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Teaching your dog good recall

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Teaching your dog good recall (aka getting your dog to come back to you), is an essential skill for you and your dog to develop. 

Why practise good recall?

There are few things in life more likely to bring a smile than seeing your dog happy and having fun on a walk. Allowing your dog to have time off the lead to explore, helps to ensure you’re meeting their needs to express their natural dog behaviours. But we know that there’s an element of worry attached to it, too. Mainly, what if they run off and don’t come back?  

This is where teaching your dog good recall comes in. It’s one of the most important things you can do to keep your dog safe and also keep their free runs worry-free.

Our guide to good recall includes:  

  • Starting recall training in the home 
  • Finding the right rewards to encourage your dog back to you 
  • How to get your dog to come when there are distractions  
  • Practising recall on walks  
  • Problem-solving around recall  

Starting your recall training  

To begin with, the most important things you’re going to need are a happy face, plenty of encouragement, patience and lots of rewards in the form of whatever your dog responds to best.  Super tasty food rewards work well but if your dog isn’t overly motivated by food, try using a favourite toy to attract them back to you. 

Remember to keep the sessions short and sweet so your dog doesn’t become bored. Make sure that you keep everything lots of fun so your dog will want to come back to you for more! 

Be mindful that some dogs will take to this easily and others will require a little more patience. If your dog is struggling, take things back a step and start again. 

Recall training in your home and garden 

The best place to get started on teaching your dog good recall is in the home and then progressing to your garden.   

In your home, allow your dog to explore their surroundings so they’re not initially focussed on you.   

  • To start with, wait until your dog pauses and glances at you. Then call them using their name followed by the cue you want to use.  So, for example, ‘Poppy… come!’.  Use a light, high-pitched voice and keep it sounding fun!  Would you want to come running to someone who sounds bored or cross?  Of course not. 
  • Use encouraging body language. Some dogs prefer you to crouch down, others are more comfortable approaching you if you stand sideways on, so experiment and see what gets the best response. 
  • When they respond and come to you, be excited, give them lots of praise and reward with a treat or toy. Scattering food on the floor can help your dog to enjoy being near to you and can encourage this behaviour. Then, let your dog go off and explore/be free again.  
  • When this step is reliable, repeat the exercise but this time wait until your dog has taken their focus away from you before calling them. As before, give lots of praise and a reward when they come to you. 

When you’re confident that your dog is responding to the recall in the home you can move things up a notch and progress to the garden.   

  • Practice the same things again and once you’re confident they understand the cue in both your home and the garden, it’s time to dial the difficulty up a little once more and introduce some distractions.  
  • Initially, you can try a recall when someone else (the distraction) is around.  Or, if you have another dog, try some recall training when the other dog is around. Increase distraction levels gradually, making them more and more exciting over several sessions. Use real-life scenarios to practice around so it fits into your routine e.g. when children are around. 

The next step is to venture into the outside world … 

Recall training on walks  

  • Choose a place which is super safe, such as a fenced recreation ground, tennis court or neighbour’s garden – basically, somewhere there’s no danger from traffic.  
  • Let your dog off lead, and once they’ve had a chance to run and explore, call them back to you like you have practiced. 
  • When your dog responds, give them lots of praise and maybe a few bonus treats so that they know they have been super clever.  
  • Let your dog go off and explore again before trying another recall. It’s very important that they see recall as a fun exercise rather than a signal that their free time has come to an end.  
  • When your dog is responding well to the recall in the safe, free running areas you have selected, you can be more ambitious and start to test this recall around distractions. Like you have already done in domestic settings, increase distraction levels slowly. Start with allowing plenty of space between you and the distraction and aim to decrease this over time.  
  • You may want to use a longer lead or a training line until you’re confident your dog will recall to you.  

What to do when your dog won’t come back to you  

There will be times when teaching your dog good recall where your dog may have something more interesting to do than come back to you, so here are a few pointers to help.  

If your dog is having fun and really ignoring you, don’t shout and let your frustration show in your voice and body language.  It’s far better to go and calmly get your dog, pop them on the lead and try again another day.  Make sure you don’t tell them off or punish them because you don’t want them to end up avoiding you or running away from you when you come to get them. 

Go back to basics and retrain the recall so that you build up a good response again. This is far more effective than shouting at your dog and getting no response, as this simply builds up a pattern where your dog thinks it’s OK to ignore you.  Resist the urge to chase your dog because this will become a game for them. Turn the game around by running away from them and make them want to chase you.  You want to build up a cycle of desirable behaviour rather than allowing your dog to keep repeating behaviours you don’t want.  

Try the following and see if things improve:  

  • Restrict your outings to safe, enclosed areas with minimal distractions so you can build up a better response. The more success you have with your dog responding positively to the recall, the more likely they are to keep coming to you.  
  • Arm yourself with some ‘special’ treats. If food, make sure it’s more than just their usual food such as bits of chicken, ham, cheese, sprats etc. and use them only for recalls. Also, ensure that you only use the special treat intermittently, so your dog never really knows when the good stuff is coming. This should help to boost your dog’s motivation to return to you.  If your dog isn’t food motivated, have a special toy that you only use for walks and recall situations.  
  • If your dog is slow to respond, make yourself irresistible – even if it makes you feel silly! Jump up and down, be exciting and engaging. As tempting as it is, you won’t get anywhere by nagging them by constantly calling their name when they aren’t responding.  
  • Read the situation and only call your dog when you have a good chance of a positive response. For example, if your dog is playing with another dog and has a history of poor recalls, your chances of success are minimal.  In this instance, it is far better to go and pop your dog on their lead rather than the recall being unsuccessful.  
  • Try calling your dog when you are out of their line of sight – you should still be able to see them, though.  
  • Never punish or shout at your dog for not returning.  They will only form a negative association with returning to you and be less likely to want to come back to you.  

And if the worst happens and your dog runs off… 

Don’t panic!  This will really affect your voice and your dog will pick up on your distress. 

Return to the area you last saw your dog and wait for half an hour. The chances are that your dog will start retracing his or her steps to the last point of contact. It’s important that you stay put and give your dog ample opportunity to find you again.  

Dogs often run back home or to where the car is parked, so phone home and check the car.  

If your dog returns, make sure to use lots of encouragement, toys and treats as appropriate and give lavish praise. Please don’t punish or shout at your dog – it’ll only damage their trust in you.   

When teaching your dog good recall, try to remember that dogs don’t run because they’re being naughty, they’re running because they’re responding naturally to a situation and are distracted, excited or frightened. 

  1. If possible, enlist someone’s help to look for your dog.
  2. Contact the local Dog Warden and your microchip company.  
  3. Phone around local vets.  
  4. Speak to local kennels and rescue organisations.  

Ensure your dog always has a collar or harness on that carries an ID tag with your correct and up to date details on. Read more about dog laws in the UK.

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