Teaching Your Dog to Come When Called

Jason Cook

apl-smTeaching your dog to come when you call (also known as the recall) can potentially save her life.  However, training the recall is not necessarily easy.  Some dogs are more insecure and will never stray far from their pet parent, while some breeds, such as hounds, are so easily distracted by their environments that it makes training more difficult.  It is important to have realistic expectations when teaching your dog to come when called.  No dog will ever be 100% reliable because, like humans, dogs have their good days and bad days.  The goal of training is to teach your dog what you want her to do when you call, and to establish a strong habit of coming when called so that your dog is less likely to ignore you or choose to do something else.

Coming to You When Called Should ALWAYS Be Positive!

The most basic thing to remember about the recall is that your dog must think coming to you is the best thing she can do.  Any time your dog comes to you, you must make it a positive experience.  Even if you are furious with her, when she comes you must praise her, smile, and reward her.  Consistent reinforcement will encourage your dog to check in with you often.  If your dog comes to you when you have not called her, let her know that you like the behavior.
Because the recall should always result in something positive, do not call your dog to you then do something she does not like, such as a bath or nail trim.  Instead, go to your dog and bring her to the place you want her to be.  Any time that you are not 100% sure your dog will come, go and get her.  The goal is to teach her to never ignore the recall cue.

The Basics

When you want to get your dog, you will be more successful if you run away from, rather than toward, her.  Dogs enjoy a good game of chase, and will find it hard to resist running after a person.  This is an important lesson in an emergency situation.  As difficult as it is to refrain from running after your dog if she is approaching the road, yell her name and run in the opposite direction and she will be more likely to follow you.
Keep in mind that when you ask your dog to come to you, you have to compete with the environment—smells, sounds, toys, other people, etc.  Therefore, you must make yourself seem like the most exciting game around.  Call your dog in a high-pitched voice, make kissy sounds, cheer her on as she turns toward you, and make a fun game out of the recall.  Reward your dog with special treats, such as hotdogs, chicken, or cheese.  You may want to reserve these treats for recall training only.

When training the recall, begin in a very quiet, indoor environment such as the kitchen.  If your dog has learned to come in the kitchen, though, you cannot expect her to reliably come at the park.  That is like expecting a child to go from kindergarten to eighth grade in the same year!  Instead, move to the hallway once your dog comes in the kitchen, then to the backyard, the driveway, and the front yard.  Only then can you begin to train your dog to ignore all the distractions in the park when you call her to come.

Always train the recall in an enclosed area.  If you train in an open area, use a long training lead (10-30 feet long).

The Name Game

The first step in training your dog to come when called is to make sure that she recognizes her own name.  Dogs often learn to tune out their names because they hear them all the time without anything meaningful following the call.  The goal is to teach your dog to look at you when you call her name because good things will happen.

To play the Name Game, wait until your dog is looking away from you.   Say her name.  If she looks at you, say “Yes!” and give her several special treats.  Make a big fuss over her for a minute or so, then ignore her until she loses interest in you.  Repeat the exercise several times.  If your dog does not turn to look at you when you say her name, turn and leave the room for a few seconds.

Gradually introduce distractions into your training.  Practice in different rooms in the house, in the yard, on walks, and at the park.  Practice while your dog is playing, chewing, grooming herself, etc.  She will learn that when you call her name, good things happen.  Once your dog responds reliably to her name, you can begin to work on the recall.

Puppy Training

Puppies under four months are insecure and want to stay close to their pet parent.  Therefore, it is relatively easy to teach them to come when called.  It is important to practice these exercises while your puppy is young to ensure that she’ll continue to respond to your calls when she gets older.

Restrained Recalls

Have someone hold your puppy across the room or down the hall from you.  Sit on the floor, facing her, with your arms outstretched.  Call your puppy in a happy, high-pitched voice.  Cheer her on as she starts moving toward you.  You can clap your hands, whistle, and make kissy noises.  Be as exciting as possible.  Have your assistant let your puppy go as soon as she looks at you.  Have a celebration and give your puppy special treats when she gets to you.

Hansel & Gretel

Run around your house or yard, calling your puppy and encouraging her to keep up with you.  As she catches up, drop a few treats on the floor.  Just as she finishes eating, start to run away from her again.  Repeat this sequence 5 to 10 times per training session.

Stick Close to Me Outside

Take the opportunity to have your puppy off leash in a fenced yard or tennis court.  As you move away from your puppy, encourage her to follow you by calling her and squatting down to her level.  Give her treats and toys when she catches up with you.  The goal is to teach your puppy to stick close to you.

Training Exercises for Dogs of Any Age

Round Robin Recalls

Have family members or friends spread out around the living room or fenced yard.  While everyone stands quietly, call your dog to come.  When she approaches, gently take hold of her collar, and praise and reward her.  Then, have each person call the dog in turn.  While one person is calling, the others should remain quiet and still.  If your dog wants to stay with you since you called her first, stand looking at the ceiling with your hands behind your back so that she will lose interest in you.  As your dog gets better at this game, family members can start hiding in different rooms of the house to make the game more fun.

On-Leash Recalls

While you’re out on a walk with your dog, call her to come in a happy voice, and hold a treat right in front of her nose.  Take a few quick steps backward, and lure her with the treat still in front of her nose.  Praise your dog for moving toward you.  Stop moving, gently take hold of her collar when she reaches you, and give her several special treats.

What If You Call Your Dog and She Doesn’t Come Right Away?

Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and animal trainer Kathy Sdao, MSc, ACAAB, uses the parable of The Prodigal Son to remind pet parents about the importance of always rewarding your dog for coming to you.  The story is about a father with two sons.  The father divides the sons’ inheritance between them, and the younger son squanders his wealth on wild living, while the elder son stays home and tends the farm.  Eventually, the young son runs out of money and returns home.  Rather than being angry and turning him away, the father welcomes his son with open arms and throws a celebratory feast, proclaiming “My son was lost but now is found.”  Remember this story the next time your dog comes to you, no matter how angry you feel.  She was lost but now has come.  The only way to instill a reliable recall is to always greet your dog with open arms and a celebration when she comes.

What If You Call Your Dog and She Doesn’t Come At All?

It is important not to repeat the recall cue.  If you say “come” over and over and your dog doesn’t respond, she is learning to ignore your call.  Call your dog once and, if she doesn’t come, call one more time as you turn and run a few steps away from your dog.  If she still does not come, simply go and get her without saying anything.  If your dog wants to play “catch me if you can,” do not engage with her.  We cannot win this game because our dogs are faster than we are.  If your dog is good at sitting or lying down, ask her to do so.  Tell her to stay and walk to her.  If she will not stay, just walk away and ignore her.  If your dog is loose and you need to catch her, try walking into an enclosed area and hope that she follows you.  Never chase your dog after you’ve called her.

What NOT to Do

NEVER call your dog and then do something unpleasant like bathing her, clipping her nails, scolding her, or even ignoring her.  When you have to do something your dog does not like, go and get her.  Your dog should always trust that something wonderful will happen when she responds to your call.

Do not repeat your recall cue.  This will teach your dog to ignore your call to come.

Avoid calling your dog when you know she is not likely to respond.  If she’s playing with another dog or chewing on a stolen item, she is not going to come running to you when called.  Most dogs wouldn’t.  Each time you call your dog and she doesn’t respond, she is learning to ignore your recall cue.  Progress through the recall training slowly so that you set your dog up for success.