How to Teach a Dog to Come When Called

Training

How to teach a dog to come when called is simple…at least in theory. In reality, newer handlers—and plenty of experience ones, too—often struggle with feeling like the process is taking too long or that the dog isn’t ever going to come back reliably. Understanding what you are trying to accomplish, getting to know the individual dog you are working with, and having the patience to not jump ahead too quickly are invaluable tools when it comes to teaching a good recall.

The goal with a recall is for the dog to respond to the “come” cue automatically, enthusiastically, and without hesitation. This is safety-critical behavior. especially for off-leash walking. If your dog gets out through an open door and heads toward a busy road, for example, coming to you when you call her could save her life. So how do we teach a dog to reliably come when called?

How to Teach a Dog to Come

  1. Pick a cue: Before you start working on teaching your dog to come, you’ll need to pick the word you want to use as a cue. Until the behavior you want is established—meaning your dog comes when called—do your best to avoid using the cue word to call her outside of training sessions. Don’t use it sitting around the living room or outside in the backyard as a “test” to see if she understands it yet. If the dog gets used to hearing the word and not responding, you’ll need to start again with a different cue. The same is true if you’ve tried teaching a recall before but it hasn’t really stuck. Pick a new word and try again. “Come” and “here” are common choices for recall cues.
  2. Charge the cue: “Charging” a cue essentially means adding value to it. We do this by teaching the dog that something good is coming when she hears the cue. To begin:
    1. Get some treats your dog really likes.
    2. With your dog standing or sitting close to you, say the cue word in an excited voice.
    3. When your dog looks at you, give her the treat.
    4. Repeat 10-15 times.
    5. Do this several times a day for roughly 2-3 days.
  3. Ask the dog to follow: Once the cue is charged, you will begin asking your dog to follow along with you while you are moving. For this step, the goal is to have your dog chase excitedly after you for 5-10 feet. To teach it:
    1. In a quiet, low-distraction environment, put your dog on a leash. I use a 6-foot nylon lead clipped to a flat collar or martingale—do NOT use a choke chain or slip lead that could tighten around her neck if she runs past you or stops suddenly.
    2. With her standing near you, give her the cue (“Come!”) in the same excited voice you used to charge it.
    3. At the same time, quickly move several steps away from her. The leash should remain loose the whole time. Avoid dragging her or tugging on the leash—it’s only there to keep her from wandering off.
    4. When she follows, run—or walk quickly for a smaller dog—a few more steps with her.
    5. Reward her. If your dog likes toys, a game of tug can add some fun and excitement to the lesson. Treats are also a good option.
    6. Practice for 5-10 minutes several times a day—I try to aim for three short training sessions six days a week.
    7. Repeat for 3-4 days.
  4. Add distance: This step increases the distance between you and your dog before asking her to come:
    1. Put your dog on a leash.
    2. Get some distance between you and your dog. If she starts anticipating the game and won’t let you move away from her, you can toss a treat on the ground a few feet away and tell her to “Get it” (or whichever cue you use to let her know it’s okay for her to eat it). If you use this method, let her eat the treat before asking her to come so she’s not torn between two attractive options.
    3. With the dog somewhere around 5 feet from you, use your cue to call her.
    4. When she comes toward you, move quickly away just as you did on the previous step.
    5. When you and your dog have run together for about 10 feet, reward her.
    6. Practice for 5-10 minutes several times a day.
    7. Repeat daily until she is running toward you consistently.
  5. Move to a long line: The goal here is to increase the distance between you and your dog even further:
    1. Put your dog on a long line instead of a leash—once again, the long line is only there to prevent the dog from wandering off and getting distracted. It shouldn’t be used to pull the dog toward you. As a note for those who haven’t encountered them before, a long line is a flat, super-long leash, usually at least 10 feet in length—I use a 30-foot horse lunge line, but a smaller dog might need something lighter-weight. A long line is NOT the same thing as a retractable leash and they are not interchangeable.
    2. Repeat the same process as the previous step (call your dog, move away quickly, run 10-15 feet together, reward), but start with 10 feet between you.
    3. Practice for 5-10 minutes several times a day until your dog is coming enthusiastically from 10 feet away and then increase the distance to 15 feet, then 20 feet, and so on.
  6. Remove the leash: It’s time to go off-lead:
    1. Pick a quiet, low-distraction location in the house or other location where the dog is contained. Do not assume that because your dog did great on the long line that she’ll be just as good without a leash.
    2. Start with your dog close to you just as you did during the “ask your dog to follow” step.
    3. Cue her in an excited voice and quickly move several steps away.
    4. When she follows, take a few more steps and reward her.
    5. Practice this for several days.
    6. Repeat the “add distance” step minus the leash.
    7. Practice for 5-10 minutes several times a day until you’re sure she’ll come quickly and easily with 5 feet between you.
    8. Increase the distance between you to 10 feet, 15 feet, etc.

Adding Distractions

Once your dog has mastered coming when called on and off the leash in a quiet, contained environment, you can begin to add distractions. Start with small things, like another person standing quietly in the room or a less-valued toy sitting off to one side on the floor. If your dog successfully ignores these distractions, you can slowly make it more difficult by having your helper move around, make some noise, or talk to the dog. If you are training alone, you can do things like throw toys or place small obstacles—I use more toys or cones—along the dog’s path.

This is also a good time to start training in locations—such as your backyard or a park—that offer more natural distractions. As with the human-made distractions discussed above, start slowly with locations that are just a little bit more interesting than where you started and build up. Keep your dog on a leash or long line when practicing outside of the house or fenced yard.

