Does your dog run away from you on walks, becoming completely deaf to your repeated, panicked calls for them to come back to you? If this sounds familiar, you need to start working on your dog’s recall skills. Reliable recall is when you know with absolute certainty that your dog will come back to you when they’re called.
If you want to let your four-legged friend off the lead to give them some freedom to run wild, recall is a fundamental skill to teach. However, it can be a really tricky one to master. When you go out for a walk with your dog, there are so many things for them to explore; grass, animals, puddles, sticks, you know, all that really fun stuff…
So, when you call your dog back, you’re asking them to do something really difficult. You’re asking them to leave behind all these amazing sights and smells to come to the person they spend all day every day with. You can see why they would choose not to. If we can teach our dogs that being close to us is even more exciting and fun than these other distractions, you’ll have recall mastered in no time.
Read on to learn all about recall, why it’s so important, our step-by-step guide to teaching it and some fun recall games to encourage your dog’s recall abilities.
What is recall?
Recall is simply the act of your dog responding and coming back to you on your terms. If you can go out to the park, let your dog off their lead and feel totally confident that they’ll come running straight back to you when you call them, they’ve got reliable recall.
Why should I train recall?
Training your dog to come when called is a vital skill to have in the bag for a few reasons.
Dogs love to have a run around, it provides them with some freedom away from the lead and a chance to burn off some of their crazy energy. Your dog’s time outside of the house is dependent on when you take them for a walk, so having the freedom to go crazy for a little while can be really beneficial to both your dog’s physical and mental health.
However, to give them this opportunity, you need to make sure they’ll come back to you on command as our dogs can get themselves into some dangerous situations. Recall can even prove to be a lifesaving skill. It can help to prevent your dog from going missing, running into the road and even stop them from bounding up to another dog who won’t be best pleased at having some random, boisterous hound in their face wanting to play.
Basically, if you want your dog to run around off lead in an area that isn’t secure, they need to have reliable recall. If you’re not confident with your dog’s recall abilities, it’s absolutely fine to keep them on the lead or use extra-long leads. However, if you can get your dog’s recall training nailed on, it’s great to give your dog that bit of extra independence.
Step by step guide to recall training
Training recall is pretty simple in terms of the steps you need to take, but it can be incredibly tricky for your dog to master. It’s no secret that our dogs can get selective hearing when they’re out in the park.
We’re going to give you the rundown on how to tackle recall training, going right back to the basics.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re training up your brand new puppy, or if you’re starting training from scratch with your adult dog who totally ignores you when you’re out and about. You can train recall at any age with any level of ability.
What’s your name?
We said we were going back to basics, and here we are!
To teach recall, your dog needs to know their name. This might seem like a silly step, as you probably think, “well obviously my dog knows their name”, but do they give you their full attention when you say their name? Do they stare at you waiting for you to provide them with the next command? Or do they totally blank you?
If they ignore you, you need to start rewarding your dog when you say their name and they give you their attention. When it comes to teaching recall, you can use your dog’s name as an attention grabber, hopefully to stop them in their tracks if they were to dart off in the park, and then you can go on and use their recall cue.
Keep it casual
Once your dog definitely knows their name, you can start with the proper training. Initially, your training needs to be really low key, in a chilled-out environment where there’s nothing exciting around that could distract them. Eventually, you’ll need to practice in situations where loads of fun, exciting things are happening, but for now, keep it casual.
Say your dog’s name and when their attention is on you, show them a treat or toy to tempt them into coming towards you. Verbally praise them as they’re doing so and reward them when they’ve made it right up to you. Once you’ve done this a few times, you’ll be able to introduce your command word, such as ‘come’ or ‘here’ when they begin to head your way.
For these initial training sessions, make sure your distance apart from each other is minor. Seriously, you only need to stand about a metre away from your dog, you want them to only be taking a step or two forward to begin with. As your training continues, your distance apart will increase.
Keep repeating this pattern, saying your dog’s name, showing them the reward, saying your command word and finishing it all off with their reward. After a while, your dog should start trotting towards you before you’ve even shown them the treat.
It won’t surprise you that the way to crack this training is through constant practice, practice, practice. Alongside a lot of patience and positivity. However, it can be made easier by turning everyday occurrences into training sessions.
You could probably bet your life on the fact that if you were to call your dog for their dinner, or for walkies, they’d be by your side in a heartbeat. But if you were calling them and they knew it was bathtime on the receiving end, they’d be doing everything in their path to avoid coming to you.
So, every time you want to give your dog their dinner, go for a walk, give them a cuddle or have a play session, call them to come to you, rather than bringing the fun stuff to them. Every single thing that could be a positive occurrence for your dog, call them to come to you for it. This helps to build that strong association between coming to you and really cool, positive things happening.
