Updated: May 30, 2020
Recalls are not easy, but with a lot of dedication, consistency, and work, a beautiful recall is one of the most rewarding, and jaw dropping behaviours you can teach.
Recall (getting your dog to come to you when called) is one of the most difficult behaviours to teach your dog, although the behaviour itself doesn’t seem very complex! Many people wonder why they just can’t get this one under their belt. Here are a few tips and tricks for getting the best recall you can, with the least amount of work on your behalf.
The reason a recall is so difficult is due to the environment constantly changing. It’s not possible to get a 100% recall because it is not humanly possible to train through every single distraction in the world! Even if it was, we still can’t train through every distraction built up on top of each other since we don’t know what might happen at any given moment.
Does that mean that you will never get an amazing recall? No, you definitely can! Although, you need to be realistic in what you have done to contribute to the training of these recalls. If you have only practiced at home, you can’t expect a beautiful recall in a highly distracting environment.
Okay, so let's get into it! How do you get this amazing recall? Let’s talk about some ‘rules’. Follow these rules and your recall with be pretty decent. Ignore them? Ehh, well…we will talk about it.
You need to be consistent with your cue (Recall word). If you are constantly changing it up, you are not being fair to your dog. If I tell you “Banana” and I expect you to do jumping jacks, but I have never communicated to you what I expect of that word, who is in the wrong? You, for not doing jumping jacks? Or me, for not teaching you what banana means?
Some ideas for recall words: “come” “here” “hurry” “fast” “treats” or anything you want!
Dogs do not speak English so you can be creative!
2. Only call your dog once. Period. When I used to go to the park, I would always hear people say something along the lines of: “Puppy, Come! Come here!! Come on! Yup, that’s good, Come on!!! Yeah!!! *ughhhhh* PUPPY! COME! COME HERE! GET OVER HERE NOW! COOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOMEEEEE!!!” Then their dog finally shows up…
Now, as annoying as that is – this tells us two things:
Puppy (or dog) shouldn’t be given that type of freedom! He does not have a recall!
Your puppy is not dumb, stubborn, or blowing you off. You have taught your puppy that this is their cue (yes, that whole thing – all 13 recall words), and you do not expect them to come to you until you repeat this WHOLE shebang each and every time.
How did this happen? It’s human error – oops. You gave your dog too much freedom before they learned their recall. “Puppy come!” means finish up what you were doing, lollygag, play with your friend, sniff that grass and do whichever until you are done then make your way to me. We have taught our dog that we don’t really care that you are ignoring us, and we will continue to call until you get to me.
So, how do we fix that?
3. Do not call your dog if you know they will not come, and if you did by accident – you need to go get your dog and complete the recall. This means, if you’re just beginning your recall journey, even a literal blade of grass with some pee on it may be reinforcing enough for your dog to ignore you. If they are intently sniffing, or playing with their friends – you are not going to bother them! Let them finish before you call your dog and if you make a mistake or get too confident, then you need to go get them. They need to learn that there are consequences to ignoring the recall and a recall must always be completed. I generally leash my dog if they ignored me and do a couple of super easy recalls before allowing them their freedom again. (This may be in the house, back yard, or wherever you are practicing at the time.)
4. You need to make your recalls the best thing in the world, they need to be a party! Every recall is Christmas morning! We need to put a lot of good reinforcement history behind our word! What does this mean? Do not be stingy or cheap with your reinforcement, if you use food: go big or go home. Lots of treats at a high value – kibble? Bleh! Chicken? Hot dogs? Steak? Heck yes! And do not just give one, give five, six, ten. Your recall word means “AMAZING THINGS ARE GOING TO HAPPEN!” You can also use toys if your dog is toy motivated, praise and love (I would pair them with something like the toy or food) and you can also use whatever the dog was doing to reinforce them. That last one is called the Premack Principle, and it’s hugely effective when done properly.
5. Following the last one; do not call your dog for something they don’t like. Nail trims, baths, leaving the dog park, getting scolded for making an accident on the floor. This teaches the dog that the recall word means there is a 50/50 chance they get rewarded and a 50/50 chance they get punished. We never want to associate the recall with punishment. No matter how big of a jerk your dog might be at that moment. Recall word always means good things.
Start your training:
When beginning your recall training, you need to start easy. Training recalls in the house is a good start, randomly call your dog when they are not expecting it, play some hide and seek, and do some round robin with the family. When you have a good, consistent recall in the house, move to the back yard, or on a long line in an empty field. Make sure there is nothing too hard that your dog can’t handle! We need successful responses.
Now that you are increasing the difficulty slowly and you have had a lot of successful recalls with low to mid distractions, you need to proof it with all distractions. You may be able to call your dog off one or maybe eight dogs playing, but have you taught a recall with children playing at the park, dogs nearby, a flock of birds flying low, traffic honking nearby, newly cut grass after a summer rain, and a cyclist (or six) going by at Mach speed? If not, when you call your dog they might blow you off. That’s normal because they haven’t worked in that type of environment.
You’re doing great: let’s get more technical:
Premack Principle: Our parents and grandma used this on us a lot…Eat your vegetables, and then you get your dessert. Premack Principle is when a more probable behaviour (or activities; like being able to sniff the grass, play with their doggy friends or even chase a rabbit) will reinforce less probable behaviour (or activities; like a recall)
The easiest way to implement the Premack Principle to start is to call your dog to you, reinforce heavily then release them to do what they were doing before.
My dog doesn’t care what I have! He just ignores me!
Reinforcement history matters, it’s not “what you have on you right now”
For 99% of dogs, it is NOT the type of reinforcement that is getting your dog to you (ie. chicken, hot dogs, etc.), it’s the reinforcement HISTORY. You need to teach your dog that you are amazing, and worth coming to, even in the most distracting environments.
This is why some people will say, “I can take chicken to the park and he still ignores me, food doesn’t work.” Of course, in that time it doesn’t work because the chicken is a lower value to the dog than chasing rabbits and playing with their friends. If you teach your dog in low to mid distraction areas that the reinforcement is way more amazing than anything you were doing, eventually the recall word becomes conditioned to mean “be right back, I got to find my owner! They have the BEST things!” no matter how distracting it is because the history has been so reinforced.