Come to me: building the reliable recall

I can’t say if having a dog come to you reliably under all conditions is one of the top things that all dog owners dream of, but I can tell you it is something I expect from all my dogs, most especially my puppies. Getting a reliable recall is not really all that difficult, particularly if you are starting off with a puppy.  Bailey and Sage at 10 months have already passed a huge milestone in their training concerning the recall. One sunny day when I let the dogs out to romp a bit, I turned to see Bailey and Sage trotting off down the driveway towards the busy road we live on.  I didn’t panic, in a calm voice I simply said, “Bailey, Sage, Come”.  Both dogs stopped immediately upon hearing their names, turned, and then came running back to me.  I stooped down, open my arms, and gave them both a big hug for doing such a wonderful thing! We played for a minute before I let them in our large fenced area with the other dogs.  Why was I so confident they would come?  Let’s look at what makes a successful recall learning experience for a puppy.

When you get your puppy at 8 weeks of age their eyes are still developing and they literally can’t see clearly too far away. They will naturally stay within an easy distance of you wherever you go.  I take advantage of this to start the pups off on the reliable recall.

labrador puppy running towards  person with camera

“I’m coming!”

First, I will take the pup out to a large grassy area and just walk slowly around while the pup explores all the smells and new things.  When they are not looking, I will move quietly away about 15 feet, stoop down then call the pup in a happy sweet voice. Most pups will look up quite surprised you have gotten so far away. All will come running to you. (If they don’t come running toward you there are other problems going on here maybe the subject of a different blog)   When the pup reaches you, greet them with the tone and feeling you are so happy they joined you. Be brief but convincing, and then move on.  Don’t repeat this scenario too often as it will lose its value.  What you are doing here is telling the puppy that “come” means “come join me this makes me happy” and right now the pup is delighted there is something that can make you happy. So capitalize on that and start right off from the beginning to make this a positive habit. You are also teaching the pup that they need to keep track of you and be aware where you are at all times. Placing a small degree of responsibility on the pup will also help to develop this good habit which comes into play later in more advanced training.  Everything here is happy and positive. You are also not doing so much of this sequence as to be a nag, which really turns dogs off quickly.

In a recent training session with several new handlers I noticed many people are constantly using the dog’s name while training. If you have this habit then you are nullifying the effect of the name when you really need it.  A good example was when I need to break the concentration of Bailey and Sage heading down the driveway and could do so by calling their names.  I rarely use the names of the dogs and they come to realize if I call their names it means “pay attention now, this is important”.  Its important to get your dog’s attention before you give a command, otherwise the command quickly loses its meaning; dogs will also learn if they don’t pay attention to you then they don’t have to listen to you.

Another thing you can do to reinforce the recall is to pay attention while you have your puppy out and about, watching for that moment when they turn and all on their own, start running towards you.  At that instant you see them coming towards you, say in your happy voice, “Bailey (or whatever your dog’s name is) Come”.   They are coming anyway, it was their thought, but you get the credit for the whole thing by giving it a command and rewarding the action.  This not only reinforces the lesson for the pup but in a manner that I have come to realize is much stronger than in other situations. Any time the dog does something on their own and they get rewarded for that they will remember better and will do it again with pleasure.

A few don’ts when dealing with dogs that will affect the reliability of the recall include:

  • Never call a dog to you when you are angry
  • Never call the dog to you if you are going to put the dog in a crate and then go away
  • Never call the dog to you to punish it for anything
  • Don’t call the dog just to make it come to you for nothing. I see this often and it is no wonder the dog just ignores its owners.

In developing a reliable recall under all circumstances make sure you have your puppy responding off lead in safe areas where you have some control over the circumstances and are not putting your pup’s safety in jeopardy.  Add in your distractions little by little, always building confidence in your puppy and never trying to intimidate them with the distractions. It really doesn’t take that long to develop the level of response with your puppy, just remember the key rule true for any obedience training is to be consistent.