Dog recall: get your dog to come back reliably

Blog post about training a great recall
By Laure-Anne Viselé, April 2011

What is a recall?

It’s a fancy word meaning: ‘The dog comes back when called’.

My dog’s recall: keen and happy

A good recall means:

  • The dog comes back quickly and enthusiastically
  • The dog stops close to you
  • The dog waits until you allow him to leave again

Why is a recall important?

There are at least 3 reasons:

Safety

Not to be dramatic about it, but a good recall could save your dog’s life.

If he’s approaching something dangerous like a road, he HAS to come back to you immediately.

Civic duty

Parents, other dog owners, and joggers (rightly) expect your dog to come back to you the second he bothers them.

Every time your dog is being a pain, you’re giving anti-dog lobbyists more ammunition, and dogs will be less and less welcome in public spaces.

Convenience

Nothing is more irritating than waiting for His Excellence to be good and ready when you’re in a rush or on a rainy day.

Life is a lot easier when ‘Come here’ means ‘Come here now’.

Does he need to be off leash?

Dogs need opportunities to be dogs. Failing to provide them with regular outlets for their ‘dogness’ can result in chronic frustration, and possibly serious behaviour issues.

This stuff definitely can’t be done on the leash:

  • Walking at normal dog pace (way faster than humans);
  • Running like maniacs;
  • Rough-housing with other dogs;
  • Following random tracks;
  • etc.

Try doing THAT on the leash

Why write about the recall?

I see this easily vicious cycle develop all the time: poor recall, less trust, less freedom, poorer recall, even less trust, even less freedom, etc.

It is very frustrating to see, because it’s nothing a few good tips can’t fix.

That’s why I put together a list of the best 9 tips for a great dog recall. Enjoy!

1. Don’t intimidate, seduce

Why not force him?

  1. Put all your received ideas about dominance aside for one moment, and really look at how dogs interact. They entice, rather than intimidate each other. Dogs who bully other dogs become pariahs. If you have a sensitive dog, using force and confrontation can lead to poor performance. So, why not save yourself a lot of hassle and just do it the nice way?
  2. The dog must want to come back to you because you can’t physically control him when he’s off leash.

What’s ‘seducing’ a dog?

During the recall, your tone of voice should sound more like

Want a treat and a game of tug-of-war?

than

Get over here now“.

Competing for your dog’s attention can be tough. If he is rough-housing with his mates, you’re going to have to get the big (motivational) guns out. We’re talking:

Want a treat, a game of tug-of-war, AND a million dollars?“.

So, the golden rule is: The bigger the distraction/temptation, the more irresistible your voice.

Ultimate goal: The dog prefers coming back to you over anything else.

2. Teach the recall

Teaching a great recall is nothing more than a game of ‘slowly slowly catchy monkey’. It’s a game of patience, with two main principles:

  1. Lay down good foundations, making sure that the dog masters each level before stepping up; and
  2. If the dog fails, go back a step, and practise, practise, practise until it’s perfect. Then step up again.

Using the ‘slowly slowly catchy monkey’ philosophy, you will work on four different criteria:

Distance

  • Practise the ‘backward recall’ on the leash:
    • Walk forward (dog walks forward next to you)
    • Call dog (dog turns and faces you)
    • Walk backwards (dog follows you)
    • Reward him (when dog is right against your legs).
  • When he’s got that, practice the backward recall offleash.
  • When he’s got that, have someone (nicely) restrain him and call him from a (short) distance
  • Gradually increase the distance

Ultimate goal: Dog comes back to you no matter the distance.

Distraction

Start practising at home, then in environments with gradually more distractions and temptations.

Ultimate goal: Dog gladly runs back to you through a sausage factory.

Duration (staying close to you)

  • To start with, release him nearly at the instant that he comes back to you (remember, ‘come here’ means ‘come here and stay here until I release you’).
  • Then gradually build up the duration between coming back and being released.

Ultimate goal: Dog stays put long enough that you can hook up the leash without rushing.

Response speed

When practising the off-leash recall, get increasingly picky with the speed of response by giving a juicier rewards for speedier performances.

Ultimate goal: Dog darts back to you.

