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Every single dog needs to learn “recall.” The best time to train your puppy to come when called is right from the start. As early as 8 weeks old, puppies are able to start working on the building blocks this vital life skill.
There are several advantages to teaching your puppy to come when called that will serve you and him for his entire life. You'll be able to:
- Call him away from danger such as roads, fast-moving water or farm machinery.
- Stop him from being a nuisance by barking at something on the other side of a fence such as a cat or someone walking by.
- Give you the peace of mind that if you can’t see your dog in low light or thick brush, you can call her to you and make sure she is safe.
- Call her to you so that you can get a dangerous object out of her mouth, treat a wound, or put her on a leash.
Below we will offer some general tips as well as three methods to train your puppy to come when called. Keep in mind that it can take several months to get recall strong enough that you can count on it when you need it.
Furthermore, some breeds such as scent hounds will always be at a higher risk of ignoring your recall command because of their strong drive to follow prey trails. Always use a “safety first” approach to letting your dog off-leash in unfenced areas unless you are positive that her recall is stronger than any possible distractor.
Our three methods will give you the basics of different ways to reinforce and teach your puppy to come when called. There are also some general tips to keep in mind regardless of what method you are using if you want to build the strongest possible recall:
Never repeat your command. If you start getting in the habit of calling your puppy repeatedly without results, all you are doing is weakening the command. Use it ONCE, give your puppy a chance to follow through, bribe or entice if necessary, and if all of that fails, give her a “hard ignore” or a consequence depending on what stage of training you are in.
Do not issue your recall command in a harsh or angry tone. Dogs really are not dumb. They work just like people – if something seems like it is going to result in good times they will do it, if something seems like it is going to end in bad times, they will try to avoid it. Use common sense and call your puppy with a positive, inviting and playful tone.
Build a collar touch into your recall, BEFORE you reward. Imagine you teach your puppy to come when called and she is on the fast track to building this skill. Then one day you need to get her on a leash in a hurry – she comes when you call her but as soon as you reach for her collar, she bolts off again into danger because she knows that the only time you ever reach for that collar is to put a leash on – no fun! By including a collar touch with the recall drills right from the start, you will avoid this common pitfall.
Do not call your dog to you, then punish him. If you feel the need to punish your dog, it is better to go to him. If your dog comes to associate coming to you when called with punishment, you will have to start all over with a new recall command if you hope to get reliable results.
You can’t teach a good recall in a few training sessions. There is a difference between when you puppy understands what you want when you ask her to come, and when your puppy learns that no matter what else is going on, coming to you when called is always the right choice.
Rewards: It is usually easiest to start training with food rewards because you can dispense them quickly without interrupting the flow of early training sessions that work best with lots of repetition. However, over the course of training recall, you will want to use a variety of rewards, anything your puppy likes. This keeps her guessing, and builds some curiosity and drive to come back to find out what awesome thing she may get this time.
Long line: At some point you will need to take your recall drills outside, as well as add a consequence when your puppy does not come when called. A long leash or rope, 25’-50’ in length attached to his collar is the perfect tool for the job.
Keep sessions short: At 8 weeks your puppy has about 5 minutes of focus before he will get distracted. At 4 months with regular training, sessions can be anywhere between 10-20 minutes, depending on the dog. Training too long is one of the biggest mistakes many new trainers make.
The Starting Point Method
There is a basic progression to training your puppy to come when called. First, you will start at very close quarters, using her recall command only once she is already on her way to you. Over time, you will gradually add distance and distractions to make sure she comes even when there is something else interesting around.
One method to trick your puppy to running towards you is to run away from him. Then, when he has joined the chase, use his recall command, then reward him liberally with praise and a food reward. Repeat 5-20 times depending on your puppy’s attention span. Over time, run away less, and start calling before he is running.
Another method to get your dog heading your way is to lure her with a treat or a favorite toy. Remember to start by calling your dog after she is already heading your way for the first several attempts. Start asking sooner until you are recalling before showing the lure. Fade any luring as quickly as you can until you are calling your dog and getting results. Reward liberally for each success.
Once your puppy “gets it” and will come when called for the promise of reward nearby, start adding some distance to make your training sessions more challenging.
Start randomly calling your puppy to you throughout the day 10-20 times. Always have a treat ready, or some other thing she really loves such as a game of fetch, tug, or plenty of praise.
You will eventually need to take your training sessions outside to help your puppy learn to come when called even in the presence of distractions. Use the long line so he can’t run away and get into trouble. You can also start reeling him in if he does not come when called.
Knowing when it is time to add a consequence to your recall training with your puppy can be difficult. Wait until your pup is at least 4 months old and has had lots of practice and success with coming when called. Try a brief “time out” every time she fails to come when called. Once you start adding the consequence, you must enforce the recall every single time from then on.
The Training Games Method
One of the ways to help your puppy realize that coming to you when called is pretty much the bee’s knees, is to play some fun games. Sure, these are also training sessions, but turning them into games is more fun for her and for you! Keep the tone positive and playful. Stay focused on rewarding success.
Monkey in the middle
This game will take two or more people, each calling your puppy in turn. Make sure that everyone only calls once, but they can use any trick in the book, including luring with treats and toys, to get her to come running. Reward each success with praise and a food reward.
Hide and seek
This is a recall game that is lots of fun to play. It can be combined with your continuous random recalls throughout the day. Hide behind some furniture or behind a door, and call your puppy. Big rewards when she gets this right!
Hold and release
It will take two to play this game. Like monkey in the middle, you will alternate calling him. Only with this game, each person will hold your puppy back after the next person calls. This builds some tension and will make him dash quickly to the next caller. Add some excitement around recall will strengthen this behavior considerably.
Trade it up!
One game that will really improve your puppy’s recall skills in the long run is to start calling her to you when she has a toy she loves in her mouth. The secret here is to take the toy by offering a really high value reward, then give the toy back. This way, in a pinch, your puppy will realize that bringing something to you (say something you have deemed unsafe) will come with a bonus that is worth the trade.
The Advanced Recall Method
Building reliable recall
Once your puppy understands the basics of coming when called, and has plenty of practice in familiar environments, it is time to start adding to the challenge. Trainers call this “proofing.” Here are some ways to gradually build and strengthen your puppy’s recall skills:
People and places
Take your puppy to plenty of places when she is still quite young (but after immunizations). This will build her confidence that the world is a safe place. Meanwhile, use the long line to do some recall drills or games in these new environments, and with some new people, to really help her learn to come when called, every time.
If you know your puppy has particular distractions she is not ready to ignore when you call her, then find ways to bring those challenges to your training activities. For example, start recalling her past a bowl of food 20 feet away, and the gradually decrease the distance until she will run right by it in a bee line to you. Use the longline to pull your puppy away from distractions if she needs a little help at first.
Keep randomly practicing recall with your puppy. Make sure to add the occasional HUGE reward like a few pieces of chicken. This way your puppy never knows for sure what great things may come when he obeys the recall command.
Over time, you will want to decrease the reward rate for successful recalls. The sweet spot to work towards is the top 10% of recalls, meaning the fastest and most enthusiastic returns. Random rewards are actually more powerful than consistent rewards to strengthen behavior, just don’t progress too fast with the reward reduction program. You can continue to praise every successful return.
By Sharon Elber
Published: 02/12/2018, edited: 01/08/2021