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Come Back! Teaching Your Dog to Come When Called

Tips for improving your recall

We didn’t understand that the type of ‘recall’ required for a walk in the park was different from the classroom version.

Looking back over puppy training class notes this week and found the section for “Recall”.

After working with 100’s of dogs, I find it very hard to write ‘recall’ without quotation marks, here’s why.

Training Class Recall

My first experience of recall training was as an owner of a new pup. Like most UK pup owners, I went to puppy training class. The class, like most at that time, had its roots in the obedience competition world.

The exercise looked something like this – the class assistant would hold the dog, we walked away, we turned to stand facing our dogs and then called our dogs to us with lots of excitement and dog received a treat. We built on this by asking the dog to sit in front of us before their piece of food.

When I began teaching classes, I repeated this training, but people kept telling me that this training didn’t transfer to the park. After thinking it through I worked out why:

The dogs were being restrained by a stranger - depending on their personality, they either loved it or were in a state of panic as we walked away. When we turned around the dogs who enjoyed the attention of a novel person were busy jumping over person and unlikely to be taking any notice of our cues. The pups who were experiencing abandonment, were too stressed to take in any of the information and were simply fleeing back to safety.

We weren’t clear about what we were teaching. We thought we were teaching one single behaviour called ‘recall’ that would hold up under many different conditions. Rather we were teaching a dog to come to an open hand when we were facing them. This is a useful exercise to teach, open hands should represent safety to your dog. Hands can attach a lead, deliver a piece of food, or the perfect scratch. Now we teach this as a stand-alone protocol called ‘Here to me’.

We didn’t understand that the type of ‘recall’ required for a walk in the park was different from the classroom version.

Our dogs already know how to:

  • Stay connected with their group

  • Return to, or find, a safe place following a frightening event.

  • Work together co-operatively to hunt, play and find safety.

These are life skills, innate in our dogs. What we need to teach the pet dog is that we represent all of these things, we are place of safety, a great hunting companion (for food and toys!) and that seeking information from and staying connected to us is rewarding.

We didn’t bear in mind that a recall has two parts:

Give up something, stop doing that activity

Re-connect, run to me and stop in front

Our reward was loaded onto the second part, the run to me, stop in front etc., whereas the first part ‘stop doing that', is the difficult part, especially for a youngster or a dog with a hunting heritage. Our rewards need to be divided between the two behaviours, with the focus on the first one, the hardest.

We didn’t think of sit as being separate. Out in the park, our focus is keeping our dogs safe, we want to take home the dog we arrived with. We want to keep other people and other dogs from being harassed by our dog. This has nothing to do with sitting. Focusing on the sit in front, making sure it happened, took our attention away from the key behaviours that needed rewarding.

We weren’t prepared for adolescence. For very young pups and anxious dogs safety is a primary reward, they naturally stay close to the group, whereas the hormones of adolescence awaken a dog to other delights. The desire of a dog to stay close to you for safety can no longer be relied upon. This is the time that a young dog may have to go back onto a long line, be walked with different dogs or exercised in a secure field.

We didn’t understand how much could be achieved at home or on lead. Neither distance or free running is essential to building positive associations between dogs and people, a 6ft (2m) training lead can get you started. Noticing when your dog stops an activity to follow or watch you, can be rewarded. Words, cues and actions can be added as your dog moves with you around the house and garden.

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