Getting your dog to come to you on cue is one of the nicest things you can do for your dog. Knowing that your dog will return whenever you want her to allows you to give her freedom to play and go where she wants to — within reason. The recall, along with a solid “emergency down” may save her life one day, so it’s worth putting some time into training her to respond quickly.
So how to build this solid recall? First, choose a word for the cue. If your dog is a puppy, you can choose whatever you want, just stick to it. If your dog is a rescue, you might want to pick something out-of-the-ordinary as your cue. She might have bad associations with “come” from her previous guardian. Just test it out, and she’ll tell you. If she ignores you, that’s okay. If she runs away, that’s a sign you should use a different word.
Let’s assume that your recall cue is “come.” If you have already tried (and your dog isn’t listening) to “come,” I’d pick a new word. Chances are, you’ve managed to poison the cue, somehow, and it’s best to start fresh with a new word, with no associations. You want this to be one of the best words your dog knows. It means, “run to me, there’s a party over here!” The idea is to never let your dog know that there is something better than coming to you. So never say “come” when you think your dog may not do it. The second thing to be sure that you do not do is doing something scary after your dog comes to you. When your dog comes when you call her, do not do anything that she does not like. That includes nail-clipping, putting the leash to leave the park, or yelling at her for pouncing on the neighbor’s cat. The last thing she did was come to you — you don’t want to punish that, you should reward it! You’ll have to be satisfied with telling her, in a nice, upbeat voice, what a rotten dog she is. Finally, the last bit of negative advice is to never chase after your dog. You do not want her to think that running away from you is a fun game. Whether she has a sock, you need to take her out of the park, or you just think it’s fun, chasing is not the answer.
The major steps in teaching the recall are to introduce the cue and then practice in a huge number of different circumstances. Vary how far away you are from the dog and how many distractions there are. When you make one aspect harder, make the other one easier. You might use a long line for safety or as a gentle reminder of your existence, but don’t use it to tug your dog to you. If you need the line very often, you are pushing her too fast. Set your dog up for success.
1. Introduce the cue, “Come!” to your dog. Do this somewhere where you know the dog will come to you. Have a treat handy, behind your back, for example. Start with your dog right in front of you, so she doesn’t have to move at all. As time goes on, gradually add distance, like one or two feet away. In a friendly voice (not a command or a question, but an invitation), say “Puppy, come” (the dog’s name here is Puppy). Then show her the treat and take a step backward. Lean away from her, not into her. Leaning in is doggish for “stop.” Puppy runs over, gets clicked for showing up, and gets her treat. Not just one treat, but several, one at a time (only one click). Make it a real party.
If she likes to be petted, now is a good time. But be careful — she may often like petting, but maybe not all the time. Watch what she does. If she ducks away from your hand, now is not a a good time.
2. Practice from further away. Do the same activity from 6 feet away. You say “Puppy, come,” then get her to come to you somehow. She doesn’t fully know the cue yet, so you want to make sure that she comes to you. Legal moves on your part are: waving the food in front of her face and running away; making kissy noises; clucking with your tongue; clapping your hands, etc. Illegal moves: walking over and grabbing her by the scruff of the neck or in some other way making “come” a scary word.
4. Practice as part of living. Call her to you whenever you are about to do something good to her or for her. Feeding time is a great example. If you want to take her for a walk or let her out into the yard, those are good times, too. If she knows sit, then call her to you, ask for a sit, then give her dinner, let her out, or clip on the leash. Remember, only call her for the fun stuff, so don’t call her to give her a bath! Practice with small distractions and big rewards.
5. Practice from even further away. Work up to ten feet, or fifteen, if she’ll do it. All indoors, with low distractions. Reward generously.
6. Practice with distractions, closer in. Now make it harder for her by increasing the distraction level. We don’t want to make it too hard, so have her closer to you, say 5 feet away.
7-100. Keep increasing the level of distraction and the distance until you have the recall you want. Make sure that any time you call her, you are willing to do what it takes to get her to come to you. This may mean running away (one of my favorites) or running up to her, showing the treat, and then running away (safer method). It may mean waiting her out, if she’s not entertaining herself by not coming. When she doesn’t come when you call her, you are simply moving beyond what she is ready for. Simply make it easier for her in some way and build reliability slowly. Here are a few examples of recall games that you can play with your dog:
(LOW distraction) Have a friend make noise to attract your dog over to him. After she runs over, call your dog: “Puppy, come.” The friend then shuts down and becomes the most boring human that Puppy knows, so she will eventually run over to you, the interesting one.
(HIGHER distraction) Have a friend make noise with a squeaky toy to attract your dog over to him. After she runs over, call your dog: “Puppy, come.” The friend then shuts down and holds the toy to his chest, again becoming the most boring human that Puppy knows, so she will eventually run over to you, the interesting one. Then you give him a treat and run back over to the friend, who presents him with the toy and a fun game.
(possibly HIGHER distraction) Have a friend hold a container of extra-good treats and attract your dog over to him in some way. After she runs over, call your dog: “Puppy, come.” The friend then shuts down and holds the treats above dog level, yet again becoming the most boring human that Puppy knows, so she will eventually run over to you, the interesting one. Then you give him a treat and run back over to the friend, who presents him with the even better treats. Puppy learns that coming to you is the way to get what she wants.
(EVEN HIGHER distraction) When Puppy is playing with dogs, look for a break in the game and call her over to you. Give her a yummy treat and send her back into the fray.
(WAY HIGHER distraction) When Puppy is playing with dogs, call her over to you (the difference here is that she is actively playing). Give her a yummy treat and send her back into the fray. Be careful not to go past what she is ready for. You don’t want her learning that she can say “in a minute” and go back to playing.
(SUPER distraction) Squirrels. You may never get to the level where Puppy will come running to you if you call her during a squirrel chase. There is a possibility that you can teach her to drop on cue so well that she will do that during a chase. Then you can get her to calm down and, after a minute, call her to you. Consult a professional.
Chase — chase is fine, as long as you are the one running away. Call your dog, then sprint away as fast as you can. She will catch you. Turn and run a different direction. She’ll catch you again. Ask for a sit and give her a treat. You don’t necessarily have to treat this one — chase is rewarding in and of itself.
Hide-and-seek. Hide in a closet in the house and call your dog. You may have to make a noise so she can find you, but don’t make it too easy for her. Give her a nice reward when she finds you, maybe even a 30-second party. You can play this at the park, too, when she’s ready for it.
Two-dog recall. If you have multiple dogs, give a treat to the first one who shows up. This also helps speed up responses to other cues. Treat the first one to sit, lie down, etc.
No guarantee is stated or implied in this article and if you follow any of the advice in it, you do so at your own risk. If you ever feel that you, your dog, or others are at risk because of your dog, please seek the services of a professional dog trainer.