Coming when called is a behavior that dog owners almost always desire. A great recall means the difference between participating in a lot of fun activities – such as romps on the beach, playing at the dog park, hiking off-leash in the woods, competing in dog sports – and sitting on the sidelines. We get asked about it so often that we have a class, Come This Way, devoted to building and maintaining this skill!
It’s also the behavior that dog owners are most likely to take for granted or inadvertently punish. Read on to learn how to avoid these common pitfalls and maintain a positive association for your dog.
My Name = AWESOME!
Imagine how most dogs react when they hear the crinkle of a potato chip bag. They stop what they’re doing and come flying into the room! Hearing that sound is the highlight of their day. THAT is the response you want to your dog’s recall word.
The response to the crinkle sound is so strong because the potato chip bag almost always means a salty, oily, tasty snack, and it definitely never means something uncomfortable – like the end of playtime is over, a nail trim, or bath time.
Recalls always need to be a positive experience for your dog. Don’t call your dog if you have to do something they don’t like. Common examples of “inadvertent punishment” include bringing your dog back inside when they’d rather be playing in the yard, calling them to groom him or trim their nails, and calling them only to pat them on the head (which most dogs don’t enjoy, but that’s a different topic).
Imagine you’re having the time of your life at a sports game or concert when your phone rings. It’s your best friend. You answer the phone, and he frantically insists you meet him outside. You rush out of the building, away from all of the fun and excitement, and meet him across the street. He pats you on the shoulder and says, “Thanks, pal! I can always count on you to show up when I ask!” Then he walks away.
How likely are you to answer the phone when your “best friend” calls you next week? Not very likely.
Don’t be “that guy.” Make sure that coming to you is always worth your dog’s while.
Get Started: Train Your Dog to Come When Called
You need to use the highest value treats possible for recall training. If you want a brilliant response, you need to provide a brilliant reward.
Remember that your dog determines how valuable a particular treat is to them. You have to figure out what your dog prefers. For dogs in our Day School program, we frequently use string cheese, hot dogs, and liverwurst for recall training.
If you try to do this work using kibble or store-bought dog treats, you’re wasting your time with all but the most food-motivated dogs.
Next, pick a particular word that you’re going to use as your dog’s cue to come when you call him. If your dog has a history of ignoring you, I recommend you choose something other than his name.
Consider “come!,” “here!,” “hurry!,” or “tacos!” Be sure it’s something that comes naturally to you in the heat of the moment. I’ve had some clients use some cute phrase, but when their dog charges out the front door and is racing toward the street, they default to screaming “COME!!!”
(On that note, practice in an excited and loud tone of voice. You’re not going to whisper or casually say your recall word – you’re going to call it loud, possibly even yell or scream it – and tone matters to dogs. Practice with the tone that is going to come out of your mouth when you’re scared that your dog isn’t going to listen to you. Teach your dog that particular tone equals lots of treats!)
Start pairing that word you’ve chosen with the really delicious treat you picked out. Say “come,” take a piece of the treat out of your pocket, and give it to your dog. Repeat that a dozen times.
Next, practice in different places – in each room of your house, in the yard, and out on walks. If training inside is “easy,” and training anywhere outside is “too hard,” open your front door and practice. For most dogs, that is initially a mind-blowing distraction!
Mistakes to Avoid
One huge mistake dog owners make is constantly “testing” the value of their dog’s recall by calling, calling, and calling. This allows the dog to practice ignoring them.
If that sounds familiar, this is the easiest thing to fix. It’s all about controlling your behavior (your mouth!) and has nothing to do with teaching your dog. Only call them when you are willing to bet me $10 that they will come the first time you call them, and don’t repeat your recall word.
If your dog does not come when called, you need to go get them. And if you can’t go get them, then your dog is in a situation he should not be in! Their level of training does not match the amount of freedom you have provided.
If you’re having trouble catching your dog, leave a short leash (4-6’) with the handle cut off dragging from his harness while they’re loose in the house. Use a longer leash (20-30′) in your yard or at the park. If your dog starts playing “keep away,” or if you don’t think they’ll come, calmly step on the end of the leash and reel them in. When you do catch your dog, reward them with a treat for “allowing” themselves to be caught.
Another mistake is showing the dog a treat before they have returned to you. I want to be clear: at no point are we luring our dogs by showing them food while they’re at the opposite end of the dog park. Take the treat out of your pocket only after your dog comes to you, after you pick him up, or after you take hold of him by the harness or collar. That way, your dog will learn to do these behaviors even if they aren’t sure that you have a reward.
Don’t Take Puppies for Granted
When puppies are very young, under 3-4 months of age, they seem to know they are totally dependent on their mother dogs or human family for security. After that period of time, dogs are hard-wired to start exploring more. They will experiment with how far away they are comfortable being from you.
Of course, there are exceptions. I know some dogs who were getting lost in the woods at 2 months old and some adult dogs who wouldn’t get more than 10’ away if their lives depended on it! But what I’ve described is pretty typical for most dogs’ development.
So, it’s important that you spend some time building value for coming when called right away. It is so much easier to build a recall during that period of time where they keep an eye on you. Don’t wait for your puppy to start testing his independence. Start young!
Photo credit for this blog post goes to Smiling Wolf Photography.
Editor’s note: I originally published this post in 2017. I completely updated it in October 2022 as an effort to provide you, dear reader, with even more useful dog training information. Enjoy!