One of the most important skills your dog needs to learn is “recall” – coming to you when you call. This is important in keeping your dog safe as it can help your dog avoid potentially dangerous situations such as being hit by a car, running off and becoming lost, an interaction with dangerous wildlife like snakes, or interactions with aggressive dogs or becoming involved in a dog fight at the dog park.
Below are a series of steps you can follow to help teach your dog recall.
‘Follow me’ is a great precursor to loose leash walking, and for developing recalls, building relationships and for socialisation sessions. You can start inside at home, with your dog off leash and then go outside in a fenced backyard as they get better at the game.
- Start with the ‘Go find’ game by dropping a treat on the floor.
- As your dog eats the treat, quickly walk a few steps away from him and encourage him to catch up.
- Bridge as he reaches you (a bridge or marker is a signal to your dog that a reward is coming – this is usually a sound such as a specific word or a clicker if you are using clicker training).
- Reinforce by dropping another treat on the ground and continue moving (this will reset the game).
As your dog progresses:
- Add a leash
- Add distractions one at a time (TV on, music, another family member walking by)
- Change directions to make it more fun for your dog to keep up!
- Move further with your dog after they catch up before dropping the next treat.
A very reliable recall is essential for your dog’s safety and his freedom. If you know your dog will come back when he is called, you feel confident letting him have some liberty and exercise. One day that reliable recall may save his life.
Some ground rules are keys to successfully training a good recall.
- Being around you needs to be a fun, secure place. Your dog will not want to come to you if you punish him, yell at him, or call him back to you to tell him off. If you need to do something unpleasant (like give him a bath or put cream in his infected ears) it is best if you fetch your dog, rather than call him to you.
- Ensure your dog gets plenty of physical and mental exercise daily. If he doesn’t, he will take the opportunity when he gets off-leash and be harder to recall.
- If necessary, initially have the dog on a long (10 metre) line attached to a harness (NOT to his head or neck). Step on the line when/if your dog attempts to run away. Knots tied in the line at regular intervals may help prevent it being pulled under your shoe.
- Begin practicing in a low distraction environment. Don’t expect great recalls if you start training in the park. Practice recalls every day even if it is only in the home.
- Particularly when you begin training, reinforce with a reward for all check-ins (whenever the dog comes looking for you or even glances your way), even if you didn’t call him.
- In training, don’t call the dog to you if you think he won’t come (i.e. if he is distracted by a scent or if he is running away from you). It is best to go to him and once you have his attention, use the recall.
- Use high value reinforcement. In highly distracting environments, the key to a successful recall is to be more exciting to your dog than whatever is ‘out there’ that he finds so interesting. Make recalls worthwhile for your dog.
- For dogs not motivated by food, use his favourite toy as reinforcement. Don’t leave that special toy lying around; put it away and only bring it out just for training purposes.
In positive dog training, we don’t like to dwell on what NOT to do. However, to ensure safety and success a few things should be mentioned.
- No matter how reliable his recall, never walk your dog off-leash near a road or other dangerous areas. Something unpredictable may happen, such as a car backfiring that frightens the dog and causes him to run into danger. Even the most placid dogs are startled occasionally. Besides which, if you’re not in an off-leash area, it is illegal!
- Never chase your dog in play. One day you may chase him in an emergency, and sensing a game, he may run straight into danger. Instead, run away from your dog and call him to you. Most dogs will readily chase you and treat this as a game.
- Never, ever tell your dog off or punish him for not coming back to you, even if he stayed away for 15 minutes, almost got run over, or caused you considerable anguish. He will stay away next time because he has learned you are angry with him when he returns to you. Instead, quietly go to him and clip on the leash. Ask for a simple behaviour that he knows and reinforce that. This will lower your blood pressure and defuse the situation!
Now we have the ground rules in place, you are ready to begin training for a solid recall.
- Play games with your dog, like ‘follow me’ and ‘go find’ that involve getting him to come to you and be generous with reinforcement. Retrieving games and hide and seek encourage your dog to come to you. Initially hide in an easy location and call your dog but make it harder over time.
