Training Tips

Teaching Happy Recalls

We’ve raised the standard since those obedience days some 30 plus years ago. Nowadays we want recalls that are not just reliable, but that are happy and fast as well. We want dogs who come because they want to and love it, not because they must.

The good news is it’s not as hard as you might think. It just takes a commitment to regular practice, keeping it fun and happy.

Start by association with your recall word and something tasty, chicken, steak or cheese. You want to do this liberally and often. Say your word loudly and happily. When your dog is excited when he hears that word, you are ready to begin. Remember, he hadn’t had to do anything for this part. You guys are just hanging out.

With your dog walking by your side on leash, give your cue loudly and in a cheerful tone of voice, then run away fast. When you are running together, in the same direction, run 10-15 feet and reward him with a treat when you stop. You can also use a toy and play a little tug or toss a ball for him to catch. Keeping things fun and high value teaches your dog how exciting it is to hang out with you.

It can be difficult to resist calling your dog away from something she finds interesting. But if you give your recall cue when she is distracted or unlikely to come, the cue will become increasingly irrelevant to your dog. Try getting your dogs attention by saying her name or making kissy noises.

Standing in a face front position can be threatening to some dogs and they may not want to come. Make yourself smaller, have a passive side stance, or even get on the ground.

By the way, “fast” is relevant. If you have a Labrador Retriever, “fast” is probably “fast as you can.” If you have a Yorkshire Terrier, “fast” is considerably slower. “Fast” should only be as fast as your dog can comfortably run.

After several days of practicing the previous steps, try this: Wait until your dog is a few feet away from you (still on leash). Say “Come!” (cheerful and loud!) and run away fast. Run 10-15 feet and reward her at the end. Exciting and unpredictable! If your dog stays very close to you, drop a few yummy treats on the ground, walk to the end of the leash, wait until she’s eating the last one, then say “Come!” and run away. Practice this step for a week or more.

When your dog consistently runs to you and with you when you say “Come!” and run, start a little off-leash work in a safely enclosed, low-distraction area, such as a hallway in your house, or large den. When he’s not right next to you and not deeply engrossed in some highly rewarding activity (such as gnawing on a bone), say “Come” (loud and cheerful)

You can practice longer distance recalls outside with your dog on a long line – a leash that is 20 to 50 feet long (not a retractable leash!). The long line keeps him safe and prevents him from leaving, but do not use it to pull him to you. Remember to turn and run away fast – at least at first. If he’s now flying to you happily every time, you can face him to greet him and reward him when he gets to you.

When he reliably comes to you on the long-line in a safely enclosed location, start working on off-leash recalls – still in your safely enclosed location. Repeat the two previous steps. Take care not to call him if he’s involved in some highly rewarding activity such as eating deer poop in the garden. Always call him in a loud, cheerful tone, and use a high-value (and unpredictable) reward when he comes.

When your dog will run happily to you even when you take only one or two running steps, you can add an automatic sit. This parks him when he gets to you. When your dog’s recall-sits happen easily and automatically, occasionally reach for his collar gently under the chin. Give him a yummy treat, and then toss a ball or toy for him to chase. This teaches him to happily accept you reaching for him after a recall, for those occasions when you need to restrain him. We’ve all seen those dogs who dance just out of reach when their owners are trying to capture them. Don’t let that be your dog!

Now you can add Round Robin Recalls with other family members and friends. Supply each player with a stock of toys and yummy treats. Take turns calling your dog and running away fast, with each person rewarding him each time they call him, with a high value (unpredictable and exciting) treat or fun game with a toy.

If your friends and family are around to help with your training, ask them to create distractions while you call your dog. Small ones at first – standing between you and your dog; walking across his recall path; talking to him as he runs by – and then bigger ones: sitting on the ground between you and your dog; holding treats in their hands (but not letting him have them); holding a toy, eventually tossing it in the air and catching it as you call your dog – and finally, huge ones: running across his recall path; throwing a ball on the ground as he runs past; or walking across the yard with another dog on leash.

What should you do if your dog fails to resist the temptation to investigate one of the distractions? First, try to stop him from engaging with the distraction (the other dog, a ball, another person with treats), put your dog back on leash, and make a note to yourself: your dog is not yet ready for that level of distraction off leash!

With your dog back on-leash, go back to work, but with a less-challenging distraction. Ask your distraction volunteers to stand farther away, or to be much less exuberant in their efforts to distract your dog. Also, increase the value of your reinforcer. Bring out the very top-level treats you possess, or the toy that your dog loves so much that it will overcome almost any distraction. Your goals, as always, are to prevent the dog from being reinforced for behaviors you don’t want (failing to come to you); and to reinforce the behavior you do want (coming when called) with rewards that are very meaningful to your dog (not just kibble).

If you and your dog have been successful at the previous steps, you can start working on generalizing your dog’s recalls in new locations. Each time you go to a new place, practice recalls on the long line until you’re sure he’s reliable, even in the presence of big distractions. When you’re confident he’ll come every time you call, and if it’s legal and safe, you’re ready for long off-leash hikes in the hills – the best adventure and exercise any dog could ask for.


*Miller,Patricia, Whole Dog Journal December 2008.