How To: Recall

Recall is easily the most important skill you can teach your dog. It not only helps keep them safe, but also helps keep other people and animals safe. Recall is difficult to teach a dog because often times we’re recalling them away from things that they find lots of value in. It is not in the dog’s nature to readily give up on something they fine value in. When training recall, we do our best to condition the dog to respond in a particular way to the recall so that they don’t even really think much about the decision to recall. The process itself is fairly simple, the difficult part of the training process is patience and consistency. 

Step 1: Building Engagement

Before we can expect our dogs to come back to us on their own, we have to teach them that there is lots of value in being in our space. One of my favorite games to do with a dog is “Treat & Toss”. In this game you practice a repeating pattern of tossing a treat away and rewarding when the dog comes back to you. During this game, you can add movement to keep the dog excited and practice increasing the distance the dog has to travel to get back to you. In this stage of the training process I am NOT adding in a recall cue or any other cues.

Step 2: Rewarding Check-Ins

Check-ins are any time your dog looks at you or comes over to investigate what you’re doing. Rewarding these moments, especially when the dog is loose or on a long line, will build their awareness of where you are and build their desire to be around you. If the dog is interested in where you’re at, what you’re doing, and what they might be able to get from you, they’ll learn recall faster. By teaching your dog to check-in, you’ll also find that your dog will need to be recalled less often.

Step 3: Choose a Designated Recall Reward

Choose something easily portable that your dog absolutely loves and make it their “designated recall reward”. This reward is going to be something they don’t get for anything else but recall. I personally like to use pepperoni. By having a “designated recall reward” you teach the dog that there is lots of value in come back when they’re called.

Step 4: Introducing the Cue

When deciding what cue you want to use for recall, you want to pick something distinct and something you won’t say too often. Your recall needs to be something that your dog only hears when they need to recall. When training recall we try to balance on the line between doing enough repetitions and doing it so often that the dog no longer accepts being called away from what they were doing, interesting. When introducing the cue we want to do it in an area that isn’t going to cause a lot of conflict in the dog. I will usually begin in a back yard or other area that your dog is familiar with. We don’t want to be competing with the environment more then necessary.

To introduce the cue, begin by playing your “Treat & Toss” engagement game with your normal treats to get the dog into a familiar pattern of returning to you for a reward. After your dog is consistently returning to you enthusiastically for their regular reward, you can prepare to use your “designated recall reward”. Toss one of their regular treats away, then as they turn to come back to you give the dog your recall cue. When your dog returns to you, give them several pieces (or licks) of their “designated recall reward” then toss a regular treat away to reset the game. Return to playing the game with just the regular rewards for a few more repititions then give the dog the recall cue and their “designated recall reward”.

This process of playing the game with the normal treats and only occasionally using the special treat will build an incredibly positive association with returning to you after hearing the recall word. Keep the game very short, only using the recall word 2-3 times in a single session. With recall, the quality of the practice is more important than the quantity.

Step 5: Preparing to be Off Leash

Before we can expect our dog’s to be able to recall when off leash, they must be able to do it consistently when on a leash. For this we utilize long lines. Typically I will choose a 30ft long line to practice with. When on the long line, allow your dog the chance to roam and sniff. Reward the dog every single time they check-in they offer. Once your dog has gotten over the initial excitement and novelty of the environment, play a few rounds of the “Treat & Toss” game with the added reps of the recall cue and reward. Remember to keep it short and fun! After a few rounds of the “Treat & Toss” game, allow your dog to sniff and explore on the long line.
When you notice your dog take a small break from intense sniffing, give them your recall word and start back peddling. Allow yourself to hit the end of the long line and keep moving if your dog doesn’t start coming towards you. Apply consistent pressure until the dog turns and begins coming in your direction. By turning towards you they will relieve the pressure on their own and you can continue to back peddle. When your dog reaches you, give them a little bit more of their “designated recall reward” then you’ve given them in the past. Once your dog has gotten their reward, allow them to go back to wandering. Only practice this once every 15min or once every session depending on how long your sessions run. In the meantime, focus on rewarding for offered engagement with their regular rewards.

Your dog will not be ready to be off a long line until they can consistently recall without any added pressure on the long line in a variety of environments with different levels of distractions. If you’re not sure if your dog is ready, play it safe and have them drag the long line behind them as they wander.

Remember to obey all leash laws regardless of how well your dog can recall.