off running in the opposite direction. If your dog thinks their treat is running away, they’ll definitely step up the pace to get to it.
>>>Now that your dog has learned recall and earned some freedom, it’s time to get an LED collar to keep them in sight even in the dead of night.
Take Your Recall Game on the Road
All these games are great ways to introduce your dog to the recall command and help keep the behavior sharp over time, but they will only do so much to ensure your dog recalls in real-life situations
It may be a lot of work, but your dog will appreciate all that time spent mastering recall once they earn their freedom to explore the world off-leash, even in the most distracting environments.
In order to get your dog to recall effectively in a distracting environment, you have to train them to recall in that environment. That may mean taking some of these games on the road (or to the park) or playing a modified version of them while hiking or playing at the dog park. Remember to always use a long line if you are working with your dog in an open environment so you can control them while still giving them the impression that they are free to do what they want.
>>>Plan on letting your dog romp through the fields now that their recall is perfected? You may want to take some extra steps to avoid foxtail injuries.
If you know you are going to be in a situation where you’ll need to use your recall, like an off-leash walk, make sure you bring those extra tasty treats along. Don’t worry about making your dog dependent on having treats to recall. Carrying stinky tripe with you whenever your dog is off-leash, is a small price to pay for a bomb-proof recall.
And the next time your dog slips their collar and heads toward the street, they won’t realize you don’t have treats until they’ve already turned on a dime and come back to you. Just make sure you do lots of recall training afterward with those yummy treats to keep the behavior reliable for future emergencies.
Sara Seitz has spent most of her life in the pet industry and has a bachelors in animal behavior from Colorado State University. Sara started working with dogs and cats as a high schooler at a rural boarding kennel. There she learned a lot about the bad and the ugly of the pet service industry. But not even the toughest day at that job would dissuade Sara from following her dream of working with animals.
In college, Sara got a job at a dog daycare and boarding facility in Fort Collins, Colorado. Her new career provided even more opportunities for learning about dog behavior than her classes did. As general manager of the daycare, Sara helped the company launch a new in-home pet sitting branch and trained to become a certified dog trainer. Between shifts taking care of peoples pets in-home and supervising dogs during playtime at the daycare, Sara organized and taught obedience classes.
Sara has always been passionate about bettering the lives of our canine companions. She soon found that advocating for and educating owners in the power of positive reinforcement training was one of the best ways to help dogs and their owners live happier lives.