Next to loose leash walking, teaching a dog to come every time you call seems to be the hardest skill for dog parents to master. It’s a challenge even for professional trainers – convincing your dog that it is better to come to you than go sniff that tree or chase that squirrel is no easy task. I have four simple rules that I follow when teaching this cue that, with the proper practice, can result in a rock-solid recall.
Rule #1: Choose a cue word that has no prior history, that you don’t say often, and that you will remember easily.
If your dog has already learned to ignore your recall cue, or has a negative association with the word because you have accidentally poisoned it (see rule #4 for details on poisoned cues), starting fresh with a new word will make your job way easier. You also want to make sure your cue word is exciting every time, so don’t choose a word you say frequently. I like “here” because I say it less often than “come” and it’s easier to say in a cheerful tone versus a frustrated or angry tone. I have had students use different languages (“Aqui!”) or a completely random word (“Donut!”). The simple fact is, your dog has no idea what a word means if they have already created an association with it, so you can use any word at all. Just keep it simple (ideally one or two syllables) and use a word you won’t forget in the heat of the moment when your dog is running toward a busy street.
Rule #2: Reinforce your recall cue every time, and use the best rewards ever.
Your recall cue needs to be more exciting than everything your dog needs to ignore to come back to you. This is part of why recalls are so hard – we usually need them the most when there are distractions happening, and we usually need them when our dog is off-leash, two factors that up the difficulty factor on any cue immediately. So right from the start, you want to pair your cue with whatever gets your dog the most excited – I usually use cheese, hot dogs, chicken, etc. If your dog is more toy driven, that can also be a great option for this one, but try to use a toy they only get when practicing this cue and not just a boring one they get every day. This is a cue that could save your dog’s life, so it is not a good time to get stingy with the rewards!
Rule #3: Until you have a strong cue, only practice in situations where you can easily get your dog back to you.
I generally start the recall cue on-leash, with the dog very close to me. Make it as easy as possible – set your dog up for success! Once they get the idea, give them more distance – you can put them on a long line (my favorite choice), or even practice in a hallway going between two people. But if you try this in a large area off-leash too soon, your dog can easily ignore you, and they will quickly realize they don’t have to listen and the cue isn’t that important. Also keep in mind that chasing is really fun for most dogs, so if your dog does get away and you chase after them, you are rewarding running away. (I use this to help the cue by running away from my dog to make coming back to me fun and incorporating chase to my advantage!) If your dog is on a leash or long line and is not responding to the cue, it is okay to gently guide them back toward you, but NEVER yank or drag them. You want this to have only good associations!
Rule #4: Only good things happen with your recall cue – nothing bad ever happens when they come to you!
The recall is one of the most commonly “poisoned” cues. This means that we accidentally create a negative association with it instead of a positive one. This happens every time we call the dog and something happens they don’t like – they get in trouble for running away, or they have to leave the dog park, or they have to come in from the yard. These are punishments in your dog’s mind, so you are basically punishing them for doing what you want, which is going to make them much less likely to come back when it matters. If you call your dog and they get in trouble, why would they ever want to come to you again when they can run away and avoid the trouble? If you call your dog to come in from the yard or to leave the dog park and fun immediately ends, why wouldn’t they just ignore you and keep playing? To fix this issue, if you do need to call them for something like leaving the dog park, make sure you call them a few minutes before you actually have to leave so you can spend some time playing or petting before you go and they are not making an immediate association with leaving. It also helps to do random recalls throughout their time at the park where they are allowed to go back to playing so they don’t think the cue only happens close to leaving time.
If you follow these rules and work at your dog’s pace, you will have a solid foundation for getting your dog to come back consistently on cue. A solid recall is not rocket science – just patience, time and some good training.
Sarah is a trainer in the Austin/Dripping Springs area specializing in reactive dogs and service dogs. She lives with a bundle of doggie mischief named Percy.