If your dog gets distracted and fails to come back to you at any point, put her back on the leash and practice distraction-free recalls for a day or two and work your way back up. It can be tempting to rush it, especially if your dog seems to be doing well and progressing quickly. However, one of the biggest tricks when it comes to teaching a reliable recall is to not try to do too much too soon.

A Note on Rewards

Rewards for recall training should be things the dog values a lot such as a favorite toy or a treat she gets rarely and finds particularly tasty. It also helps to vary the rewards. If the reward for the first round of recall practice was boiled chicken, the next may be a super-fun tug toy, and so on. Given that having your dog come when you call is one of the best tools for keeping her safe, success in recall training should yield high-value rewards.

Recall Games

There are a number of great games to play that can make teaching a dog to come when called much more fun and engaging for both dog and handler. You can mix these in with the training steps covered above. I like to do two short sessions a day for “regular” recall practice and one for a game session.

  • Keep Away: In most ways, keep away is a high-energy version of the same thing we’ve been doing in recall training. To begin, have your dog sit in front of you. Take one step back and call her to come. When she does, ask her to sit in front of you again and reward her. Practice that for a few days until she’s regularly sitting in front of you when you call her. Then, immediately after you have rewarded her for sitting, turn 90 degrees and run a few steps, calling her again. Let her catch up and reward her. Immediately turn in the other direction and repeat the process, encouraging her to run back and forth with you, stopping and rewarding her when she “catches” you at each direction change.
  • Hide-and-Seek: Start by finding a hiding spot—pick an easy one to begin with such as just stepping out of the room beyond the dog’s line of sight. Once you are “hidden,” call your dog enthusiastically. When she comes to find you, praise her and reward her with a treat or toy. As she becomes familiar with the game, move to more difficult-to-find hiding spots.
  • Search-and-Return: Also called the “whiplash head turn” exercise, the goal with this one is to have your dog turn toward you quickly no matter what else is happening. You’ll need two types of treats for this game—something that the dog likes okay (like regular kibble) and something she LOVES (like hot dog). To play, start with your dog near you and toss one of the ‘okay’ treats a short distance away. Say something like “Get it” or “Search” as you prefer (pick one word to avoid confusion) to let her know it’s okay to eat it. Allow the dog eat the treat and, right as she is finishing, say “Yes!” and offer her the treat she loves. Repeat several times, picking up the pace to add excitement.
  • Round-Robin: This game requires at least two humans. To begin, stand about 10 feet away from your training helper. If you have multiple people helping, stand in a loose circle with the dog in the middle. Take turns calling the dog to come, rewarding her when she gets to you. Once she gets comfortable with the game and is regularly coming to the person who calls her, you can begin to increase the distance between people and have them move to new spots.

For a more detailed description of how to play these games, along with several other great recall exercises, see “Games for Building Reliable Recall Behavior for Your Dog.”

How to Teach a Stubborn Dog to Come

“She’s just being stubborn!” is a phrase I hear a lot when people tell me they are struggling with how to teach a dog to come. The truth is, there are lot of reasons a dog gets labeled stubborn and, while it’s certainly among the personality traits dogs can demonstrate, it’s rarely the whole story when it comes to why a particular dog isn’t picking up a desired behavior. Understanding what is contributing to your dog’s unwillingness to do what you are asking of her can go a long way toward figuring out how to teach her. Factors that play into how quickly a dog learns a cue can include:

  • Breed: It helps to be aware of the genetic factors that might predispose your dog to certain types of behaviors. Humans have bred dogs for specific tasks for a long time. Behaviors that fit with what a breed was developed for are often easier for members of that breed (and mixes of that breed) to learn while behaviors they were not bred for may be more difficult. As an example, a Jack Russell terrier may be called stubborn if she refuses to come whenever a rogue squirrel flicks its tail in her direction. However, humans have been selectively breeding these terriers for their rat-catching instincts for generation upon generation. Asking her to ignore a small, scurrying rodent is like asking a Border Collie not to herd. It’s possible, but those instincts will make it much harder since she must first learn a whole lot of self control to overcome her natural drive. For more on teaching self control see “Help Your Dog Learn Self Control.”
  • Intelligence: Nobody likes to admit that their beloved dog might not be a genius learner, but the truth is that some dogs are better able to figure their way through a problem than others. Sometimes, a lack of understanding can be mistaken for stubbornness. Again, this is not to say that a less naturally intelligent dog can’t be taught. It just might take additional time, repetition, and patience.
  • Learning Speed: Separate from intelligence, learning speed varies from individual to individual. Some very smart dogs take time to process and assess a task while others seem to jump right in and want to try new behaviors immediately. Pay attention to what your dog does over several days of training sessions. A dog who isn’t ready to attempt a behavior may just need a bit more time to think it through. It can help to switch back to practicing a cue she knows well before trying the new one again.
  • Individual Preference: As anyone who has lived with a dog for long knows, dogs have their own likes and dislikes. A behavior that is fun for one—such as racing back to her handler when called—may not be nearly as exciting to another who perhaps prefers to sniff interesting scents. It’s normal to avoid behaviors that don’t seem like much fun in favor of those that do. If your dog doesn’t seem very interested in recall training, try keeping training session short and fun with better treats, speaking in an excited voice, and favorite toys.

Practice, Practice, Practice

There are no shortcuts to a reliable recall. When you are teaching your dog to come when called, it’s going to take a lot of repetition. Daily practice will make all the difference. Even when your dog knows the cue, you’ll want to do regular refreshers to make sure the behavior stays sharp.

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