The all-important recall command

There is nothing more frustrating than trying to chase a dog that plays “keep away” when you are trying to get it to come. Here are a few tips on improving your dogs response to the come command (commonly called a “recall”).

Real world vs. show ring

In the show ring, the dogs sit quietly, totally intent on watching their owner, then fly back toward them when they hear the word “come.” They then sit beautifully straight in front of their owners, and even swing around to heel position when asked to do so.

These perfect “recalls” rarely exist in real life, even when a show dog is called outside of the show ring. Why? First of all, the conditions are rarely the same. When we are recalling our dogs in the real world, they are usually busy doing something else they find interesting–not waiting patiently for our command.

Improving your dog’s compliance

First, consider what the word “come” now means to your dog. Have you called him to you when you are going to do something unpleasant to him, such as clean his ears or poke a pill down his throat? We have all done this, but unfortunately, this is one reason that some dogs hesitate before coming when called, and sometimes will not come at all.

Three easy rules to remember

  • Your “come” command should always mean something wonderful is about to happen. If your dog has already decided that coming is optional, why not change the word you use? The word “here” is a very good one, and most of us cannot say this word without a cheerful tone to our voice.
  • Always call your dog in an upbeat tone of voice, even when you are panicked because he is darting away into a dangerous road. If you yell like you’re furious, he may be afraid to come to you. If you keep your tone high and upbeat, he is more likely to choose coming over running away.
  • Manage the circumstances. If your dog is in a position where he is very unlikely to come when called, such as off-leash playing with the next door neighbor’s dog, do not even call him. He doesn’t need more practice ignoring the recall command. In this case, simply go to your dog, take his collar and snap his leash to it. Many dogs, such as Beagles, can become so intent on sniffing something that they will not even hear you if called in their own backyard. If you can tell your dog is on an “intense sniff,” simply walk over to him as opposed to calling him to you. Until your dog has proven that he can respond to your command reliably, he should not be expected to come off-leash.

Training reliability

Okay, how do we train this type of reliability into your dog? Start by walking your dog on his regular leash. Let him get a little bit ahead of you, then say “Fluffy, here” in your most cheerful voice, and move backwards, away from him. If needed, you can hold a treat at his nose level as a lure to pull him towards you (if he will come without the food treat, then don’t use it).

When he is just a step or two away from you, pull the treat upwards if you wish to lure him into a sit in front of you, or simply praise and pet, then take off walking again, repeating this several times during each walk.

After your dog is doing this reliably on a standard six-foot leash, or his retractable leash, then change to a longer leash, such as a 15-foot cotton web long line. Let him get further away before you call him. As he becomes reliable with distance, you can progress even to a 30 foot leash, and add distractions by having someone bounce a ball or hold another dog on leash nearby.

You can also go to an open area and let your dog play without holding the long line, just let him drag it so he feels as if he is off-leash, then call him. If he doesn’t come, pick up the leash, take up the slack and give a quick collar correction (do not pull him in like you are reeling in a fish, simply give a very quick tug as you repeat the command, so that he “wakes up” and realizes that you are calling). Run backwards while clapping your hands if needed to encourage him from further away.

Be sure to know what your dog likes best. If it is a squeaky toy or ball, then incorporate these as rewards, instead of depending on just treats and/or praise.

Come and get it

Another easy exercise to instill a positive response to a “here” command is the “come and get it” game. Play this in a confined area, such as your kitchen or hallway.

Show your dog a treat, then say “get it” and toss it a couple of feet away (not too far away, make sure he can see it). As he takes the treat, say “good” and then quickly say “here!” showing him that you have another treat for him, which you give him as soon as he arrives.

Repeat several times in one session, and do several of these sessions a day the first week. The following week, play the two person recall game. Each person has small treats, about the size of a Cheerio™. One person holds the dog by the collar, while the other person gives the “Fluffy, here!” command, luring the dog in with a treat. Then they hold the collar while you give the command. Quickly change to variable reinforcement, varying the types of treats you are giving and not giving the treat each time, so the dog never knows what is coming.

Dogs trained with these simple exercises quickly can go to playing “hide and seek” in the house, where you can go around the corner and call him when you are out of sight, rewarding him when he arrives, and eventually you can go into another room and call him. This type of recall practice is very practical, as you may not always be in the dog’s line of sight when you need to call him in “real life.”

Make sure that neither you, or any children in the dog’s life, play chase games with the dog. Dogs who are allowed to play “catch me if you can” will certainly be the hardest ones to convince that a “come” or “here” command should be heeded.

Also, make sure that your bond with your dog is strong, and reward your dog with a smile and praise anytime he looks your way, even if you have not called him. Your relationship with your dog will be a strong factor in whether or not you will be able to get him to come when called off-leash.

Keep in mind that certain dogs have the instinct to run in their genetic make-up, so they may never be able to be trusted off-leash outdoors (such as a Siberian Husky–it is difficult to “take the run out” of a Northern breed sled dog). Many of these dogs have high prey drive, meaning they will chase and sometimes even kill small animals. With these dogs you must limit off-leash exercise to a securely fenced area.

One tip to getting these dogs to come within a fenced area is to mimic the noise and actions of “prey. Some toys, when squeezed, make a high-pitched squealing noise that sounds almost like a bunny in distress. If you squeeze this type of toy, then run away from your dog, the dog’s chase instinct may kick in, bringing him to you.

Repetition is key

Be sure to remember that it takes nearly a month for a behavior to be conditioned to the point of an automatic response. In order for your dog to start coming automatically, even in the presence of distractions, you need to practice positive recall exercises such as those above for a period of about four consecutive weeks.

If you have followed the rules we have outlined, and have positively reinforced your dog when he comes to you, then it should eventually become an ingrained habit for your dog to come running when he hears the word “here.” This type of response takes some work on your part, but it is well worth it–achieving a reliable recall could someday save your dog’s life.

Source: Adapted from the ASPCA