It is absolutely possible to train a dog to come when you call every single time. It’s not a quick process and you will need to work at it, but I believe that any dog owner can achieve the perfect recall given time and the right instructions. Which is what I’m going to share with you today. I have a nice and easy, step-by-step approach to teaching recall and other skills, and I’ll give you some simple exercises to work through with your dog.
- Starting afresh
- Get it, pair it, teach it
- Making recall training fun
- Train a dog to come when there are distractions
Imagine watching your dog racing towards you with the wind in his ears, after hearing a single ‘toot’ of your whistle. It’s a heartwarming sight! One that all dog owners should experience, but sadly many dogs fall short. Some only come when they feel like it, and others won’t come at all.
Can You Teach A Puppy To Come When Called?
At one time, when recall training techniques were harsh and uncompromising, we trained adult dogs very differently from puppies. Fortunately, times have changed, and there is no need to use punishment or ‘corrections’ in recall training anymore. In fact, correcting a dog during recall training can actually make his recall worse, because it reduces his motivation to be near you.
As modern dog training is based on positive reinforcement, training can begin from day one. So you can start training, from the very first day you bring your puppy home if you want to. And the exercises I will give you are suitable for both dogs and puppies alike.
My dog won’t come when he’s called!
You’ll find that many dogs will come when they are called, provided there is nothing better to do. But that is not good enough. Recall is an important command and you need your dog to come every time you call, not just when he feels like it. If your dog won’t come when he is called, don’t panic. We can fix that. The fact that you’ve tried and failed before isn’t relevant. We can fix that too.
Retraining with a new command
We’ll look at re-training a dog that has a poor recall as well as starting over with dogs that don’t come at all! The process is the same, but if you are not starting with a young puppy, you will need to think of a new command or signal to teach your dog to respond to. This is a much better strategy than trying to fix your old broken command.
Creating a trained response
Dog’s don’t come, because they have not been sufficiently motivated, or motivated for long enough, to create a trained response. A trained response is an automatic reaction. It’s not something that the dog has to think about, or make decisions about. We build that trained response in stages:
- Get It
- Pair It
- Teach It
- Proof It
- Maintain It
We work through each stage at a time and then move on to the next. Once you have properly trained your dog to come when he is called, he won’t be asking himself “is it worth it – or would I rather do something else?” He’ll just come. He won’t be able to help himself. Let’s get started shall we?
Choose your cue!
Dog trainers nowadays are abandoning the word command. We now use the word ‘cue’ which simply means something you do (like whistling your dog) that makes the dog give a specific response (in this case running towards you as fast as he can)
The cue you pick is entirely up to you. It could be the word ‘come’ or the word ‘here’ or some other word you happen to prefer. Or it could be a whistle. You can also train your puppy or older dog to come to more than one cue.
You might want to use the word ‘come’ when he is nearby for instance, and the whistle, when he is further away. That’s fine, but you need to pick one or the other to begin with for the purposes of this training.
A word about No Fun Recalls
Many dogs have a long history of ‘No Fun Recalls’. They associated the word ‘come’ and the very act of running towards their owners, with all kind of unpleasant or boring (to a dog) things including:
- Going home
- Being put on the lead
- Being told off
- The end of the walk
- Being patted on the head
- Being told “good dog” in a monotone
You may think that the last two are nice things to do to a dog, but to most dogs, a pat on the head or the words ‘good dog’ are just boring. He gets nothing of any value from them. And experiments have shown that praise alone is not effective in changing a dog’s behavior. It must be accompanied by physical demonstrations of affection such as petting.
So you can see, we already have a problem here, where coming to you, is either unpleasant or boring for your dog, at least some of the time. So our first step in recall training is to make the very act of running towards you, the best thing that happens to your dog all day, any day and anywhere.
The first stage of training is to ‘get’ a behavior you want. To ‘capture’ it in some way, and make it pleasurable for the dog. You decide what you want, and engineer a situation where it happens. Let’s see how that works in practice.
#Stage 1 Get it! – making recall fun
Getting the ‘recall behavior’ going is easier than you think, you need to engineer a situation where it happens then turn it into a brilliant experience for your dog. And yes, it involves food, games, being silly, whatever it takes to put a grin on your dog’s face. What it does not involve, is your cue. Forget the recall command. Forget the cue
This isn’t about barking orders you can’t enforce, or saying anything meaningful at all to your dog. This is about one thing only, getting your dog chasing after you. Fortunately, dogs are curious, and dogs love chasing.
