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One of the most important behaviors to work on with any puppy is their recall, in other words, their ability to come when called. It is not a difficult behavior to train, but you will need to plan on starting early and practicing often. You can even start training this behavior as early as 8 weeks old!
Labrador Retrievers are very intelligent as well as energetic. While your Lab puppy is likely to learn to come when called quite quickly, it will take you several months to a year to get it strong enough to rely on in an emergency. If you keep your training sessions fun and interesting, your Lab puppy will look forward to learning this and other behaviors.
The three methods offered in this guide will give you the information you need to teach a basic recall command as well as make sure to make sure your recall is “proofed” so that it will work even when your Labrador is distracted. However, no matter how good your dog’s recall is, it is still critical to keep her on a leash near dangerous conditions such as traffic.
When working on training your Labrador puppy to come, follow these tips for the best results:
Make it rewarding. Never call your Lab to you and then punish them or take a toy away.
Keep it exciting. Be more interesting to your Labrador than the environment and you will find that she will naturally keep her attention on you. Over time, she will learn to love training because it is fun and interesting.
Don’t chase your dog. Your Labrador puppy is likely to think that a game of chase is lots of fun. If you make the mistake of chasing her when she doesn’t come, you are actually rewarding her for not coming when called.
Practice often. Our methods will show you how to gradually and safely add distractions to your recall training time so that you can give your Labrador puppy the skills to come when called, every time.
Before you get started with any training, it is important to understand what motivates your dog. Chances are very good that your Labrador puppy is very food motivated, one of the reasons these lovable dogs are so easy to train. While it is fine to use food rewards when training new behaviors, even desirable since food rewards are fast and easy to repeat, you will want to try to randomize your rewards a bit with recall training.
For example, does your Labrador puppy also love vigorous praise, a quick game of tug, or a toss of the tennis ball? It is okay to use any of these motivators as rewards when training recall. It actually helps to reinforce your recall if your dog is left guessing about which awesome thing he will get the next time he runs to you when called!
Besides rewards, the only equipment you will need to train a sturdy recall is a 25’ or longer leash or rope. You will use this to have some control over your puppy once you are ready to move your training outdoors. This way, even if you do not have a fenced yard to practice your recall drills, you can use the long line to make sure she does not get too far away or into any trouble.
The Basic Recall Method
Start with this method to first give your Labrador puppy the basic skills required for recall. Make sure that you get started in a familiar indoor room so he won’t be distracted by smells, other pets, or other people. Bring your best high value rewards to your training sessions.
Run away from your puppy, and as soon as she goes to chase you, say her name followed by “Come!” It is almost a given that your Lab puppy will come enthusiastically since few can resist this fun game of chase you just started. Make sure that you reach down and touch her collar before you reward generously, every time. That way, she won’t be surprised in an emergency when you go to grab her collar after a recall. Repeat 10-20 times.
Continue the last step, gradually adding some distance at a pace that works for your puppy. Stay fun and exciting and ignore failures. Just focus on heavily rewarding success. You can even try calling your puppy from around the corner to add a little bit of challenge and fun. Continue to repeat this at random intervals, adding some distance and challenges until he has lots of confidence and success.
After your Labrador puppy is about 4 months old, hopefully you have invested some hours into practicing their recall indoors. Now it is time to take her outside and work on recall using the long line. Continue to reward liberally. First call your dog and then run away a little if she does not immediately come. Remember to touch her collar before rewarding. Repeat in a few short sessions daily.
Once you are sure that your young Labrador understands how recall works and he has been reliably coming when called, it is time to add some consequences for when he fails to come when called. Since you are using the long line, it is a perfect chance. Call your dog and if he does not come within 3 seconds, then silently reel him in and give him a 3 minute time out in his crate or in a small room. Make sure to continue to reward success generously.
Move on to the 'Proofing' method after your Labrador puppy has basic recall skills so that you can teach her how to come when called, even in a distracting environment.
The Recall Game Method
This fun game will help your Labrador puppy learn that coming when called can be rewarding and fun. After she has learned the basics of recall, gather a few friends to help with this game. Have them sit in a circle, each with a small pouch of food rewards.
Have your friends alternate calling your Labrador puppy to them, making sure to sound inviting and exciting. They can even bribe the puppy with food or a toy to encourage him to come after using the recall command.
Before rewarding her for success, make sure your friends are touching her collar when she successfully goes to the person that called her. In addition, it is fun to hold her back a bit when the next person calls so she squirms to get free and bolt to her next reward.
Add some distance to this game by widening the circle. Another way to add a challenge is to move folks to different rooms in the house to call her. Just make sure only one person calls at a time and the challenges get harder as your puppy is ready for them.
Take this game outside. In addition to being a great way to practice recall with your Lab puppy, you also get to wear him out with this fun game. As every Lab parent knows – there is never too much exercise for these rambunctious pups!
The Proofing Method
Why proofing is important
After your Labrador puppy has a basic understanding of how recall works, and has plenty of practice at home, it is time to start adding some challenges to their recall drills. This is what professional trainers call “proofing.” Think of this as a lifelong game you will play with your dog, upping the ante to make sure she knows that coming when called is always the best choice – no matter the distraction.
One important way you want to proof your Lab puppy’s recall is to take him to new places to practice recall drills. Use your long-line if there is danger nearby, such as a road or fast-moving water. Once your puppy is six months old, he should have practice recalling in a parking lot, in the woods, in a field, on a bike path, in the neighbor’s yard, and so on.
Figure out what your Labrador puppy really loves, and deliberately create controlled training exercises to teach her that ignoring her favorite things when called is going to pay off -- big time. For example, have the neighbor keep their dog on a leash, and recall your Lab puppy past them, using the long-line if they need a little help at first.
Start getting selective about which returns you give the biggest rewards. If your dog comes back, but reluctantly, you can start to ignore those recalls and save rewards for the quick and snappy returns. Over time, this will build the muscle memory that when your Labrador hears her recall command, she will turn around and sprint back towards you.
When NOT to recall
Don’t break your recall command. When trainers say this, what they mean is that if you use your primary recall word when you know you may not get a recall, and you will not be able to enforce it, then you are literally teaching your dog that recalling is optional. If you want to call your dog in a situation you are not sure he will listen, try another recall device such as squeaking a favorite toy, or whistling and running away.
By Sharon Elber
Published: 02/05/2018, edited: 01/08/2021