The Rules of Recall

If you’re planning to spend any time outdoors with your dog off leash, a solid recall is the single most important skill to teach. Unfortunately, a lot of dog owners struggle with recall. If you think about it, it makes sense. Outdoors, you’re competing against ALL OF THE THINGS - other dogs, squirrels, ground food, water, you name it - for your dog’s attention! That recall cue needs a lot of mojo to stack up against all that. After working on recall with our off-leash hiking groups for many years, here are some “rules of recall” that we’ve learned. Of course, no advice can take the place of working with a certified positive reinforcement trainer. Seek one out if you can!

USE FOOD REWARDS 

The notion that dogs should do what we say “just because” is painfully outdated. Dogs have their own feelings and opinions, and if we want their cooperation, we have to make it worth their while. For most dogs, the quickest and easiest training reward is food. Try out different food rewards and see what your dog gets excited about. We’re not talking Milk Bones, but high value rewards like bits of steak or chicken, cheese, or freeze dried liver. If you’re concerned about your dog gaining weight, consider cutting up a cup of treats to replace a portion of your dog’s meal, and use it throughout the day during your training sessions.

START SMALL 

Recall training doesn’t start at the dog beach. A strong foundation starts

with your dog simply responding to their name consistently. Start in your living room, and practice simply saying your dog’s name. The second they look to you, mark the behavior with “Good” or “Yes” (or use a clicker if you have one) and give them a tasty treat. Practice in different rooms of the house, in your backyard, and on a neighborhood walk. Once your dog is eagerly turning to you when you say their name, you’re ready to add a recall “cue” or word. 

USE A NOVEL CUE

Your recall “cue,” or the word you’ll use when you want your dog to come, should be a novel (new) word for your dog. If you have a puppy and you’re teaching recall for the first time, it’s fine to use the word “Come,” but if you have an older dog, or are starting over with recall training, it’s best to come up with a new word that they haven’t already learned to tune out. One of my clients uses the word “Sasquatch.” Some people use the word “Here.” It doesn’t matter what the word is, as long you’re consistent with it.

Some people feel they need to say their recall cue in a stern or commanding tone, but this is not necessary at all! Remember, we’re trying to create a positive association. The more happy and excited you sound, the better! I like to think of party music coming on as soon as our dog hears the recall cue. 

GRADUALLY INCREASE DIFFICULTY

When you’re ready to start working on recall, again, start easy - in your yard, in a quiet park, or in an open field with few distractions. Make sure your dog is in the mood for training - not tired or wired, but calm and able to focus for a few minutes. From a few feet away, say your dog’s name and your recall cue (Sadie, HERE!) and mark with a “Yes!” Or “Good!” (or a click) as soon as they start to move in your direction. Some people even like to back up a couple of steps, as the movement seems to draw our dogs towards us. Reward them with an awesome treat when they get to you. Wait a minute or two, and repeat. Practice just a few times a day - you want your dog to eagerly anticipate these little training sessions!

Once your dog really gets the hang of it, you can gradually increase the level of distraction. This stage of the game is when a long line can come in really handy! Have your dog wear their training line (we recommend 15 or 20 feet for most dogs, but some people like even longer), and let it drag on the ground or hold it loosely in your hand. Move a few feet away, call your dog (Sadie, Here!) and observe. If they hesitate, you can casually pick up the training line and move back a couple of steps, and then mark with a “Yes!” Or “Good!” the second they start moving toward you (and of course, reward them when they get there). The huge advantage of a training line is that it keeps your dog from practicing the unwanted behavior of running away or blowing off your recall cue. Again, practice over and over until your dog is a pro. 

ONLY SAY IT ONCE!

With so much going on in the world around them, dogs need to prioritize what to pay attention to. The quickest way to teach a dog to tune you out is to repeat your recall cue over. And over.  And over. If your dog is “not listening,” it’s not because they’re not being a good dog. It’s because you haven’t built a strong enough reinforcement history with your cue to cut through all the other noise of the world. A huge part of why recall fails is because we expect too much, too soon! If your dog blows you off, it’s a signal to take a few steps back in the training process. If you call your dog and they don’t come - DON’T call them again. Just go collect your dog (again, a training line is a huge help here) and make a mental note to adjust your training plan. Along those same lines, don’t call your dog if you’re not at least 95% sure they’re going to come. 

DON’T BE A BUMMER 

Don’t call your dog for something that is a bummer. If you need to leave the dog park, play date or hike - just casually gather up their long line when it’s time, and make sure to give them a special reward for leaving the fun. Don’t call your dog and then clip their leash, get in the car, and go home - they’ll learn to avoid you when they sense that it’s time to go. 

Of course, once you’ve built a solid recall, there may be times when you’ll need to use it to stop your dog from doing something dangerous (running into the street) or something that THEY see as awesome but YOU see as a bummer (rolling in a dead seal or a mud puddle, for example). But the majority of the time, recall shouldn’t signal that the fun is ending. Practice lots of recall when you DON’T need to. Just call your dog over, give them a reward, and then release them to continue hiking, sniffing, or playing. 

ALWAYS REWARD A SUCCESSFUL RECALL

Whether you’re just starting out with training or have been working with your dog for years, a successful recall should ALWAYS result in some kind of reward for your dog. Dog owners tend to use food during training and then stop once the training is “done.” While some dogs will be fine with an occasional reward, it’s really best to reward your dog each and every time they come when called. If you stop rewarding entirely, the behavior could fade away or fall apart completely.

Recall is a long game. Be patient, be consistent, and pay your dog well! Good Luck!