During your recall training, don’t ever call them to you and give them bathtime, nail clipping, medication or anything else they’d hate in return. This way, they’ll start to think of recall as a punishment when it should be something they want to do.
Distance and distractions
Still sticking to the at-home training sessions, increase how far away you stand from your dog when you call them. Practice in different rooms with different distractions, such as going into the garden or by having other people hanging around the house that they’d otherwise want to be around.
As you’ve increased your distance away from your dog, you can start to verbally praise them in an excited, silly voice as they come towards you, you don’t need to wait until they’re right by your feet to give them praise. By telling them they’re doing the right thing along the way, they’ll be much more inclined to go the full distance and come right to you. Also, kneeling to the ground and getting on your dog’s level helps to encourage them to head your way.
When you’re confident that they’re coming back to you in the house, it’s time to up the ante and step out into the world. This is where it starts to get tricky.
Out and about
Hooray! We’ve finally made it out of the house and into the outside world. This stage is a big step for your dog, they’ll be met with various new distractions, new people, new dogs, new sights and new smells.
At this stage, it’s a good idea to get a really long lead, you can get ones that are over 15 metres long! This way, your dog can have still some freedom, but you can maintain peace of mind that your dog is safe and secure. Another option here is to find a secure, enclosed dog park where they can be totally off lead and you can get to work practicing.
If you’re using the long lead, let your dog move away from you and then call them back, exactly the same as you would do in the house. If they come back to you, this is great! They’re already managing to demonstrate their recall skills in a new and distracting environment. Reward them highly with their favourite treats - you need a good incentive to make them feel like it was worth coming back to you. Some dogs may prefer to come back to the promise of a tennis ball - do whatever works best for you and your dog.
If they choose to ignore you rather than coming back, stay calm, if they didn’t come back to your happy, exciting voice, there’s no chance they’ll want to come back to your angry, frustrated voice. Try to carefully guide them in with the long line or go and collect them yourself. Never yank them back, this could make them do the complete opposite of what you want them to do, they might just tug against you to move further away.
Keep practicing over and over again with the long lead until they come back every single time.
Get someone to help you
After many training sessions with the long lead, you might feel confident enough to start letting them off. You can still stick to the long lead though if you’re unsure.
Recruiting a friend or a family member to give you a helping hand can really benefit your training at this point. Go to the park, an enclosed dog field or even stick to the garden, hand your helper loads of tasty treats and then stand far apart from each other. Take it in turns to call your dog to come back and forth between you and give your pup a treat each time they reach you.
Practice, practice, practice
At this point, all you need to do is keep on practicing. If you’re still using the long lead, you should eventually feel like you’ve got the trust in your dog to have them totally off lead.
Practice in various locations with a variety of distractions. If you’ve got a young dog, one of the main distractions will probably be other dogs. A young pup probably thinks every dog is there for them to play with, so you need to show your dog that not everyone wants to play, so leave them alone! This is the point at which your recall training is the most important, but if you keep practicing on every walk, equipped with a constant stream of tasty treats and a positive, determined mindset, you’ll get there in the end.
During your recall training, your dog will probably be having a lot of extra treats, but eventually you can cut these down to the point where they won’t expect a treat every single time they come back to you. Never completely cut out the treats though, you want them to be in the mindset that they don’t get a treat every time they come back, but if they get one, bonus! This should encourage them to keep coming back, it’s a jackpot of whether they’ll get a treat or not.
Recall training doesn’t have to always be endless, tedious training sessions, there are ways to make it more fun by incorporating a few games into it. You’ll obviously still need to do some of the basic training techniques initially, but a few games mixed in here and there when your dog is getting the hang of things can really help make things more entertaining - for you and your dog.
This game is one that can be done wherever you want, and your dog can be on or off lead depending on how confident you are with their recall abilities. Shout your dog’s name to grab their attention, then run a few steps away and shout their recall cue. If they pop up alongside you, reward them.
Running, clapping and speaking in a high-pitched, silly tone will make you seem fun to be around, so they’ll be inclined to follow and run alongside you. If they’re on the lead, just make sure that you’ve gained their attention first, you don’t want to just run and yank their lead back.
Hide and seek
Playing hide and seek with your dog is a really good one, not only does it help to practice their recall, but it’s also just really fun, giving you some extra special pet and parent bonding time. It can even be a great way to tire your dog out, providing mental enrichment as it forces them use their nose to sniff out your hiding spot.