 

Safety note: When teaching the recall, only  practice in safe places, where the dog is in no danger, and poses no hazard to anyone.

3. Get him to beg to be put on the leash

Don’t leap and grab

If you regularly leap and grab him by the collar when he’s close enough, he’ll quickly learn to keep just far enough away from you so that you can’t grab him.

Don’t even think of chasing him then. When it comes to speed and reflexes, let’s face it, we’re hopelessly outclassed.

So the trick is to get him to desperately want to be on the leash.

Make the whole business less unpleasant

  • If you have a small dog, kneel when calling him. You won’t be this imposing mass towering above him when you bend over to attach the leash.
  • Take the collar gently and discreetly.
  • Place the buckle under the chin to clip the leash (not above the neck). That gets rid of the neck-grabbing effect.
  • Do not directly end the walk after attaching the leash. Leash him up several times per walk, and instantly let him go again.

Make the whole business more rewarding

(‘counter-conditioning’ to us geeks)

  • Hold a treat in each hand, plus one in your pocket.
    • Position your hands so that they are in-line in front of you, at the dog’s eye level, one in front of the other
    • The distance between your hands should be (roughly) the distance between your dog’s throat (where you’ll hold the collar) and the tip of his nose (where he’ll be nibbling at a treat)
    • Hold the treats between the thumb and index finger, pointing upwards, so it is obvious to the dog you are holding something (even at a distance).
  • Call the dog to you
  • (He comes to you) Let him have treat #1, and let him sniff at treat #2 (in second hand).
  • (He nibbles at treat #2) Discreetly take hold of the collar with hand #1, and clip on the leash, when he’s being distracted by nibbling on treat #2.
  • (When the leash is clipped) Let him have treat #2.

Ultimate goal:

  • Dog comes close to you when you call him,
  • Dog stays put until you have clipped on the leash
  • Dog hangs around for a bit once unleashed

4. Don’t get angry

What am I talking about?

Picture this:

  • Your dog does something really stupid (mounting a picnic blanket, provoking a Pit Bull , you name it).
  • You call him back – he ignores you.
  • People start to gather and watch, some with reproach, and some with pity. Humiliating stuff, particularly if you’re wearing your dog training company t-shirt…
  • You get REALLY irritated, but keep calling the dog.
  • The dog eventually comes back
  • You give him a piece of your mind for being so bleeding cheeky.

Perfectly understandable, but hopelessly ineffective.

What to do instead

  1. Remember Jessica Rabbit? Entice, seduce, tempt. Crank the charm right up.
  2. Religiously follow the ‘Teach the recall’ bit (the monkey stuff), and practise again in a less challenging environment (e.g. when the park is less busy).

5. Avoid mistakes

Why avoid mistakes?

Mistakes here are self-reinforcing, in a ‘I tried it and liked it‘ kind of way.

Also, every time your command fails, it becomes that little bit less relevant to your dog, it loses a little bit in meaning (as it wasn’t actually followed by going back to you).

So if you want to keep your dog’s recall sharp, avoid recall mistakes.

How to avoid mistakes?

By knowing your dog and his limits. If you can’t vouch for his recall in a particular situation, try this:

  1. Avoid the situation (temporarily, until you’ve practised, practised, practised up to that level. Remember the monkey bit?). Leash him up in the more tricky locations; or
  2. Be sure that you have the time to wait until he’s bored and comes back off his own accord; or
  3. Anticipate, and wave something irresistible at him before he goes off (we’re talking beef steak here) if you’re in an area with particularly irresistible distractions.

If you keep practising (see the ‘monkey paragraph’), there will soon be less and less situations where you’re not 100% sure of your recall.

6. Keep your hands off

What am I talking about?

When the dog comes back to you, avoid stroking him, patting his head, scruffing up his hair, etc.

In other words: hands off.

What does it do?

Think back of your grandmother’s wet kisses, or when she was scruffing up your hair or pinching your cheek. They’re loving gestures but, man! they’re annoying

It works the same for dogs. Sure they need affection, but there’s a time and a place.

