How many times have you seen owners call their dog in the park only to be completely ignored? We’ve all been that dog owner haplessly trying to get their dog to come back, while the pooch has headed off in the opposite direction. Squirrels, other dogs, ice cream vans; whatever your dog’s weakness, we can usually rely on them chasing after their favourite smells with glee.
Sometimes, dog’s who weren’t given enough recall training from a young age may struggle to control themselves when let off the lead. Of course, all dog owners want to avoid any worrying experience; you want to be sure you’re dog will behave and return.
But with proper training and reinforcement you can train your dog or puppy to come on command. The more you practice, the more reliable this behaviour will become until your dog is able to spend more time off the lead than they are on it.
Three essential points for getting your dog to come and recall training
1. Choose a cue
Of course you can use your dog’s name to call them, but it’s far more effective if you have a specific cue. This could be “come”, “here” or your dog’s name plus your chosen cue. Make this command special – if you only use it when you’re about to put your dog on the lead or at bath time, your dog might build negative associations and won’t want to return. Why not use it for treats and dinner time, too?
2. Use catch and release
How often do you grab your dog’s harness or collar? Probably only when they’re doing something wrong. To combat this, practice during games so your dog is happy for you to handle them playfully. While playing fetch, frisbee or something else your dog loves, gently take your dog’s collar or harness and say a cue such as “gotcha” while releasing a treat. Each time you take the collar, give the treat and praise then let your dog go and carry on with the fun game. Soon, they won’t mind if you need to grab them, which is a great safety catch when you’re out and about.
You should also introduce a release cue. This could be “go on then” or “off you go” or “free time”. This will ensure they learn to follow your lead for when it’s safe to run off and explore, and when they should return.
3. Use high-value treats
Recall is one of the most important skills your dog can learn because it allows them to have essential off-lead freedom while keeping you, them and other dogs safe. For that reason, save your finest treats for your recall practice. Give them something like chicken, ham or sausage and give it to them sparingly during recall and not for other less-crucial obedience lessons such as sit and lay down.
Once you have those three aspects nailed, it’s time to begin training your dog to come.
How to train your dog to come
Step one: practice in the house
Help your dog to associate coming back to you with lots of nice things. Grab your high-value treats and while in the same room, call your dog’s name. Each time they pay you attention, give them a treat and plenty of praise
Once you’re doing this reliably, add your recall word and only treat them if they come towards you. You can show them the treat and start from a small distance if this helps.
Once they are reliably coming towards you each time you use your recall word, you can begin trying it from other rooms in the house.
Always give lots of praise and high-value rewards each time your dog comes to you. If they don’t come after you’ve called them, don’t repeat the cue or their name over and over. This only makes the word lose meaning. Instead, carry on with what you’re doing and return to the recall after a few minutes.
Step two: practice in the park
Head to an area you and your dog know well. Look for somewhere quiet and enclosed if possible. Practice the recall cue with your dog on a long line or extendable lead [link to dog lead advice article]. If they return to you, quickly give them a treat and lots of praise.
Top tip: a mistake many make is asking the dog to come then asking them to “sit” before giving them the treat. This teaches your dog: when I sit I get a treat, when really you want them to learn that coming back is what gets the treat. Give your dog the treat as soon as they return – sit or no sit.
Step three: practice your recall
Over the space of a few weeks practice – little and often. Each time your dog comes back, praise and treat them. When you feel confident that they’re getting the majority recalls correct, let them off the lead.
Remember, don’t call your dog as soon as you have let them off. Give them a minute to explore or play, then use the recall cue. If they don’t come back, don’t chase or try to grab them. Let them continue then try again a few minutes later. If they still can’t get it, go back to practising at home or on the longline. The more distractions there are, the harder this will be.
Step four: Build up to other situations
Add distractions slowly. This will be other dogs, people or any other situations that your dog finds mesmerising. Try to set your dog up to win by calling them during a natural break in play or when they are near to you.
As they get more and more reliable, you can introduce off-lead time in new environments and with new playmates. Eventually, coming back when you call will be second nature and you can reduce the amount or frequency of treats you provide.