Equipment you will need at Stage 1
- Tiny chunks of very attractive (to the dog) food
- A portable container for the food
We use training treats for recall training, but treats is not really the right word. You want genuine food because you are going to be using a lot of it, and you don’t want your dog eating a ton of junk.
Training treats for puppies
Small puppies under three months old are easily impressed and still under the delightful impression that you are the best thing that ever walked the planet. They will be blown away by simply being allowed to get next to you and eat a piece of kibble while sitting on your lap. This is fortunate, because it’s important that you don’t unbalance the puppy’s diet. With small puppies, it is fine to use the puppy’s own kibble in training so long as you deduct the quantities from his daily ration
Use high value food for older puppies and adult dogs
With older dogs you need to up your game. Food rewards must be high value and that usually means messy. You can use any kind of cooked meat cut into tiny chunks or cubes, not much bigger than a small bean. Try:
- Roast chicken
- Roast beef
Don’t forget your treat bag
You’ll need some kind of washable treatbag. Washable because it is going to get messy. It needs to clip onto your belt, around your waist, or simply go inside a large pocket and it needs to contain a fresh supply of your messy smelly, delicious meaty or cheesy treats. This bag needs to go everywhere you go with your dog. If you forget your bag, forget your recall training for today. Never, in the early stages, let running towards you end in anything less than a brilliant experience for your dog.
Where and when to train your dog
Before you start training at Stage One, make sure you read right through the instructions, including the common mistakes, so that you can avoid making them. Once you are clear about what’s involved get your treats and your dog and find a quiet place to train. A large room in the house is ok to begin with, or outside in your yard or garden. Just make sure the area is secure – your dog can’t wander off – and there are no other people or dogs about. Don’t try to train in extreme weather – that is a distraction too.
Training instructions at Stage One – walking away
Wait until your dog is a short distance from you and not distracted by anything that might take his attention from you. Wait for him to look at you and walk purposefully away. As soon as your puppy starts to move towards you move away more quickly to speed him up then turn to face him and feed him one of the delicious treats when he reaches you.
If he is a small puppy, get down on the ground, pull him on to your lap, and make the biggest fuss of him ever, while feeding him little pieces of kibble. This stage may seem laughably simple, but it is crucial. Don’t miss it out, spend several days on this.
Common mistakes at Stage One
We’ve barely got going and I’m going to have to talk about mistakes. But don’t worry. Most of the mistakes tend to be made at the beginning. Once you understand the process, you’ll find you make less mistakes. Avoid making any of the six mistakes listed below
- Bribing the dog
- Moving towards the dog
- Giving your recall cue
- Trying to cope without food, or with low value food
- Training around distractions
- Training a dog that is full
Don’t bribe the dog
Keep your treats out of sight. Don’t wave food around, shake your treat bag, or in any way use the food to bribe your dog to move towards you. If you bribe him now, how are you going to cope when you don’t have a bribe or when he decides he prefers to run around with his ball?
Bribing is not a good long term strategy – it only works when there is nothing better on offer, and it won’t get you very far at all. So keep your food in your bag or pocket until after the dog has chosen to follow you.
Don’t move towards the dog
Dogs don’t just love chasing, they love to BE chased. If you follow your dog, or take so much as a single step towards him, he is calling the shots. Don’t do it. His job is to get himself over to you. If he does that, he’ll get a big reward. But only if he does what you want.
Don’t tell your dog to ‘COME’
Don’t call your dog! Don’t say his name and definitely don’t say COME or HERE or any other variation of his recall command. Because if he doesn’t come, you have just taught him to ignore your shiny new cue. If you make this mistake more than once or twice you’ll need to think up a different cue and start again. Just DONT call your dog.
Don’t try to cope without food
This is so common. Don’t fall into this trap. You may be thinking “I’ll just follow this exercise but using a nice pat and a tummy rub for my dog’s reward” That is a very bad idea.
I know how many people feel about using food in dog training. It feels like cheating, or bribing, and the dog should work for love alone – etc etc. I’ve been there. And I can tell you, that if you want the fastest and best and most reliable recall, you need to use food. And you will never regret it.
Some people don’t want the mess of carrying meaty goodness around in a bag. Or the hassle of chopping up bits of roast chicken. But like most things in life, you get what you pay for. You want an outstanding recall? You better get some outstanding treats. Leave the biscuits in the cupboard
Don’t train around distractions
No distractions really does mean no distractions. At this point. Later, at Stage Four, we’ll begin adding distractions in a structured way. But right now? Keep it simple. Wait till the kids are at school, turn off your cell phone. And get off to a great start
Don’t train a dog that has just had his dinner
We’re using food as the reinforcement for the behavior we’re trying to get right now. So don’t try and train a dog that has had a meal within the last hour or two. Your treats will be more valuable to him if he has an edge on his appetite. So, now you know what to avoid doing, let’s look at what you can do if things don’t go quite to plan.
