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One of the most basic behaviors that every dog should learn is to come when called. Professional dog trainers call this skill “recall.”
German Shepherds, given their long breeding history focused on their value as working dogs, are a breed that can learn to have a very reliable recall. As you probably already know, your German Shepherd is smart and eager to please. All you need is the know-how and some patience to practice recall with your GSD.
GSDs are powerful dogs who need strong leadership in their pack. Teaching your dog to come promptly when called, every time, could even save her life. However, to get recall to be reliable in a pinch, you will need to put some time in with regular practice and proofing in a variety of distracting environments.
Read on to find out how!
Training a good recall is not done in a few quick sessions. Although your German Shepherd will learn the basic command very quickly, getting their recall to the point that you can always count on it will take a great deal of practice both in and out of formal training sessions.
Here are some tips to make your recall command strong, and keep it that way:
- Never use your primary recall command to call your dog to you and then punish him or take away something that he loves (unless you can replace it with something he loves even more!).
- Never chase your dog when working on recall. If she fails to come when called in the early stages, ignore it and stop working with her. In later stages of training, you will add some enforcement mechanisms as part of the “proofing” process.
- Always start training in a safe, controlled, quiet and familiar environment. Then, as your German Shepherd gains confidence with the new behavior, you can start adding distractions to your training sessions.
- If you try to call your dog and she fails to come in an emergency situation, run AWAY from her, not towards her, while you scream to try to get her attention. For most dogs, this will trigger an instinctive chase and get her back into grabbing range and out of danger.
Think about what motivates your German Shepherd before beginning your recall training with her. It is important to use a variety of different rewards when working on recall, although starting with high value food rewards is probably easiest. After she has the basics down, you will want to “switch it up” for fun with a game of tug, plenty of praise, or a toss of her favorite ball.
Keep your training sessions short enough that your GSD stays engaged and excited to learn. Cutting a session short before she gets frustrated is worth more than spending three times as long working beyond his focus limit. Also, be sure to keep things positive by rewarding success whenever you can.
The only equipment you need for recall training is a long line. You can use a leash or a rope for this job, as long as it is 25’ or longer and is strong enough to reel your dog in so that it is safe to work outside in non-secure environments.
The Fun Recall Game Method
It can be fun to turn training exercises into a game. It serves to make your German Shepherd look forward to training as well as keep him engaged in learning. It also helps you, as his trainer, realize that training can be relaxing and positively focused. For this game, get a few friends to help out and make a circle in your den or family room. Everyone should have a small bag of your GSD’s favorite treats before you get started.
Have folks take turns calling your dog, first by saying her name, followed by excitedly using her recall command: “Come!”. If she gets it right away, great! Have the person she ran to touch her collar gently and then give a huge reward and some praise. If not, it is okay to bribe her with some treats, just do not repeat the command multiple times.
If you have the last person hold your dog while the next person calls, it can add some excitement to this game. This is great because it will have your GSD chomping at the bit to run to the next person, helping her to associate the recall command with something extra fun.
Over time, add some distance by expanding your circle. If your GSD is really a wiz, you can even have people go into different rooms and call her to them.
After your dog has lots of practice with the game, and is showing plenty of confidence, you can take this game outside. If you do not have a fenced yard, you can use your long line to retain control of your dog while outdoors.
The Recall Basics Method
If you are just starting to train your German Shepherd to come when called, then this is the method that you will want to start with. Start inside in a room that is familiar to your GSD, with a bag containing some treats cut into small pieces.
Start to run away from her, which will trigger her to come after you. Once she starts the chase, call her name followed by your recall command said in a sharp, exited and inviting tone: “Come!” As soon as she catches up to you, touch her collar for a second before giving her praise and a reward. Repeat 10-20 times.
You can start to add some distance to this game, as well as doing less running away as she starts to understand what the recall command means. You can even go to different rooms of the house and start calling her to raise the difficulty level as she gains confidence.
The next step is to take your training to an outside environment so your GSD will get used to working with more distractions. Continue to extend distance. In addition, use the long line so you can safely let your dog go, even if the area you are working in is not fenced.
Eventually you will want to add a consequence for when your dog fails to come when called, otherwise, you are making it an “optional” command. Decide when your GSD understands the basics and has lots of enthusiastic success under her belt before changing the rules forever: From now on, failing to come when called comes with a consequence. One idea for a consequence is to give your GSD three seconds to respond to a recall, if she fails, reel her in with the rope and silently put her in the crate or in a small room for a three-minute “time out.”
To make your German Shepherd’s recall “bullet proof,” move on to the 'Proofing' method offered in this guide to really get it strong.
The Proofing Method
Why proofing is critical
To make your German Shepherd come when called, every time, you will need to put some time in “proofing” the behavior. This means that you will need to practice your recall drills (see the 'Recall Basics' method) in a variety of new conditions. The more different kinds of distractions and challenges you add to your recall training, the more reliable her recall will become.
Go to as many new places as you can to work on recalling your dog. If you need to, you can always use your long line if safety is a concern. Be sure to keep rewards at a high enough value and frequency to hold your canine’s focus in each new place.
Figure out what kinds of distractions are most likely to interfere with her recall. Is it a cat? A nearby dog? A strange person? Whatever distractions that you can think of are worth proofing. The secret to success with adding distraction is to start far enough away from them that your GSD will come when called, then work closer to the distraction as she gains confidence from all of the positive reinforcement.
Who can call her?
Who do you want to be able to call your dog? If you have a select list, such as your family, be sure they have all had a chance to run some recall drills with her. If you do NOT want her to recall to others, then make sure to set up some training sessions where she is rewarded for NOT going to others when they use her recall command.
In order to get the snappiest return when you call your German Shepherd, you will want to start being more selective about which returns you will reward the heaviest. Choose the fastest and most enthusiastic and decrease your reward rate to the top 10-20% of returns after the behavior is both learned and proofed in a variety of environments.
Use only when you will enforce
You will eventually need to stop using your primary recall command unless you are prepared to enforce it, otherwise your GSD will realize that coming is optional. You can use a secondary recall command (like a whistle) when you know you are not going to enforce in the event you are ignored. This will be a weaker command, but it preserves your primary recall command to be strong in case of an emergency.
By Sharon Elber
Published: 02/06/2018, edited: 01/08/2021