- Condition your cue by pairing ‘Fido come’ with food. Take some food, say “Fido come” once and when he does, reinforce. Then take a step away, turn a quarter away from the dog and repeat. Repeat a few times until you start getting a reaction.
- Loose leash walk your dog, say his name so he looks at you and run a couple of steps away. Do not say your cue word here! He should run towards you.
- When he is running towards you, add your chosen cue word (‘come’ or ‘here’), then bridge and reinforce when your dog reaches you. This will happen very quickly!
- Gradually increase the distance of your recall, and practice at home on and off the leash.
- It’s useful if the dog chooses to sit at the end of the recall. Don’t cue the sit as you don’t want this to be the reinforced behaviour but if you stand up straight as the dog approaches and you’ll find he often sits to make eye contact with you.
- When he comes to you, practice taking his collar in your hand (see below). By taking the dog’s collar every time he comes to you, he will not know which time the leash may go back on and he heads off home, or when he is released to play again.
- Practice in areas with more distractions. Have your dog on a long line in public. Let him sniff and run around and regularly call him to you throughout your walk. When he comes, praise and reinforce him, handle his collar, and let him go again.
- Ensure that his recall is at least 80% reliable on a long leash in highly distracting situations before you progress to off-leash work in a public place in areas of low distraction. Ensure it is in a secure place that you are legally allowed to have a dog off leash, away from roads and other dangerous areas.
- In a highly distracting environment, when your dog comes back to you unexpectedly against the odds, give him an extra-large reinforcement (jackpot) to let him know he made the right choice and it is worthwhile to come back to you.
- Never call your dog multiple times, particularly if he is ignoring you. If in doubt, collect him instead, rather than teach him to ignore your cue. Try to limit the opportunities he has to do this. Some dogs will associate you with ending their fun and try to avoid you.
- Dogs don’t see stationary objects very well, particularly in poor light. Move your arms when you call your dog over a great distance to ensure he can see you. Clap your hands and run away from your dog so he chases you.
- If the behaviour is breaking down, go back to basics and increase your rate and type of reinforcement.
- A common mistake people make in public is letting the dog off leash and only putting the dog back on leash when they are ready to go home. The dog soon learns to stay away, because when he comes back the fun stops and he goes home. Some dogs also learn to dodge the hand that extends towards their collar.
- Don’t only call your dog and put him on the leash at times of potential danger. He will start to search the horizon for whatever it is that you have tensed up about. Sometimes just call him to you, put him on the leash, do a little loose leash walking and then, as a reinforcer for good walking, release him again.
Gotcha – collar grabs for recalls
There may come a day when someone will try to grab your dog by the collar (your dog’s leash might break, or he may have escaped). Dogs can be startled by their collars being grabbed if they are not used to it. It often happens over the top of their head and may result in them biting. Conditioning your dog to having his collar grabbed means your dog will be more accepting of this action if it happens.
- Gently touch your dog’s collar while giving him a reinforcer (no need to bridge). Repeat until he is happy with your gentle touching of the collar.
- Next, touch the dog’s collar from different angles while reinforcing, so he gets used to your hand approaching from all directions (including over his head).
- Become a little firmer in your holding of the collar. Give the collar a gentle shake and reinforce your dog to reward his tolerance.
- When he is happy with this grabbing of the collar you can add the verbal cue ‘Gotcha’. Make this a game for all members of the family.
- Next, grab the collar, attach the leash, reinforce your dog and then remove the leash. Repeat until your dog is happy with the leash being attached after the collar grab.
- Then mix it up. Sometimes grab the collar, reinforce and let go, sometimes grab the collar and attach the leash, but reinforce every time.
When you do this while out, your dog will never know whether he is having his leash put on for fun or to go home and will be happy to have hands all around his collar.
This information is reproduced with some modifications with kind permission from Canine Behaviour School Inc.