Most dogs find being touched when running back to you off-putting, so observe the dog’s body language. Unless the dog is wriggling with joy at your touch, as you can see in the video under point 7, I can guarantee that he won’t prefer your touch over a juicy treat when coming back to you.

Need evidence?

It is a tough habit to drop, so pay attention next time you call him:

  • Do you systematically touch him to ‘reward’ his recall?
  • How (pat on the head, scruff on the side, kiss)?
  • How does he react? Does he:
    • retreat,
    • cower,
    • flatten his ears,
    • drop his tail lower between his legs,
    • lick his lips,
    • yawn for no good reason?

Those could be subtle signs that he’s not enjoying it so much, which could make him that little bit less keen to come back to you.

7. Deal with the slow come-backs

What am I talking about?

I see this one all the time:

  • You call dog
  • He comes back reluctantly
  • You call him more impatiently
  • He slows down even more
  • You call him angrily
  • He starts sniffing around, and comes back in a (slow) zig zag

Why does it happen?

For dogs, bolting straight towards someone can be confrontational. If they detect tension (you’re irritated), they will go through great pains to reassure you they’re being peaceful when they’re approaching you.

How do they do that? They slow down, zig zag and sniff around, basically saying: “I want no trouble.“.

Spotted the catch 22 yet? The more agitated you get, the more they try to appease you, the more they slow down, the more agitated you get, etc.

For the smartie pants asking how I know the dog is not slowing down or sniffing around because of some genuinely interesting smell, rather than a diversion tactic, do the test. Does the dog keep sneakily looking up at you, or does it seem engrossed by the smell?

What can I do?

If he starts slowing down when he’s approaching you, make your body language more relaxed:

  • Breathing: from fast, shallow breaths to slow, deep breaths,
  • Posture: make yourself a little smaller,
  • Tension: try to relax your muscles,
  • Eyes: Do not stare at the dog, but look slightly to the side,
  • Position:
    • Do not face the dog squarely, but adopt a slight side-way posture, and
    • Put your weight on your back foot, rather than the front one.

8. Play hard to get

To keep your dog on his toes and wanting to regularly check in on you, make sure you are sometimes unavailable.

So, when he’s not paying attention, you could:

  • Hide yourself;
  • Take an unexpected turn; or
  • Run away in the opposite direction.

Safety note: Only do this in places where it’s safe to not supervise him for a sec.

9. Re-teach a lost recall

What am I talking about?

This happens all the time: the dog used to do it fine, then somehow the recall eroded.

How to re-teach a damaged recall?

Just get a fresh start:

  • Train the recall again (see the ‘monkey paragraph’)
  • Using a new command.

How to choose a new command?

Choose a sound that:

  • Carries far,
  • Your entire family can do (not a complicated whilstle), and
  • Won’t make you feel like an idiot.

Note: The name of the dog is not a recall command. It means ‘Pay attention for a sec‘. It does not mean ‘Come back to me’.

When to use the new command?

Only in situations where you’re sure to succeed (i.e. basic stages in the monkey bit). Keep using the old command for other situations.

Before you know it, you’ll be able to use the new command pretty much every where (because you’ll have followed the instructions in the monkey paragraph religiously).

Using your new command too early could ‘pollute’ it with too many mishaps and failures (remember the bit about avoiding mistakes?) .

And another couple of tips…

  1. Don’t forget to release the dog (e.g. say ‘free’, or ‘OK’) to let him know he can move about again after he’s come to you. Remember, ‘come here’ means ‘come here and stay here until I release you
  2. Put aside a daily ration of food for treats and staple. That means he’ll get slightly less at meal time, and he’ll be trickle-fed the rest during training sessions. That way, using treats for training won’t make him fat(ter).

It can’t be done?

Check this video by dog trainer/dog blogger and all-round nice guy Dino Dogan and his dog, Dojo, performing a stellar recall.

Comments

I love to read your comments. If you read this and have anything to share, leave a comment.

I’d particularly like to hear from you if you:

  • Have funny recall stories;
  • Have encountered challenges or problems during your recall training, or are downright stuck;
  • Would like to share a video of your dog performing a great, or appalling, recall; or
  • Have other tips.

I always love to hear from you, so join the discussion!

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