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Training Your Dog to Reliably Come When Called Is Hard. Here’s How to Make it Easier

The recall (dog-trainer-speak for “coming when called”) is probably the most important command you can teach your dog. It’s also probably the most frustrating; it’s hard to get a dog to do it reliably. Getting the basic behavior on cue is pretty simple and can be achieved in one weekend. Or one beginner obedience class. But that’s not the tricky part. Where people have trouble is getting the dog to actually respond to the cue when it counts. Common problems:

  • Dog performs perfectly in formal training sessions, but blows you off in any real situation, like when he gets out of the house and runs down the street.
  • Dog starts out with a great response to the recall, but over time, learns to ignore it

Let’s talk about how to avoid those problems and train a recall you can actually use in real life.

First, let’s review what not to do.

Why dogs learn to ignore the recall

Watch out for these common mistakes:

  • Assuming the dog is trained waaaay before he actually is. This leads to people getting frustrated because “my dog knows the recall command. He’s just choosing not to listen.” Not so much. Just because your kid has learned her ABCs doesn’t mean she’s ready to write a college-level essay. Just because Rover went to puppy class and knows what “come” means, doesn’t mean he’s fully trained. Teaching the dog a basic understanding of a cue is only the beginning of training.

  • Trying to level up too fast. So you taught your dog to perform a flawless recall in your backyard. Is she ready to take this new trick to the dog park? Not quite. It helps to think in terms of levels. For example:
    -Level one: your house on a quiet day
    -Level two: your house when guests are visiting
    -Level three: the backyard
    -Level four: your street
    -Level five: the park
    -Level 27: a hiking trail when the dog is off-leash 100 feet away from you with a rabbit running across her path

    Wait til Rover is proficient at each level before moving to the next level.

  • Calling the dog when you’re not damn sure he’s going to listen. Relates to the previous mistake. Every time you call your dog and he ignores it, he’s learning that he CAN ignore it. If you’ve only worked up to level two, don’t recall your dog in a level four situation. And when you’re in the process of leveling up from one level to another, keep Rover on a long-line (a training leash at least 15ft long) so you can “reel him in” if he doesn’t listen.

  • Calling the dog to punish her. Doesn’t matter how annoying she’s being, or how pissed off you are. Calling a dog and then scolding her will ruin your recall. Rover won’t understand that you’re punishing her for getting out of the house and running down the street. She’ll just learn “when my human catches me, bad things happen.” You can see how this might be a problem.

  • Calling your dog for unpleasant reasons. This will have the same effect as punishment. Don’t use your recall cue when it’s time to give Rover a bath. When you’re going to work, don’t call him to lock him up in his crate. When it’s time to leave the dog park, don’t call him away from his doggie friends. In situations like these, you’ll have to just go and grab him yourself. (Or use your casual recall and not your sacred recall. Huh? Keep reading)

  • Bribery. Food rewards are good. Food bribes are bad. What counts as a bribe? Showing the dog the food before you call him. In the early stages of training, waving a treat around to entice him to come to you (a technique called Lure/Reward) is fine. But you should quickly level up past that. You don’t want Rover to only come to you when he can see a reward.


How to build a strong recall

You want your dog to think recalls are heckin’ awesome. The aim is to develop a conditioned emotional response of “oh, HELL yes!” when he hears the cue. Two ways to do this:

  1. Reinforcing the crap out of the behavior
  2. Building enthusiasm via training games


Reinforce the crap out of the behavior

Reinforcement is anything the dog likes that will encourage her to repeat the behavior in the future. When the dog hears the recall cue and arrives merrily at your feet, the payoff should be huge.

This is another area where people tend to make mistakes. Most people don’t reinforce their dog anywhere near enough. They give mediocre rewards, or they reward only during what they consider the training phase, and then stop rewarding when they figure the dog is trained. Therefore the behavior deteriorates. Don’t make that mistake: always make sure your rewards are damn good.

What counts as a damn good reward?

There are many types of reinforcers/rewards. Your primary reward (at least for now) will be food, because it’s a fast way to build strong behaviors.