What if the dog won’t follow you?
Sometimes you get a situation where a dog has just decided that his owner is boring. He doesn’t look at the owner very much, isn’t very interested in them, and can’t really see any purpose in following them. In that case you can make a noise to attract your dog’s attention. Or wave your arms around, give a little whoop, anything to get your dog curious. Then as soon as he starts to move towards you, turn and walk away
Did you Get It!
Okay, did you get the behavior you wanted? Did your dog walk or even run after you, and did you surprise him with you amazing treats? Fantastic! Now you need to repeat this sequence as often as you can in a five minute training session.
Repeat that training session 3-5 times every day, for a week. During this week, do not use your new recall cue at any time.
If you need to recall your dog out on a walk, use his old recall. Avoid calling him at all unless you have to. Avoid areas where you know you’ll struggle to get him back. If his recall is rubbish, every time you call him you give him another opportunity to rehearse being naughty and ignoring you.
Keep him closer on walks
You can also use the About Turn Walk – this is a very effective technique to keep your dog closer to you on walks. It may be useful to you while you are working on these early stage in his new training with an older dog.
That’s all there is to Stage One. It’s really simple and you should breeze through it. You are teaching your dog that following you and catching up with you, is a good thing – a happy thing, exciting even. Dog parents that have previously been considered dull by their dogs will find their dog looking at them in a new light. Now you are ready to Pair It!
#Stage Two – Pair It! – Giving your cue a meaning
Now it is time to introduce your new cue. But you are going to do this very carefully. The rule is “don’t give the cue unless the dog is already doing it”. “What’s that?” you say “what kind of training is that?”. Well, this is the language lesson part of the training. Your puppy has no idea that COME means “run toward my wonderful owner and friend”. No idea at all. To him, come is just a sound. It has NO meaning whatsoever.
If you start saying COME or whatever your new cue is, to your dog at this point, there is a high chance that he won’t come. And then you are back to square one again with a word that your dog associates with disobedience.
Keep your cue sweet, and don’t use it unless your dog is running towards you. By the end of this stage, your dog will understand that the word COME is something that means “running fast towards my best friend” (and getting a great reward at the end of it)
Equipment at Stage Two
- A whistle
In addition to your treats and treatable, a whistle is a useful piece of equipment at Stage Two recall. I recommend you use a whistle for recall training. Partly because it is a clear and consistent cue that is easily heard at some distance, even in windy weather. And partly because you can prevent other people getting hold of it and calling the dog before he ready for that part of his training.
How to blow your whistle
A whistle cue can be as simple or as complicated as you wish. The standard whistle cue for a recall is a string of pips like this “pip-pip” or this “pip-pip-pip-pip-pip. Pick the number of pips you want to use and stick to it. You can choose two pips, three pips, or four pips if you prefer for your recall cue, as long as you are consistent make your cue exactly the same each time you use it.
When you read the instruction – “give your whistle cue” that means use your string of pips, however many you have chosen. Of course, if you prefer, you can just use a verbal cue.
When and where to train your dog
As before, keep your dog away from distractions. You don’t want him changing his mind and darting off to play or chase squirrels after you have given the cue.
Training instructions at Stage Two – building the association
You’ll be teaching your dog or puppy that the word COME or your whistle cue, means run fast towards you, by a process of association. You’ll simply repeatedly PAIR the cue and the behavior together. There are two ways to do this. You can initiate a recall yourself, and you can take advantage of check ins.
2A initiating the recall.
If you are using a whistle, have your whistle lanyard around your neck. The whistle itself should be in your mouth, not in your pocket. Hold it between your teeth so you are ready to give the recall cue. Wait until you have your dog’s attention and begin moving away from him. Watch him move towards you and as soon as he breaks into a run and commits himself to the recall, give your cue. Give it once, and once only.
Repeat the exercise as many times as you can.
2B check ins
Your dog should be really interested in you by now. And there will be times, when you are out and about, especially with an older dog, when he is off doing his own thing and then he decides to ‘check in’ on you of his own accord. You might be walking along a path and he’ll suddenly dash towards you. This is your check in.
Grab the opportunity it offers you – blow that whistle as he arrives in front of you and throw him your best bit of chicken. Check ins are a great chance to reward your dog for paying attention to you, and to reinforce the belief that there is nothing quite so wonderful in life, as a recall. Make sure you avoid these common mistakes.
