How to teach your dog to come when called

A perfected recall could save their life

A dog in a sweater runs through fallen leaves

You may have seen the viral video: A woman hears her dogs barking in the yard and rushes outside to find a large bear looming. To protect her dogs from injury, she pushes the wild animal off her garden wall.

Her bravery is admirable. But she may have been able to keep her pets out of harm’s way without risking her safety if they had an excellent recall.

Teaching your dog to come when called — no matter what — requires extensive practice at first and regular maintenance over time. The commitment is worth it. Whether protecting them from dangerous wildlife, oncoming traffic, or unfriendly pets and people, a great recall could save their life.

Steps to teaching a good recall

A Collie dog waits for a treat

Step 1: Choose a valuable reward

It's a myth that all dogs naturally want to please us. Working with their motivation is key, and food speaks loudest for most.

Choose a valuable reward like hot dogs, canned chicken, or sausages. Selecting a treasured treat is especially important if training outdoors, where you’re competing with the whole world for your pet’s attention — from the rabbit droppings on the ground to the neighbor kids playing across the street. The Cheerios your dog comes for in the house might not stand a chance next to all the outdoor distractions.

Step 2: Practice “catching”

If your furry friend is in danger, a good recall won’t help unless you can catch them when they come to you. Many dogs back away when hands reach for them, especially over the head. In fact, 30% of bites actually happen when reaching over a dog for their collar.

That’s why “catching” is essential to teaching recall. Make sure your dog is comfortable with hands coming toward them and grabbing their collar — especially if they’re already shy or sensitive.

First, reach toward them and watch their body language. As long as they're comfortable and not backing away, reward them with a treat. Your dog will build up an association that hands coming towards them equal good things.

If your dog is particularly shy, just reach a hand toward them without touching them before rewarding. Work up to touching their collar under the chin first, and when they’re comfortable with this, practice reaching over them.

A fun way to practice catching is by turning mealtimes into training times. Use your pup’s kibble as the reward.

The goal is to be able to grab their collar solidly and for them to stay relaxed when you do so — maybe even excited at the prospect of treats.

Step 3: Teach your dog their recall cue

Once your dog is comfortable with catching, it’s time to pick a recall cue — the magic word you’re going to use to get them to come. While people may commonly use their dog's name, you’re better off choosing a unique word you don’t use in daily conversation, so your dog understands that if you speak it, you’re serious. “Bacon,” “party,” or the word “come” in a foreign language are popular choices for our training school attendees.

Ingrain the word in your dog’s mind by speaking it and feeding them a treat. Do this until they’re excited to hear it! Whatever you do, don’t use the word without rewarding your dog with a treat.

A Jack Russell Terrier dog on a long line lead in the grass

Step 4: Add distance

Next, you’ll practice using your dog’s recall cue in combination with catching.

Gradually put more and more distance between yourself and your pup, starting with just a couple of feet and keeping them on a leash. Practicing with distance outdoors may offer too many distractions for some dogs, so start indoors if needed.

Hide-and-go-seek is one of our favorite ways to practice recall distance in training classes. Have someone hold your dog in one area of the house while you hide, or toss a few treats on the floor and hide while your dog finishes them. Call your dog to you using their recall cue, and be prepared to reward them with treats.

You can also purchase a 50-foot “long line” rope for training. That way you can walk up the leash if your dog isn’t coming to you. Don’t pull them to you. Instead walk hand-over-hand up the leash to the distance where your dog last successfully responded to their recall cue.

Once your dog has mastered distance, begin practicing in outdoor settings and new environments. If the addition of a new environment and distance is too much, use the long line to control the distance as you practice in a new setting. 

Step 5: Add distractions

After learning distance you can start working on distractions. Start easy by choosing a toy your dog isn’t particularly fond of. Place the toy a few feet away from your leashed dog and let him look at the toy and then when he looks back at you, feed a treat. You’re rewarding him for choosing to look away.

From there, work up to calling them off more and more valuable items.

Never stop practicing

Practicing over and over again with different distances and levels of distraction is the best way to perfect your dog’s recall. Catching and heavily reinforcing with treats will build up that reward history so your dog knows that when you call, they’ll be missing out on delicious food if they’re not there.

Need more practice or support? Recall is just one of the skills you and your canine companion will learn in Levels Classes at Animal Humane Society’s Training School.

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Watch expert trainers talk about the importance of a good recall, and how to practice with your dog.

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