Food rewards for recalls should always be high-value, i.e. something the dog reeeeaaaally loves. Normally, I’m all for using treats of different value levels depending on how distracting the training environment is: low-value treats like kibble when you’re working in your living room, and high-value treats like real meat when you’re working in a busy park.

But not with the recall.

Recalls always get the good stuff.

I use a lot of plain cooked chicken. I also carry extra-high-value treats for extra-special situations: my dog recalls away from a rabbit on a trail? Time to break out the baggie of steak bits!

(“Holy shit, dude, you give your dog STEAK?” Yes, I understand the knee-jerk reaction but dude, have you seen how expensive halfway-decent store-bought dog treats are? An occasional package of thin-sliced steak is a much better value, in terms of both monetary value and dog training value)

My dog River is a weirdo: she’s OBSESSED with canned cat food. Canned dog food? Meh. But she would sell her soul (or, more in-character for the ridiculous persona I assigned her on Instagram, MY soul) for cat food. So when I feed my cat, I save a couple spoonfuls for River’s recall practice.


Build enthusiasm with training games

Forget long, boring, “serious” recall training drills. It’s better to think in terms of short, sweet training games. Not because I think the recall isn’t serious business – of course it’s serious. The recall is as serious as it gets.

I want you to play games precisely because it’s serious.

Training games are the best way to build reliable behaviors. They teach the dog that coming when called is more exciting than whatever else she was doing. They improve your bond, too; Rover learns that you are amazing and you are the provider of good things.

Another benefit of treating training like a game: humans can get a liiitle tense when we’re doing Serious Training. We tend to be relaxed and happy when we play games. Dogs like it when we’re relaxed and happy, and are more likely to engage with us. Therefore training is more effective, therefore the dog gets trained faster and better.

I learned this lesson when I was taking my first agility class with Jonas. The class was taught with lots of games and an it’s-just-for-fun attitude. Jonas ended up being extremely reliable with his fancy agility skills, while his “serious” basic obedience skills, like Down, Stay, and Come, were uh, not extremely reliable.

Ways to game-ify your training

Most dogs are excited by chasing and fast movement. Incorporate this into your training to build enthusiastic recalls:

Tag: get Rover’s attention, then recall him and run in the opposite direction. When he gets to you, drop his treat on the ground. While he stops to grab it, run away and call him again.

Flying treats: call your dog like normal, but when she gets to you, don’t hand her the treat – throw or roll it across the floor.

Restrained recalls: recruit an assistant to hold your dog’s collar while you walk away. Get Rover’s attention and “tease” him by making noises, clapping your hands, waving a toy, etc. When Rover is revved up, say your recall cue. That’s your assistant’s cue to unleash the hound. Bonus points if you start running.


Think “reinforcement” always means treats or toys? You’re thinking too small, padawan

Yes, I know I was just harping on the importance of good food rewards, but it’s not the only option, nor is it enough. Sometimes, there will be distractions that the dog cares about more than he wants a snack. Anything your dog wants in that moment (within reason, obvs) can be a recall reward.

Teach your dog that he gets what he wants if he does what YOU want. How? You guessed it, more training games.

Training games to distraction-proof your dog

Don’t do these until your dog has had a lot of practice with regular recall training.

To start teaching this concept, use food. Put your dog on leash, then toss a treat just out of his reach. While he pulls to get it, recall him. If he ignores you, start gently reeling him in with the leash. When he gets to you, reward the crap out of him.

When Rover is proficient, expand on the concept:

Take your dog for a walk through a park or field, on a long-line (long training leash). Once in a while, stop moving and recall him. When he gets to you, praise and send him to go back to whatever he was sniffing.

Expand some more: Are there dog or people he wants to play with? Recall, then send him to go play.

