Teaching Your Dog to Come When Called

Laura Nativo

Recall is dog training lingo for asking your dog to come when called. Every dog needs a rock-solid recall, and yet too many pet parents struggle with this! A dog that doesn’t come when called can be a dangerous thing. Whether it’s a coyote, a rattlesnake, or a squirrel, the environment can be filled with dangerous distractions. That’s why practicing recall is important for dogs of all ages. Reliable recall starts with YOU. Think about where you are happiest. A beach? The dance floor? Playing video games? We’re all different, but the places where we are drawn to most are where we feel safest. That is why it’s important you make your dog’s happiest place being with you!

I bet when you first brought your pup home they came running to you all the time – you didn’t even have to teach the COME cue. What happened?!

I’ll tell you exactly what happened. In the beginning, the excitement of having a puppy had us put all our attention on our new BFF. Because pups are bonding from 8 weeks to 16 weeks old, they instinctively follow us around. The world is new and they are unsure of it, even though they are wild and crazy puppies. After all, they just left their mama in the only home they knew so sticking close to us is instinctive. However, as dogs grow up, they begin to explore their world and have learned that we are not as exciting as the newness of everything else. We continue to use what worked in the past but now they are not as needy or interested as they initially were. We took for granted the neediness of a puppy and didn’t actually ‘teach’ the COME cue. No wonder why they stop listening to us.

We do a number of things that actually “poison” the COME cue. We go after them when they don’t listen which teaches them that COME means you go get them instead of them coming to you. We sometimes get upset with them and this tone makes them not want to COME any more. Or we get frustrated and when we finally get them, we put them away. All of this serves in teaching dogs that COME is a bad thing. Now we have an adult dog who has no respect or understanding of the COME cue. It’s a cue of great misunderstanding and it gets worse with age, not better. It’s a balancing act teaching them positively, and one that needs continual practice.

What You’ll Need

  • Clicker
  • Harness & leash
  • Long line leash for Distance recall
  • A quiet training space with no distractions
  • Lots of healthy, high-value treats
  • Treat pouch
  • A human friend to help practice recall games (optional!)

Step 1 – Call Your Dog

With your dog in a SIT/STAY, or a helper holding your dog at a short distance, take a few steps away and call your dog in a happy, enthusiastic voice. When your dog runs toward you, CLICK or say “YES” and reward them with yummy treats.

Step 2 – Add a Cue

Once your dog comes reliably when you call them, add a cue word or motion to this behavior. You can use things like “Hurry” or “Here.” Once they start moving toward you, CLICK or say “YES” and reward generously.

Step 3 – Distractions

After you have practiced in your quiet space and your dog is coming to you predictably, begin to add distractions. Have your dog on a harness or leash and put a few pieces of low value food, toys, or other interesting items nearby for them to play with. Call them over and CLICK or say “YES” once they leave the distraction for you and give them a higher value treat when they arrive.

Step 4 – Move to New Locations

Try taking your dog to new locations to practice – both familiar and unfamiliar. Try it at the park, a neighbor’s house, anywhere you go so that you can reinforce the behavior. Remember, use a harness and long line leash anywhere you are practicing in an unsecured area.

Step 5 – Generalize the Cue

Practice calling your dog in different voices. It’s unlikely you’ll sound happy and excited if there is a real emergency. Practice calling your dog in a loud voice, while yelling, anything to help your dog understand that regardless of the tone or volume, they will ALWAYS be rewarded for coming when called.

Rules for a Rock Star Recall

1. Only call for happy experiences.

Be sure to only call your dog when there is a cool prize waiting for them – dinner time, play time, going for a car ride, a delicious surprise snack, etc.

2. Only call when you know they’ll come.

Until you’re sure that your dog will come to you when you call, go collect them. You want them to be willing to come instead of thinking of it as a chore.

3. Only call when you have a reward.

You don’t like working a hard day without pay, right? Your dog doesn’t either! Make sure to pay your pet in treats and generosity when they do good work.

4. Only call your dog once.

When you repeat a cue, your dog is learning that you don’t mean it the first time. You want your dog to come right away.

5. Have a party when they arrive.

Shower your dog with praise and treats when they come to you. The goal is to have them CHOOSE you over a distraction so make it worth their while.

6. Set your dog up for success.

Don’t punish your dog or force them to come. If your dog has done something bad, calmly collect them with a leash and walk them rather than calling them.

7. Practice makes perfect recall.

Practice with your dog regularly. No matter how old they get or experienced they are with this cue, it never hurts to reinforce the importance of COME.

Laura Nativo and Delilah

When Delilah was about 10 months old we were at the beach three blocks from home and she got spooked by a wave. We’d been to the beach so many times before, but she was going through her second fear period and things that she was used to became scary as her hormones and instincts changed. The beach was surrounded by a rock wall that she scaled over in her panic, then tore through a restaurant parking lot past tourists and confused diners. Then she bolted toward Pacific Coast Highway – I was sure that I was going to lose her. I chased and chased and – FINALLY – on Sunset Boulevard when I caught up enough for her to hear me, I yelled, “Delilah come!” loud enough for her to hear me above the whizzing traffic. I kept my tone happy and excited so that she didn’t sense my panic and so that the COME cue meant simply that I needed her to return to me. And she did! She stopped in her tracks once she heard my voice and ran back to me, licking my face when she returned almost like an apology for taking off in the first place. (Yes, perhaps I’m anthropomorphizing!)

It’s crazy but looking back on this now with a clear head, Delilah did everything she could to flee safely. She waited for a clear spot in traffic before bolting through the crosswalk as we had practiced so many times. She was heading toward our house for safety instead of just running. It’s embarrassing for me as a professional dog trainer to admit that she escaped once, everyone makes mistakes. And I’m hoping others will learn from mine! It is humbling as a pet parent to acknowledge that our training was not where it needed to be at the time. And we worked through it all the way back to square one. Delilah was not off-leash at the beach for more than six months while we worked together to build trust with the ocean, the waves, and each other.

Four years later, her recall is rock solid reliable, and she enjoys the freedom of regular off-leash adventures. She is allowed to safely chase wildlife like squirrels and seagulls when cued, and she recalls whenever asked. But the times we have encountered potentially dangerous creatures – everything from elk to a rattlesnake to a black bear – she has retreated every time with confidence.

We owe it to our dogs to dedicate time for consistent training sessions and generous rewards so they can experience the thrill of simply being a dog safely. We can’t expect our dogs to willingly come to us without training, especially when life has so much to offer.

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