That Ever Elusive “Reliable Recall”

Does your dog ignore you when you call him to you? Or does he have selective hearing, only coming when he knows you have a cookie, or if there is nothing more interesting going on? A solid “recall”, or come on cue, is one of the most important things that your dog can know, both for safety and convenience. And yet, it seems to be one of the most challenging of the cues to really master.

To teach a reliable recall, the first thing to keep in mind is that dogs do what works for them. If a behavior results in something pleasant, they’ll repeat the action; if it results in something unpleasant or boring, they’re unlikely to repeat it. Thus, if you call your dog to reprimand him – regardless of what he did prior to your calling – he won’t want to come running the next time you call. By contrast, if you call and reward him with a treat, you’ll improve the likelihood of him come running the next time.

Calling Claire

The recall is a key element in many dog sports, including flyball.

The best way to teach a dog to come reliably is to practice often, beginning with very low levels of distractions. Start in your living room or backyard, with nothing else going on, and call your dog’s name. When he turns toward you, give him a delicious tidbit. As he becomes more consistent, gradually increase the distraction level, rewarding each time.

As the level of difficulty and distractions increases, you will need to increase your level of rewards. When working in your living room or backyard, for instance, without distractions, you may use kibble or simple dog biscuits; at a local park, your dog is unlikely to respond to anything less than cheese, cooked meat, or smelly soft treats. And when your dog manages a very challenging recall away from a high distraction, consider giving a “jackpot”: this is 5-10 small treats in a row, given one by one just like the coins from a casino jackpot.

Once your dog is becoming reliable around lower level distractions, practice calling him in a variety of tones of voice, similar to the different situations you may encounter in real life. Be sure to tell him how good he is as soon as he turns toward you, and then reward profusely as soon as he gets to you.

When practicing the recall, keep in mind the following rules:

  1. Always reward the dog when he comes when called, whether it’s with a yummy treat or a scratch behind the ear. The reward should increase with the level of difficulty. There are a variety of ways of increasing a reward for your dog, including offering a jackpot of treats, offering a better treat (i.e. hot dog instead of kibble) or offering the treat with more enthusiasm.
  2. Never call your dog from a situation that you know he won’t come away from if you are not able to enforce it. For example, if your dog has chased a squirrel up a tree and he’s off leash, it’s better to go get him than to try to call him in vain. Otherwise, he will learn that hearing his name does not have that much importance.
  3. Never reprimand your dog when he comes to you. Whether you called him or not, if he approaches you and you reprimand him, he may not want to approach you next time. So, if he is in trouble, go to him to reprimand – don’t call him. And actually, nothing bad should ever happen when you have called your dog to you and he has come. This includes such things as nail trimmings (which most dogs hate) and other such unpleasant things. And remember that leaving a park can also be considered “bad” if the dog was still having fun! So if you frequent dog parks or other types of parks, be sure to call your dog often to reward him, then call him and divert his attention with a play session prior to actually leaving the park.

Practicing often and rewarding a lot are the best ways to build a reliable recall in your dog.  Before you know it, you’ll be able to take him everywhere, confident that he’ll come when called instead of running off.

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