It’s raining recalls: practice a lot

The more successful recalls you get, the more reliable your recall cue will be. Every day, get as much recall practice as you can. You don’t need to do long training sessions – in fact, you shouldn’t. You don’t want Rover to get bored. Do two or three five-minute training sessions per day. And get in a few single “reps” at random times. Which brings me to:

Practice in less formal situations

Your dog is observant. She can tell when you’re preparing for a training session, and will go “okay, this is the thing where my human calls me a bunch and gives me good snacks for five minutes. I’m GREAT at this.” Outside of training sessions, they can be less responsive. Throughout the day, when your dog is doing her own thing around the house, do a recall. When she gets to you, do something awesome: either run to the kitchen and get a treat or grab her favorite toy and play her favorite game.


The sacred secret sauce: why I use more than one recall cue

Recalls can deteriorate for reasons that aren’t as obvious as calling a dog to punish or bathe him. In day-to-day life, we all call our dogs sometimes and they don’t listen, or we call them and they DO listen, but we don’t remember to reward them. The recall gradually weakens. The way I personally get around this with my dogs is by having two recall cues.

I have a very casual cue for around the house and backyard: “come here.” I did some basic training to get the dogs to understand this cue but really, it’s just the kind of thing that dogs pick up on by living with humans. My dogs learned that it’s in their best interest to follow me when I say it, because there’s usually something good in it for them, a treat or an ear scratch or a game of fetch or something. A major element of this cue in my house: the dogs can choose whether or not to listen. If they don’t want to, it’s not a big deal.

And then there’s my real recall cue.

The real recall cue is sacred.

My dogs’ response to the real recall is incredibly enthusiastic. The way a five-year-old might respond to “let’s go to Disneyland and then get ice cream and also a pony!”

Why? Because my real recall:

  • Has been heavily conditioned to elicit an involuntary “F*** YES” response from the dogs. Before I ever started officially training it as a command, I did a few sessions where I would say it, and then immediately offer a super mega amazing treat. Think Pavlov’s dogs drooling over the dinner bell.

  • Gets only super mega amazing rewards, which vary depending on the dog: River, for instance, knows that if I use the real recall, there is a very good chance she’ll get a bite of her beloved cat food. Or if I use the recall when we’re out hiking, her reward will be me getting super animated and running up the trail with her, or inviting her to chase me. She is thrilled by this. “Finally, the slowpoke human is actually MOVING! We’re frolicking in nature together! LIFE IS GREAT.”

  • Is only used when I am 100% sure the dog will listen. Or, in some training setups where we’re trying to level up: when I am 90% sure the dog will listen AND they’re wearing a long line.

  • Comes with strict usage guidelines and dire threats for everyone who takes care of my dogs: “Only use the cue if you’re following the above rules OR ELSE.” I’m a delight.

And here’s the interesting element:

  • My recall cue is a nonsensical random word. My recall cue is “check.” I think my original reasoning was that it was short for “check in,” as in “come check in with me.” But it doesn’t matter. The point is that it’s a distinct sound, and it doesn’t get unthinkingly said a million times in daily life, the way traditional recall words can be.

But my favorite part? It’s a random sound that doesn’t make sense, so the human has to be trained to understand it as much as the dog does. Because something that often happens: English-speaking humans understand what cues like Sit, Come, and Get Off The Couch mean. So we can get lazy about properly training these cues. On some unconscious level, we think that because it’s obvious to us, it’s obvious to the dog. “Rover, get off the couch! Off! OFFFFF. Get. Off. The. Couch! Come on, stupid dog, this is easy! Are you just stubborn? Or *gasp* dominant??” It’s harder to make that mistake when your cue for getting off the couch is the phrase “Purple Backpack” or something.

You don’t have to use the word “check.” Pick your own. Use your imagination, be creative, go nuts. And yes, you can still use the word “come,” if you’re all traditional like that. These are just the random musings of a random internet dog trainer. Do what works for you.

So there ya go. Recalls can be a pain, I know, but the payoff is potentially life-saving. And if you teach it the way I recommend, it doesn’t have to be a pain. It can be a lot of fun! Even if you never teach your dog anything else, invest some time in getting a solid recall. Practice often, use a wide variety of damn good reinforcers, level up slowly. You got this.