This game doesn’t take much explaining really, just go hide in another room, nowhere too tricky to start with, maybe just behind the door, and call them to come and find you. When they’ve sussed out your hiding spot, give them loads of praise and a reward to make this game really fun and exciting.
Hold me back
You can play this game with or without the long lead, depending on how reliable your dog’s recall is, you’ll just need another person to help you out. Try and get your dog giddy, play with them, speak in a funny voice, clap and jump around, and then get your helper to hold your dog back using their collar or harness.
Run away from your dog, kneel down low and call them to you. Make sure you really do run away, don’t just slowly saunter off, this is boring! Hopefully, your dog should be pretty fired up, urging to be released. As soon as your helper feels like your dog is pulling against them, dying to get to you, they can let go of their grip. Once your dog gets to you, reward them with treats, loads of praise and a little play. You can take this in turns.
Why is my dog not listening to me anymore?
You might think that your dog has got recall absolutely nailed, but one day, they run after another dog and you just can’t get them back to you, the situation ending with you profusely apologising to the other dog owner, ”he’s never done this before, he always comes back!”
If this sounds like you, there’s a few reasons that this could be happening.
If your dog is young, it could simply be that they’re just growing up. You might have totally trained your young puppy in recall, and you finally feel confident to let them off, but you might be surprised to find that they don’t really leave your side. Young pups are much more timid and wary of this new, big world that they’ve not properly experienced yet, so will be more than happy to stick by your side or come straight back to you when you call them, especially if a treat is at the other end.
However, as they grow up, they gain their confidence, become more independent and want to explore the world for themselves and see what’s what. As a result, they stop responding to you. At this stage, you might need to bring back the long lead and keep on practicing.
Selective hearing and disobedience are also common characteristics of dogs entering their ‘teenager’ phase, which is usually anytime between 6-18 months old! You might have thought that you had your dog’s training perfected, but suddenly they’ve regressed and decided that listening to you isn’t half as fun as being naughty and mischievous. This regression is totally normal, it can just be extremely frustrating. With patience and perseverance you’ll get your obedient little pup back in no time.
Another reason that your dog might have stopped listening to you is because the cue has been ‘poisoned’. Essentially, a cue becomes poisoned when your dog starts to associate it with something negative. This usually happens totally unintentionally, and it might take owners a while to figure out how it actually happened.
One example of cue poisoning could be through a simple head pat. Surprisingly, many dogs don’t like being patted on the head, which most owners will probably see as a form of praise. So, if you reward your dog for responding to your cue with a head pat, they might start to avoid responding to the command in future to avoid the head pat if it’s something they dislike.
Poisoning a cue can also happen by overusing the word and gaining no response from your dog. Therefore, if you’re constantly shouting ‘come’ over and over again and your dog just doesn’t listen, they’ll take it that they don’t have to listen to you when you say this word. The negative association could also occur through the simple act of always putting the lead on when they come to you, they’ll learn that recall is a sign that the fun is over.
The best thing to do here is go back to the basics, starting completely from scratch and using a different word as your recall cue. Even though they’re doing the exact same action, in this case coming back to you, they won’t have the negative association that they had with your previous cue.
Also, make sure to never recall your dog into something bad, such as putting on the lead. Of course, you’ll need to get them back to put them on the lead at some point, but you should always give them a high-value treat before clipping the lead on.
Important tips and tricks
- If your dog is off lead or on a long lead, reward them for just sticking by your side or making eye contact with you without you even asking. This reinforces that being with you means great things will happen.
- Practice daily in small sessions, slowly increasing the difficulty, distractions and distance. Don’t overdo it all at once.
- Don’t recall them only when it’s time to put the lead on and go home, they’ll soon make this association and decide not to come back at all. When you’re out and about, call them to you, reward and let them carry on the fun. This is a win win situation for your dog, they get a treat and get to carry on having fun.
- If recall is needed for an emergency, for example your dog has run away from you, don’t chase them down as they’ll think it’s a game and keep running. Kneeling close to the ground, being excitable or even running away from your dog will be more likely to make them come to you. Of course, if your dog is running off, it’s hard not to panic, so this is easier said than done.
- Always make sure your dog is wearing a tag with your phone number and address on, and keep their microchip details up to date in the event that they do run off.
As well as the all-important toilet training, sit, lie down, stay and all the rest, recall training is one of the most important skills you can teach a puppy, and an adult dog too! It not only allows your dog to enjoy some freedom and the opportunity to let off some steam, but it can even be a lifesaving skill.
It’s never too late to start with recall training, and it doesn’t matter if it takes you several months to master, you’re never going to regret the training. Start simple and work your way up, and you and your canine friend will be able to enjoy longs walks without the worry in no time!