Training a reliable recall

If you build it, they will come: Training a reliable recall

Kathy Sdao, Associate CAAB

Ask dog trainers to name the most essential behavior a dog should learn; most are likely to answer, “a reliable recall.” Coming when called — dependably, despite distractions — saves dogs’ lives and owners’ sanity. Dogs who master this skill lead fuller lives too, because they have the privilege of being off-leash on occasions when it is safe and where it is legal.

What is a reliable recall? It’s when you call your dog once and she immediately begins running straight toward you and then stops within touching distance. Sitting in front of you isn’t necessary, but it is important that your dog be close enough that you are able to attach a leash to her harness or collar.

Ten practical suggestions

1)    A recall is nothing more than a long-distance targeting behavior. So teaching your dog to touch her nose to your fingertips is a great foundation exercise. This fingertip-targeting behavior is easy for your dog to do. And it’s simple for you to practice many times daily.

2)    Choose your recall signal to be simple, salient & consistent. It’s usually a word; it can precede your gesture of extending your fingertips to the dog. If your dog has learned that “come” isn’t meaningful, pick another word. I use “Here!”

  • Be generous with rewards. Training the recall is no time to be stingy! Use meaty treats, a portion of your dog’s daily meals, a game of fetch – anything your dog loves. Never show her the food or toy before you call her. Use these as rewards after her correct response, not as bribes to encourage it.

4)    To get in lots of practice trials throughout the day, precede many of the good things you routinely give your dog (e.g., a walk, a bully stick, a game of tug) with his recall cue.

5)    Use this new cue word with great care. Initially, say it only when you are very confident your dog will respond correctly by immediately moving toward you. Use it not as a command but as a prediction. When you wouldn’t make this prediction, don’t say your cue word; instead just gently go and get your dog.

6)    Set up frequent training situations that include intermediate-level distractions.

  • Your recall cue will sometimes end your dog’s fun (e.g., calling him away from friends at the dog-park). These unpleasant consequences may teach your dog not to come when you call. You can avoid this problem by using “catch & release.” Call your dog when he is mildly interested in his surroundings. Then reinforce his correct response with treats and praise AND the opportunity to go back to what he was doing.

8)    Occasionally, when it is safe, use whatever is distracting for your dog (e.g., her desire to chase a squirrel) as the reward for coming to you when you call.

9)    It’s not a real-life recall until the dog can stop and turn toward you while chasing a moving temptation. So it’s essential to set up opportunities to practice this challenging choice.

10) Preserve puppies’ recall behavior by keeping them on leash for socialization outings.

Kathy Sdao is an associate certified applied animal behaviorist.

She is proud to bean original faculty member at Karen Pryor Clicker Training’s ClickerExpo Conferences

Since 1998, Kathy has owned Bright Spot Dog Training. 

Her book Plenty in Life is Free: Reflections on Dogs, Training and Finding Grace was published in 2012.

Thank you Kathy Sdao for your writing contribution to Project Positive by Pet Tutor®

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Posted in Misc
2 comments on “Training a reliable recall
  1. neil mosher says:

    All good ideas . I would add- don’t repeat your command over and over- once or twice max and start over if no result, but most important I have found is to be close enough ( 4 or 5 feet) before asking for a recall at the beginning and add distance or distractions as the recall becomes solid.

  2. Cynthia Pakenas says:

    What is your response for noncompliance? I have followed all the steps; yet when there are critters or a treasure, the dog is careful to keep out of reach even if on a dragline.

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