When you call your dog’s name do they come bounding towards you, meander back to your side (with or without some stops along the way), or seem to not hear you at all? Recall, or the ability for your dog to come when called is often regarded as one of the most important behaviors we train our dogs. It can be disaster avoiding when two unknown dogs are barreling toward each other or lifesaving when a dog is running into oncoming traffic. Yet it often remains one of the vaguest concepts for our dogs to learn and one many dog owners struggle with. In fact, most owners don’t realize what they want from a recall. When we are unsure what we want our dogs to do, how can we expect them to meet our expectations?
For me, there are two types of recall. The first is implied or informal. If I’m working with my dog or engaged with them, they should be drawn to me, a natural desire to be engaged. They check in often, whether that is a look, moving towards me, or offering known behaviors as an invitation to work. This occurs in all environments, inside, outside, on leash, off leash, the where doesn’t matter. When we are together we are having a conversation and they should have a desire to be part of that conversation. If they have been released and are “off duty” they should gravitate to me with ease if they hear their name or a specific noise I use to get their attention. Either is a hint that we are conversing again, that they are clocked in. It brings their focus back to me and communicates that they should be anticipating a follow up cue - even if that cue is another release.
The above situation is the ultimate goal for me and my clients. A dog that wants to be with you, one that is excited when they hear their name for what comes next. However, there are several foundations that have to be in place before you can reach that goal and this is even more true once you are off leash and outside in the real world. First, you need a strong relationship, built on engagement, focus, and proximity to you. Again, this is the dog that is eager to work, to see what is coming around the corner, with you, not the environment. You are, in essence, their distraction from the world. The best thing in the world. You are where the fun happens. Second, you have protected their name, so that when they hear it they want to come running. As owners, we tend to nag our dog for their attention. Think about how many times you said your dog’s name on your last walk. Every sniff, every pull, every distraction that wasn’t you. When we say their name over and over again it becomes white noise. It loses its power. This is where most people have a broken recall. When their dog hears their name there is a greater probability that they will ignore their owner or run in the other direction instead of towards them. Quite often this is due to a desire to play or interact with the environment but it can be frustrating for the owner. The good news is we can repair your recall by building a strong relationship.
I like to start training recall with this implied version in mind at home. Over time you take it out to more distracting environments and when you have an excellent success rate, off leash. One of my favorite ways to introduce this concept is one of my Absolute Dogs’ games, Orientation. It’s quick, simple, and guaranteed to boost your relationship in a short time. Grab a handful of food and find a quiet place to play. A hall works well when you are first starting out, as it limits choice. Toss or bowl a piece of food across the floor for your dog to chase. Wait for them to orient back to you, this can be a look, turn, or full-on run. The instant they do mark the behavior with a short, crisp word such as “yes” or “good” and reward them. That reward can be given in multiple ways, to the mouth, in the form of a catch, or you can toss/bowl it out again to reset them for a second round. Maybe you do all three, or come up with your own. Be exciting, be unpredictable, and your dog will love this game that much more. Every time you toss a kibble out you are resetting your dog to come back to you, reinforcing that the value is in returning to you. You can even use high value rewards when they come to you, this helps power up your relationship that much more. Play this game inside, outside, both on and off leash and soon you’ll have a dog that wants to return to you all the time. Keep your sessions short, it can be as little as a toss or two but should be no more than 2-3 minutes. While playing, remember that it’s more important that you wait for your dog to return to you on their own, no nagging. We want the return to become a choice, which is far more powerful than telling them to come back.
During this time get used to limiting when you are using your dog’s name so you can power it back up. When they hear it, you want them to come running because they are excited! Avoid using their name when they’ve made a wrong choice or you are irritated. If you have had a lot of bad experiences with recall where they didn’t return to you when you say their name you may want to change it up again. Not their actual name, but how you say it. You can shorten, or even lengthen it. Maybe you have a nickname that you use when you are playing and joyful. For example, our little Ella becomes “Ellie” and Charlie often gets shortened to “Char”. By using something that doesn’t have the negative context of past failures you are setting yourself up for greater success.
As your relationship builds you can start to think about the second type of recall, the cued. It’s a specific cue for my dogs. It’s clear to them, and to me, what I want from them. Come and Here are some of the most popular recall cues and yet neither of them is specific. Come where? At your side, front, run circles around you? Whatever cue you use your dog must know what it means and I recommend it is something that allows you to reach their collar or harness. If I’ve called my dog with a cue I had a good reason to and if they are off leash I need to get them back on. Here are my top three recall cues:
Your dog touches your hand with their nose. While this is specific and allows your dog to come close it requires a follow up cue after they are near you if you want to reach their collar, such as a sit.
Front is used in formal obedience, the dog comes and sits in front of you while you are standing. It’s easy to hold their collar in this position and attach their leash.
Our top recall position doubles as one of our favorite behaviors - Middle! Middle is when your dog is in between your legs in any position. Since this is one of the first games we play with our new dogs and pups it has a lot of built in value for them. It is reinforcing and fun long before we ever rely on it for a recall. It also doubles as a safe space and a position our dogs find comfortable. As with front, the collar is well within reach.
Whatever you use, it is important to decide what you want for you and your dog. Take Front for example, you could teach the same behavior with Here or Come. Maybe you mix it up a bit by having them return to your side instead if that is your preference. It’s all about finding what works best for you as a team. Visualize what you want your end behavior to look like and then build on that vision.
Just like playing Orientation you’ll want to start inside. Even if this is a behavior you taught your dog in the past. Since you didn’t have a good success rate you need to build up that value before taking it to more distracting environments again. If it’s a new behavior you can teach it while you are playing and building your relationship through other games. However, don’t try it as a true recall until you have built up both the behavior itself and the desire to return to you. I am going to use Middle as my example, but remember that the end goal should be about what you want. In an ideal scenario you’ve built up multiple games and behaviors that can recall your dog because the more unpredictable (and fun!) you are, the more success you’ll have in winning over the environment.
Middle is best taught by luring your dog between your legs, with a bit of sleight of hand. Have two treats, one in each hand and hold one in front of their nose. Slowly draw them around one of your legs and then switch hands so the second treat replaces the first to lure them through. Once they are in position be generous with your reward, multiple pieces of reinforcement to keep them wanting to come back for more. This is a great dinner activity! Toss out a kibble to reset them just like when you played Orientation, and repeat. Again, you’ll want to keep your sessions short, a good time to stop is when they still want to play. Once you can predict your dog will reset and return to the correct position name it! Middle, Safe, Mango, it doesn’t matter what it is, as long as the name isn’t tied to a past failure. You are going to protect this word as you have done with their name and use it when you know it will be successful.
Once your dog understands Middle you can add distractions and take it on the road to new environments. Start to add distance in order to use it as a true recall, but if you’ve built the value in this part should feel natural. Another reason I love Middle? My dogs do and that is the true key to a recall, keep it happy, keep it fun. Give your dog a reason to believe that you are the best thing in their world.
Want to learn more? Both Orientation and Middle are taught during our free Orientation class for new students, which is held twice per month. Contact us to register, it’s the first step towards building a better relationship with your dog.
Owner, Head Trainer