Solid “recall,” or the ability to come when called, is one of the most important behaviors for your dog to have down. Even if you don’t plan on taking your dog hiking off-leash in the wilderness, chances are you’ll need to call her back to you at some point.
Dogs can be masters of escape, whether that means jumping your fence or slipping out of their collar on a walk. Let’s walk through how to teach your dog to come when called.
Rules for Teaching Your Dog to Come
We already have an article on how to teach your dog to listen to cues in a variety of situations. But come when called is a special case – if you’re using this cue, odds are you don’t have another way of controlling your dog.
Here are a few basic rules:
- Never use “come” to punish your dog. It can be tempting to use come when called to control your dog when she’s being naughty. That’s kind of the point, isn’t it? However, abusing this power by using come when called to stop the fun at the dog park will quickly teach your dog that it’s not a good idea to listen!
- Don’t accidentally “poison” the cue for come when called. If you need to trim your dog’s nails, for example, don’t call your dog over. This teaches her that “come” might be dangerous! The same goes for telling your dog to come to you if you’re angry and might scold her.
- Reward your dog with something extra-special when you can. For some dogs, this means that they get five tiny bits of boiled chicken when they come when called. For other dogs, we might use a game of tug or fetch as their reward. Using something super awesome for “come when called” as often as possible will help keep your dog’s responses speedy and enthusiastic.
- Don’t punish your dog for slow responses. If your dog delays when coming back to you, that just means the situation was too hard for her current skills. Punishing her for her slow response will just teach her that coming back to you might not be a good idea at all.
As with all training, we’re going to start small. We can’t just throw your dog into the middle of a dog park and then start practicing. That’s like throwing a kid into the middle of a Little League baseball game and trying to teach them how to catch a ball while the game goes on.
How to Teach Your Dog to Come
Now that we’ve got a few rules in place, it’s time to start teaching your dog to come when called.
Pick your cue. Many people have a bad habit of switching up their cues – they try to use, “Millie, come!” “Come, Millie!” “Millie, come here!” “Come on, let’s go!” and “Millie” all as a cue for come when called. Pick just one and stick with it. If you know you’re going to have to yell this cue nice and loud, pick a cadence to stick to as well.
Trainer’s tip: I use the call, “Baaarley! Come!” for my dog. I always draw out the a in Barley in a sing-song voice, then add on a sharp “come” at the end. I saw a huge improvement in his response by just making this little tweak. It helps him hear me across long distances.
Start easy and practice a lot. Start practicing come when called in your living room or other quiet areas. You can slowly make things more challenging by hiding behind furniture or heading up a flight of stairs and calling your dog from across the house. Reward your dog heavily and practice this a lot.
When your dog comes running, reward her with a big party. This might mean several treats in quick succession, a game of tug, or lots of happy talk. Pay attention to her body language before doing a lot of petting-based rewards, though – many dogs don’t actually like the way that we pet them, and your patting and scratching could be unwanted.
Build distractions. While still practicing come when called indoors, build distractions. This could mean calling your dog while someone else is eating dinner, while a doggie friend is visiting, or while your dog is doing something else. If your dog struggles with any of these situations, that’s ok. We just know what we need to practice!
Keep it safe outside. Before taking your dog outside to practice come when called, ensure you know how to do this safely. I prefer to use a 30 to 50 foot long line to teach my dog to come when called. This allows me to keep my dog safe and away from traffic. You can also practice come when called in secure, fenced areas.
Trainer’s tip: don’t rely on the long line to tug your dog back to you. This just teaches your dog to come when you tug on the leash. Rather, use the long line to keep your dog safe from traffic.
Take it outside. Now that we’ve got some basic safety planned, it’s time to go outside. Start out in low-distraction areas, like your backyard or an unpopular city park early in the morning. High school soccer fields are one of my favorite locations for outdoor practice.
Slowly build up distractions by visiting parks during busier times, but keep your dog either behind a fence or on leash. It’s just not worth the risk of your dog running into traffic. Keep in mind that you want to practice come when called around squirrels, bikes, kids, dogs, and any other distractions you’re likely to find when out and about.
I simply let my dog wander a bit on the long line or behind the fence, then call her over. Dogs quickly catch on and might not want to leave your site, so then it’s time to get help. You can play games like “Ping Pong Puppy” with at least two friends. The three of you can take turns calling your dog over. Use three or more people to ensure that your dog doesn’t just run back and forth between two trainers.
Build distance. Keep practicing in distracting situations. It’s important to slowly start to practice calling your dog to you when she’s increasingly distracted. This might mean calling your dog while she’s mid-sniff or is about to start playing with another dog.
The next big component of a good come when called is distance. Use your long line or a large fenced area to start practicing calling your dog while she’s further and further from you. At first, practice distance while the distraction is low. Don’t add both “d’s” of difficulty at the same time!
Take it on the road. If you’ve just been practicing in the neighborhood park and a high school soccer field, it’s time to get creative. Take your dog on hikes with a long line or go to the dog park during off hours. The goal is to start to generalize your dog’s skills so that she’ll learn to come when called no matter where you are.
Keep rewarding. It’s important to keep rewarding your dog for come when called, even as she seems to “get it.” You can slowly fade out treats and rewards like with any other behavior, but keep your reward ratio relatively high. Unlike teaching your dog to sit, speed and compliance in come when called can save your dog’s life.
If your dog always assumes that you’ll reward her with something amazing, she’ll keep responding to come when called. That way, she’ll come quickly in an emergency even if you don’t have treats that day.
Your number one goal with teaching your dog to come when called should be fun. If your dog hears you yelling, “Fluffy, come!” we want her to think: Oh boy! Something awesome is about to happen! I’d better get right over there!
This will give you much better results than if your dog hears you calling and things, Ugh, Mom wants me to stop playing so we can go home and give me a bath.
Making come when called a super-fun game is important for your dog’s safety as well as your sanity.