Common mistakes at stage 2
- Giving the recall cue too early
- Getting mean with rewards
- Not having your whistle in your mouth
Don’t give the recall cue until the dog has committed to travelling towards you. The last thing you want is for him to change his mind en route. Don’t try and fade out rewards at this point. It is far too early in the game, and your dog’s interest in the recall will plummet before it has even got started
The whistle is no use at all in your pocket. Even the time it takes you to get the whistle in your mouth when it’s hanging around your neck is a lost opportunity. While you are training, the whistle should be in your mouth.
Regular training practice at Stage Two
Practice until the ‘pairing’ association is strong. Just because you are not giving commands yet does not mean you can skimp on this part. Keep at it for at least a week for older dogs with no severe recall issues in their past. Longer for dogs that have a history of absconding, or for small puppies who will benefit from several weeks of short ‘puppy recalls’ where you don’t call the pup until he is on his way to you.
#Stage 3 Teach It! – training your dog to respond to the cue
Okay, here comes the fun part. Now you are going to teach your dog that your whistle or cue word is a signal. And that the signal requires a response from him. We’ll start very simply. Training in exactly the same locations, and under the same distraction free conditions as before
Training instructions at stage three
Wait until your dog is paying you some attention, but not actually moving towards you, and give your cue He will probably run right up to you for his reward. Make sure you have it ready.
What if he doesn’t come?
If your dog does not come you need to do two things
- Run away from the dog, act silly, clap your hands, make squeaky noises, whatever it takes to get the dog curious and moving towards you. Reward profusely when he arrives
- Then go back to Stage two for another week before trying again
Check you are using sufficiently high value rewards to motivate your dog. At this stage in training this is crucial. You don’t yet have an automatic response, motivation is essential in order to get there.
The next step is to give your dog lots of surprise recalls. No distractions yet, but call him when he is not expecting it. From another room in the house, from the garden, from his bed. Call him when he is asleep, or resting, when he is sitting, when he is lying down. Make it worth his while, every single time.
Common mistakes at stage three
- Repeating the cue
- Offering a bribe
If your dog does not come when you give the cue do NOT give the cue a second time. You’ve seen people jumping up and down, screaming “come, come, COME, come here, COME HERE you BAD dog”, a million times before their dog deigns to wander over. You do not want to go there. One cue, One response. That is the rule.
Sometimes people panic at this point and show the dog the food. Don’t do that. Attract his attention, do what you have to do to get him to you, but don’t ever beg or bribe your dog. If you have done your preparation, this stage in training will be as easy as falling off a log. You already have a dog that LOVES running towards you. And he is a dog that has a strong association between running towards you, and the signal you are about to give him.
Have confidence. You have loaded the dice so enormously in your favour, your puppy will almost certainly come when you call Practice regularly in nice easy situations around your house and yard, before moving on to Stage Four
#Stage Four Proof It! – training your dog to respond under distractions
This is where things start to get interesting. This is the part where you train your dog to come in the presence of all kinds of situations, in different locations, and with all manner of distraction things happening around him. This is formally known as proofing your recall. As you might expect this is the longest part of the training process. And the part that separates all well trained dogs, from dogs that have a poor recall.
Proofing is what obedience is all about. You can do this, don’t rush, just work through the steps below
Equipment at Stage Four
- A training lead or long line
- A body harness
During the proofing process you will be introducing distractions to your dog. You’ll be introducing them gradually so that he has every chance of resisting them and coming to your cue. But there is a chance that you will make a mistake and step the distractions up too quickly.
The long line will ensure you can prevent the dog getting access to a rewarding experience after disobeying your cue. The body harness is the safest way to attach a dog to a long line. Never use a long line on a choke chain or slip lead of any kind. We have two excellent articles on body harnesses written by experienced professional trainer Jo Laurens
If you don’t own a harness or are not familiar with them, do check these out.
Instructions at Stage Four
Stage Four begins with a list. Make a note of all the different situations in which you would like your dog to come when you call him, but where there are distractions. For example, you’ll need to teach him to recall away from:
- Other dogs
- People, including children
He’ll need to be able to recall in all the locations you might take him.
- At the dog park
- On the beach
- In the forest
And anywhere else you can think of. He’ll also need to be able to recall from different distances
- 5-10 yards
- 20-50 yards
- 50 yards and more
Each of these things needs to be taught and practiced separately. That is where most people fall down. They assume that because their dog understands ‘come’ in the garden, he’ll also understand it at the dog park. Sadly, this simply is not the case. What you have to do, is set up a situation where your dog can practice but where you can also control the outcome.
