Teaching Your Dog to Come When Called- Recall Training Exposed

Teaching Your Dog to Come When Called- Recall Training Exposed

Teaching a dog to come when called could be one of the most valuable behaviours for a dog to reliably perform on command. Not only will a solid recall increase the owner/dog relationship but it is a required preventative safety measure.  As with most behaviours it is easiest to begin teaching a solid recall to a puppy or dog with no previous conditioning for this behaviour. Because it is almost impossible to have an adult dog who has not at one time or another been called to come and received punishment in doing so, it would be highly advisable when training an adult dog to start at square one, with an assumption that ‘bad habits’ or undesirable behaviours have already been established.   

This leads us to the largest problem and the most common mistake with training a dog to recall. As Jean Donaldson most accurately put it in her book “The Culture Clash” (2005, chapter 1), people seem to have this strange perception that dogs are moral, revengeful, and capable of complex thought like humans; also known as the ‘Walt Disney Dog”. It is all too often that Trainers and Behaviourists are told by owners that their dog “knows better” or is “stubborn”, this simply indicates that the owner has WDDS, or the Walt Disney Dog Syndrome. Most likely this dog has made a connection between coming when called and punishment, therefore the dog will probably choose not to come especially if he or she is being reinforced by not coming (i.e. is able to continue chasing a squirrel or sniffing a really smelly fire hydrant). The trick (if it can even be called a trick) is to reinforce coming when called with something more desirable and consistent than the distracting stimulus.  


There are a number of games which can assist in training a solid recall and use reinforcement as the consequence instead of punishment; they are excellent in that all family members including children are able to take part in them, and they can be incorporated into everyday activities. The first game involves two people (they could be children) who sit at opposite sides of the room (10-15 feet apart), each with 10-20 training size treats hidden behind their backs, or a favourite tug toy. Then taking turns they call the dog over, once the dog arrives at person #1 he receives a treat (or plays tug or a minute or two) and is called to person #2 and receives a treat (or plays tug for a minute or two), and so on until the treats are gone. This game is also excellent to help desensitizing dogs to children.  The second game is hide and seek, and is the same idea as the first only the dog must find the people who are hiding one at a time, as they are found  the dog is rewarded. The third game is to use recall before the dogs’ normal enjoyable activities throughout the day.  For example before feeding the dog, ask him to come when he does place his bowl down in front of them, or before playing the daily game of fetch ask him to come and when he does throw the toy for them. This game again reiterates to the dog that when he comes on command good things happen.  There are many other games that can be played to help strengthen this behavior, these are just a few. Playing these games is great, but they should not replace actual training sessions in all environments that the dog will be required to respond appropriately in. Before testing the dogs ability, several successful training sessions will need to be carried out in similar environments the test area.

Depending on the owners requirement and expectation for the dogs’ recall ability (whether the dog will simply be required to come when called with minimal distractions such as in the house or backyard, or with extreme distraction such as at an off leash dog park) will determine the amount of training required before the dog can reliably perform the behaviour.  It is unfair to place a dog in a situation he or she has not been properly prepared for and expect an excellent outcome. Just because a dog has perfected coming when called from the dinning room to the living room, and is able to walk past the cat, the food bowl and a toy on the floor does not mean he will prefect a recall in an unfenced yard across from a busy road, with trees, squirrels, new smells, and passing by people and dogs. In fact the dog will probably fail at this test, a simple mistake such as this can set training progression back by miles, because the dog has now been reinforced for not coming when called (was able to meet new people, or chase that funny animal with four round rubber feet down the road).  Even worse, would be the tragedy of the dog getting hurt or hurting someone else. Proper precautions should always be taken in new untested or untrained situations, such as keeping the dog on a training line, using a cowbell so you and others can hear your dog and treating the experience as a training session. 


Aside from the games mentioned above, training a solid recall should start simple and increase in difficulty as the dog learns, he will continue to receive reinforcement such as praise for the current level but will only gain high value rewards (such as treats, toys, and fun) for the new level of behaviour.


Step one for training a recall is to utilize the dogs’ natural tendency to greet (more evident in puppies) and reinforce it as it occurs.  In order to use positive reinforcement the dog must first display the behaviour, therefore while training the new behaviour sometimes it is necessary to use lures or prompting to have the dog demonstrate the behaviour initially.  Some common types of lures in recall training are: attraction sounds such as whistling or clapping, lures such as smelly treats or waving a toy, and verbal encouragement such as “that’s it”, and “very nice” as the dog makes eye contact and begins to approach (verbal encouragement can be used to shape the behaviour in the same way, but is often done improperly using a high pitch voice and in combination with other prompts and lures making it more of a lure than a method of shaping)


If there needs to be a golden rule in teaching a solid recall it would be to never call the dog over for something he will perceive as undesirable (positive or negative punishment).  Step two in this process is to add the verbal command. We do this by saying the word “come” before prompting, so the combination appears as such: Command-“Come”, Prompt-pat legs and whistle,  Behaviour- dog comes, Conditioned Reinforcer- (if the trainer uses one ) clicker or the word “yes”, Positive Reinforcement- treat, game, toy or petting. Keep in mind that step two needs to take place in a controlled environment with no distractions. 


Step three is fading out the prompt and adding minor distraction. Once the dog has a firm grasp of what the command means (is able to consistently perform the behaviour without prompting), the trainer must loose the prompts all together and only reinforce the behaviour in response to the command. At this point the dog is ready for some minor distraction. Lay a few desirable items such as toys or bones on the floor and walk about ten feet away, call the dog to come forcing them to ignore the items as they pass. As the dog chooses to continue pass these items offer verbal praise, if they go back toward the items just stop praising and wait. The moment the dog offers his attention back toward you, continue to verbally praise, if however he looses attention with you for more than 30 seconds use the “finished” or “all done” command and  walk a few steps away, then start again. Once the dog is able to ignore those minor distractions easily, increase the distraction by having another person walking around the training area messing about with items causing distracting sounds and visuals, perhaps dropping or squeaking toys. 


Step four is to generalize the behaviour further by practicing in different controlled areas, and gradually heighten the sound and visual activity. This may mean adding the activity of other familiar dogs or children. In order to progress to step five, the dog must be performing the behaviour with at least 90% accuracy in controlled environment with major (yet familiar) distractions.  In step five we can take the dog out of his comfort zone into an uncontrolled environment, where there are even more arousing sounds, sights and smells.   A good place to start would be the back yard; this is still a comfortable place for the dog, then move to the front yard where the dog has less access, and eventually the park where there are other unfamiliar dogs and people in close proximity. Keep in mind that we continue to verbally praise the dog as he moves in the right direction at a new training level, and give high value rewards when the dog completes the behaviour in full. In unfenced or uncontrolled environments where the dog could gain access to stimuli, the trainer must remain control over the dog at all times. This can be done by using a long lead line and may perhaps require the assistance of another person.  

 Once the dog is able to perform at this level, the owner can then decide whether he would like to target the behaviour for speed, or any other feature. He may also want to incorporate a sit at the end of the recall so that the dog always sits before being rewarded. These are all individual choices and preferences. After the dog has learned the behaviour he no longer needs high value reward on a continuous reinforcement schedule, but to maintain a solid recall an intermittent schedule is desirable, and a correct recall response should never predict punishment.  


Jessica O'Neill, Dip. CBST 



 Donaldson, J.(2005) The Culture Clash: A revolutionary new way of understanding the relationship between humans and domestic dogs. California, USA: James& Kenneth Publishers


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