Consistency is key!
Dogs learn much better if we keep everything clear and simple. If you’re using a recall word try and use the same tone of voice every time, if there are multiple people you want to be able to recall your dog consider a whistle as it will sound the same whoever uses it.
Make it rewarding.
You want to be more fun and rewarding than whatever you’re calling them away from, use treats, games, excitement, and no matter how cheeky they’re being, don’t get angry with them or they have a good reason NOT to come back!
Practise makes perfect.
Practise recall and checking in often, not just at the end of the walk, so your dog sees it as a game, rather than a sign they have to go home.
A good recall is one of the most important things to have if you’re letting your dog off the lead. It can be successfully trained with positive reinforcement (using rewards) and there are a few important principles to remember.
Firstly, you always need to be worth coming back to! No matter how frustrated you are, if you get angry or punish your dog when they do come back, it’s less likely they will next time. Dogs think in simple terms so if coming back to you means getting told off why would they do it?
Secondly, even if your recall is really good, there are certain situations where it’s unwise to risk it, next to busy roads, cliffs or around livestock. Finally, it can take some time and lots of practise to get right and it’s important to be safe in the meantime so make sure you aren’t letting your dog run off lead in an unsecure place until you are sure they will come back.
How to do it
Step 1 – Choose your cue!
This is what you will use to tell your dog you would like to come back to you and it’s important to get the right word. Dogs find it much easier to learn and remember a cue if it is always sounds the same and is clear and distinct from other sounds you make. For example, many people use their dog’s name, but this can be really confusing as they hear that all the time and only sometimes does it mean come back. So try to pick a word you won’t use often and sounds nice and distinct from your general talking, some trainers will even modulate their voice so their recall word sounds very different.
A dog whistle is another good option, preferably a physical one you can carry with you so it always sounds the same, but if you are confident in your whistling ability go ahead! Just as we would use a consistent word, make sure you use a consistent number of whistles, some people choose one, others a set number, you can even use different amounts of whistles for different cues. For dogs that are deaf you can get vibrating collars (not electric shock collars or anything intended for punishment) with different vibrations that act as cues.
Step 2 – Choose your reward
Reward choice may be even more important, especially in the tricky stages of recall training. You need to find something that your dog will find exciting enough to come back to you, even when they’re doing something they enjoy. Some people use a favourite treat and only use it for recall so it has a rarity value. Food rewards don’t have to be big, just tasty, so small cubes of cheese, squeezy tubes of liver paste or dog safe peanut butter (make sure it doesn’t have xylitol in it) are perfect as they smell and taste amazing even in small amounts.
You can also think outside the box, so does your dog have a favourite toy? A game is a great reward for a recall as your are asking your dog to come away from one fun thing and have fun with you instead.
Step 3 – Pair your cue
You need to teach your dog to associate the recall cue you’ve chosen with the reward, so they know when they hear it they need to come to you for that reward.
It can be easier to use a food reward at this point but do whatever works for you and your dog. Start by saying or using your cue and immediately give your dog
the reward. Ideally we want the dog to look at you when you give the cue so try to make it sound exciting (a whistle should be new enough to do the trick).
Do this plenty of times until your dog is looking for the reward as soon as you give the cue.
Step 4 – Build on that association
Now you want to strengthen that association and very slowly add in distractions. Start small, step away from your dog and then use your recall cue, or wait until they’re looking away from you, over days build up to calling them across the room, or the garden if they’re getting better at it. You are looking for an instant response so if you don’t get that then go back a step and make it easier again.
If you have another person, practise going between the two of you, keeping everything fun and exciting, and turn it into a game. Once you know your dog is really making that connection and always responds, try doing it out on a walk, with them still on the lead or long line and when there aren’t too many distractions around.
Step 5 – Practice
Keep practising outdoors but on lead, long line or in a secure area, when your dog is responding really well, add in distractions. Use the recall game between two or more people and keep the rewards exciting and fun. Build up until you can say your cue word even when something really interesting is going on and your dog will still turn and pay attention to you.
Step 6 – Off the lead
Once you know you get a response every time you use your recall cue, you can try it off lead. Make sure you are in a safe situation where you are comfortable and confident, preferably somewhere your dog knows well too. Don’t wait for an emergency or for your dog to be really distracted, set them up for success. Recall your dog and reward them, this is a really good time to use a game if your dog finds that rewarding, then let them go back to explore. You don’t want your dog to associate coming back with being put on the lead and the end of their walk, so practise the recall plenty throughout the walk.
Step 7 – Checking in
This is not a recall step so much as a tip, but it’s something that will really help your recall. Checking in is just rewarding your dog every time they come back or look to you of their own choice on a walk. This not only strengthens your bond and makes you rewarding to be close to, it encourages them to know where you are at all times so when you do recall them, they know exactly where to go.
Step 8 – Using your recall
Some people will choose to stop rewarding the recall once they have practised off lead for a while and their dog is coming back reliably. | would suggest that you continue to reward it sometimes, even just with a game or toy, and there’s nothing wrong with rewarding all or most of the time. Because recall is so important and keeps your dog safe, it is a good idea to keep practising and make sure your dog is motivated, especially reward them if they have come away from something they really like.
What if your recall isn’t perfect and your dog slips their collar? Or you thought it was time to practise off lead but now they’re not coming back?
First of all don’t get angry at yourself or them, mistakes happen!
Getting your dogs’ attention and interest is the key here and you have loads of options, from dancing and singing to running in the opposite direction shouting their name or favourite word. My favourite is to throw yourself on the ground and wave your arms and legs around. You may look silly but chances are it’ll be so strange you’ll suddenly be the most interesting thing around and your dog will want to come and see what you’re doing!
An option for more nervous dogs that might find that scary is to crouch down and act really interested in the ground, use your hands and rummage the grass or play with stones, anything to make it look like something is there that they might like too. This is good if the dog is close but not wanting to be caught.
Once you have the dog back, don’t punish them, just make sure they’re securely back on their lead and practise their recall more until letting them off again.