Start with the easiest item on the list
Get your list and start with the easiest task first. For each item on your list, you are going to create a series of fake ‘set ups’ in which to call your dog and ensure that he:
- does not get rewarded for anything other than moving towards you
- gets a fantastic reward when he reaches you.
Coming away from food
Food is a good one to start with, not because you need to be able to call your dog away from food very often, but because it is a nice controllable way to teach a dog to come away from something he wants, in order to get something from you. You can find instructions for this exercise in this article: Your Labrador Recall Challenge. Scroll down to the sections on capturing and shaping
Coming away from people
Unless your dog is very people friendly, you’ll find it easier to teach him to recall away from people, than from other dogs, so tackle people first. You’ll need a helper. Make it easy for your dog at the start by putting distance between you and the person helping you. Get your helper to ignore your dog completely. Use extra special treats for the first few sessions. The idea is to:
- Raise the dog’s motivation
- Reduce the distraction
to a point where he can succeed, and then make things more difficult very gradually. You can read more about this process in my article on training with distractions. And you can find lots of example exercises in my book Total Recall
Access to rewards – manage your dog
The key to good proofing is managing your dog’s access to rewards. If he gets to do something he shouldn’t after you give your cue, and he enjoys that something, it will undermine all your hard work.
So pay attention to what is going on around you, and if you think your dog might be tempted by the distractions you are introducing, move further away from them And/or have him wear that harness and long line, so that you can prevent him leaving the area you are training in.
Work through your list one at a time
Each time you start a new item on the list – training on the beach for example, raise the value of the rewards to something your dog finds irresistible. Work through each item on the list until you are confident that your dog’s response is automatic and reliable. Then start using less exciting rewards and even if you wish, occasionally omitting a reward, in that situation
You’ll find lots more help with proofing in these two important articles
The proofing process is not something you can rush, it usually takes months. But that is ok. At the end of it, you have a dog with a brilliant and reliable recall that will give you peace of mind and help to ensure his safety and happiness. All that is left is to maintain that joyful state of affairs for the rest of his life. Which brings us to Stage Five
#Stage 5 Maintain It! – keeping your recall intact
Most people that complete Stage Four don’t have too much trouble with Stage Five. However, there are a couple of mistakes people make, and the most common one, is to stop rewarding the dog.
Now, it is possible to fade rewards to a certain level and still have a good recall response. But how far and how fast to fade rewards will depend on your dog. People tend to get into trouble at this point by fading too fast or too far. Don’t forget to motivate your dog!
When can I quit rewards?
Quitting rewards altogether will result in a process called – extinction. Which basically means the ‘death’ of your response, and a massive waste of all the effort you put into training your dog. So don’t be tempted to do it.
It is fine to try different kinds of rewards as long as they appeal to your dog. Some dogs will feel very rewarded by a game with a ball or a massive cuddle. Others would rather skip the cuddle altogether. Don’t forget, you can also reward a dog by giving him access to things he enjoys. Such as a chance to play with another dog.
How long does it take to train a recall?
People often want to know how long it takes to train a reliable recall from start to finish
But of course we all have different starting points and in some cases different finishing points too. So, the length of time it takes will depend on
- The age of your dog
- His previous recall history
- His temperament
- How many training sessions you create
- The kinds of situations you want him to recall in
- How many mistakes you make.
Puppies learn very fast to begin with, but older dogs can learn quickly too, if they don’t have a history of absconding. A dog that has been running away for six months, may take six months to train. A dog that has been running away for a year may take a year to break of the habit. Though some quick learners will get there sooner.
The first three stages will be completed quickly – just a few weeks. Expect proofing to take several months. With a puppy and not too many mistakes, you should have a pretty solid recall in distracting situations, by eight or nine months old. Some pups will get there a bit sooner, others, a bit later.
Recall is a big subject. Big enough to fill an entire book! If you are interested in learning more about recall training Total Recall is one of the most popular dog training books in the UK. You’ll find lots of examples of different training scenarios and set ups in there too.
Total Recall is an Amazon best seller and has had many fantastic reviews. Don’t forget there is also help and support available in the forum.
Good luck with your training, and share your experiences in the comments box below!
The Labrador Site Founder
Pippa Mattinson is the best selling author of The Happy Puppy Handbook, the Labrador Handbook, Choosing The Perfect Puppy, and Total Recall.
She is also the founder of the Gundog Trust and the Dogsnet Online Training Program
Pippa's online training courses were launched in 2019 and you can find the latest course dates on the Dogsnet website