One of the absolute MOST important basic obedience skills you can teach your dog is recall – or “come when called.” I can’t emphasize this one enough, as failing to master this can have devastating consequences for you, your dog, and those around you.
Recall can take the place of other commands in some cases – if your dog isn’t great with “drop it” or “leave it”, a strong recall will bring them back to you and distract them from whatever it is that has their attention. It can protect your dog if they slip their leash, keeping them from entering a busy road or venturing out onto a frozen body of water. Recall can also protect those around you – people, pets, or wildlife – from real or imagined harm, such as your dog charging at them and scaring them, in turn, into a dangerous situation. It can be used to break up dog fights, or to keep your dog from demolishing your neighbour’s garden. It is crucial for your dog to learn recall, but although it is a simple command, it isn’t an easy one to learn – or to teach.
How to Improve Your Dog’s Recall
One of the most challenging things about teaching recall is the importance of maintaining a positive attitude, no matter what is going on. Screaming your pet’s name in a panicked voice will not entice them to you, nor will angrily shouting at them. You will have to smile and welcome your pup with open arms – even if they have been sprayed by a skunk, even if they have a dead animal in their teeth, even if you are sobbing and shaking from fear for their safety – and I wish I could say that comes naturally, but fear is a powerful emotion and we aren’t always at our most rational when scared. Keep in mind though that your dog can sense emotion far clearer than you can sense emotion – including your own. If you are terrified, your pup may begin to get scared, and then they are not at their most rational either – and that is not what you want. The most important thing with recall is that your dog stops what they are doing and comes back to you. This also means that sometimes recall is not the best response – for example if your dog has already made it across a busy road – and “stay” should be used instead. This too is easier said than done, because your first instinct is most likely to immediately call them back to you.
To work on your dog’s recall:
This means being positive when specifically working on your recall, but also any time your dog comes to you – of their own accord or not. Dogs will remember punishment, and if they begin to associate coming over to you with negative consequences, you could have real problems in a situation where recall is necessary – especially if they are already frightened. Use a high-pitched excited voice to call to them, as they will likely interpret this as a sign of good things to come.
Reward your dog for coming back to you – if you have treats with you, give your dog a handful as you grab hold of their collar. If your dog likes to play tug, see if you can grab something for them to play with as they are running back to you. Give your dog a ton of praise and attention when they arrive, and if possible, do something immediately fun with them – you want them to feel that coming back to you is absolutely more fun than whatever they were thinking before – more fun than that squirrel, that other dog, that wasps’ nest, those ducks on the lake, you name it. In most cases your dog is not deliberately running from you, he is running towards something else – the key is to be the better option.
Start with short distances in a distraction-free environment and add distractions and distance with time. Use a long training lead for increased distances as you can bring your dog to you if necessary. Distractions will make it more difficult, but keep in mind that when the need for a solid recall comes up, there is almost a 0% chance that there will be no other distractions. Experiment with motivations and techniques. Does your dog respond better if you crouch down and open your arms? Do they respond better to a keyword like “come” or “here” than to their own name? Did you know that if your dog hears their own name too much, listener fatigue can kick in and they will begin to ignore it? It’s the same for us – a repeated word or sound is far easier to tune out than a novel one. Once you find what does work, be consistent with your training.
Recall is a tough one, but its value is immeasurable. Be patient, and remember that your dog’s safety is worth it. A strong recall is the gateway to off-leash dog beaches and hiking trails – without it, those things are pretty much out of reach – which open up more options for fun and excitement for you and your pup. Remember that they run to explore, give them that opportunity safely and they will be more likely to look to you for their next big adventure.