It’s the most important thing to teach a dog, but isn’t always the easiest. Kate Mornement demystifies recall training.
Of all the basic obedience commands people teach their dogs, the recall – the ability to have your dog come to you on command – is by far the most important and often the most difficult to train.
A reliable recall, meaning your dog will come to you every time, has many benefits. It can be used in off-lead parks to avoid confrontations between dogs and can even be a life-saver in dangerous situations such as when your dog encounters traffic or snakes.
So why is a reliable recall so difficult to train? Why won’t dogs just come when called? The key to understanding this is to look at the situation from the dog’s point of view. The most common situation where we expect our dogs to obey a recall is when the dog is off-lead during a walk or at the off-lead park.
From the dogs’ point of view, this is often the highlight of their day, or week, depending on how often they are exercised away from home. There are so many exciting things to see, like other people and dogs, not to mention enticing smells to explore!
Then we decide it’s time to go home and we call our dog: “Rover, Come!” We’re ignored, so we try a little louder “Rooooooooooover, COME!” Our command falls on ‘deaf’ ears as Rover continues to explore and play, oblivious to instruction. What happens next? The more obliging dogs eventually wander back to their owners and - clip - on goes the lead.
The more mischievous dogs, often with a case of selective hearing, continue on their way as their owners give chase. This usually turns into a game but eventually they are caught and – clip – the lead goes on.
A similar scenario plays out every time the dog is taken to the off-lead park and, over time, the dog learns that ‘come’ means ‘play time is over, we’re going home’. Is it any wonder that so many dogs ignore the recall command? As owners we often place unrealistic expectations on our dogs.
As an animal behaviourist dealing with problem behaviour, I often explain to my clients that animals do what is most rewarding for them. For example, in the case of a dog ignoring the recall command at the off-lead park, it’s more rewarding for the dog to continue playing and exploring than it is to obey the recall command, be put back on lead and be taken home.
Dogs are continually weighing up the costs and benefits of their behaviour. People also do this – how many would continue to go to work if they stopped getting paid? Once the reward or incentive is gone the behaviour declines or stops altogether.
So now that we understand a little more about why so many dogs disobey the recall command, how do we go about training them to obey? In theory it’s simple. We must be more exciting and more rewarding than all those people, dogs and other distractions at the off-lead park.
We must make it more rewarding for our dogs to come to us when called than to ignore us and keep exploring. In practice however, this can be difficult.
As with any training, it’s very important to choose a reward that is reinforcing for your dog. What motivates your puppy or dog the most? Is it food obsessed? Will it jump through hoops for a special toy or game? Or is affection your dog’s favourite reward?
Whatever you choose make sure it’s a special treat, something that’s only on offer during training sessions, rather than something your dog gets on a regular basis. Using a variety of different rewards adds an element of surprise.
Ideally, training a reliable recall should begin from a very young age, as soon as you bring your puppy home. Decide what the recall command will be called; either ‘come’ or the dog’s name is commonly used.
If you have an adult dog you can still train a good recall, however it may not be as reliable as it would be if you had trained the behaviour from puppyhood.
This is because a dog’s previous experiences contribute to its current behaviour.
If your adult dog has always had an unreliable recall this makes it more likely to continue to have an unreliable recall – the behaviour (disobeying the recall command) has been consistently reinforced to the point where it becomes a habit.
A dog that was successfully recall trained from a very young age, on the other hand, has formed the habit of obeying.
Start training the recall inside in a room or space where there are few distractions and keep training sessions short (a couple of minutes at the most). Avoiding distractions in the early stages of training new behaviours will help your puppy stay focused and learn faster.
Call your puppy to you from a metre or two away using the cue you have chosen (that is, ‘come’ or the puppy’s name). Use high value treats and lots of praise and attention to reward your puppy for coming to you. Repeat this many times until your puppy comes to you every time.
Start to gradually increase the recall distance between you and your puppy. Reward the puppy with a high value treat every time it succeeds. Again, repeat many times until the puppy succeeds every time. This is establishing a reliable recall.
Practice the recall training in different areas of the house and gradually introduce some distractions, such as other people, animals and toys.
Once the pup is reliably returning on your recall, start recall training outside in the backyard on a long-line. Begin at a very short distance with no distractions and progress to a long distance with several distractions. Repeat many times, rewarding your dog for every successful recall.
Once this is mastered, practice the recall in the backyard off-lead, following the same steps outlined above. Repeat over and over until the recall is reliable.
Next, practice on a long-line at the off-lead park. Again, start in an area where there are few distractions such as other dogs and people. Then, as you progress and if your dog’s recall is reliable, gradually introduce distractions.
Once you are confident in your dog’s ability to reliably obey the recall command, you can practice off-lead in a safe and secure area. Repeat many times, in different locations and at different times of the day.
Always reward a dog for a successful recall. While it isn’t necessary to have food treats with you at all times, it’s important that you have them often enough to keep reinforcing the desired behaviour.
If you stop rewarding the behaviour altogether, your dog may find other things (such as continuing to play with other dogs) more rewarding than obeying the recall. This could result in the command being ignored.
If your dog obeys a recall under high distraction, such as when there are lots of other dogs and people around, ensure you give an extra special reward. This lets your dog know that it did a really good job.
If you call your dog and your dog ignores you, don’t continue to call it over and over, and don’t give chase. Wait for your dog to be less distracted and try again.
When your dog obeys the recall command, try to avoid putting it on the lead and leaving the park straight away. Instead, reward it for obeying a recall by allowing it to go off again and play for a minute or two.
Repeating this several times will help your dog to associate the recall command with freedom (a positive), rather than ‘it’s time to leave’ (a negative).
If, at any stage of this recall training process, your dog begins to ignore the recall command, consider what the possible reasons could be.
Is the environment too stimulating? Are the rewards you’re using rewarding enough? How long has it been since your dog’s last off-lead romp.
Once you’ve established the reason, go back a step or two in the training to the last step your dog was previously successful at, and continue through the stages again at your dog’s pace.
Once you have succeeded in training your dog in a reliable recall there are several things you need to consider. Individual dogs are motivated by different things.
Some are more dog-orientated and some more people-orientated. Some breeds have been selected to have strong hunting, herding or scenting drives, while others were selected primarily to be companions.
In addition, the environment is constantly changing, as are the choices our dogs are faced with. Ultimately we can never guarantee that we will always be more rewarding to our dog than the things it encounters while off-lead. All these things must be weighed up when deciding when and where it is safe to let a dog off lead.
The main thing is to teach your dog that all good things come from you, and that every time they obey the recall command they are handsomely rewarded.