Well, this is a big one! It is one of the most fundamental pieces of training that you can do with your dog, but its also one of the things that dog owners struggle with the most.
Being able to let your pet off leash and safely knowing that he will come when called makes life so much easier – and better – for you and your dog.
Allowing your dog to run freely is vital for physical exercise as well as mental wellbeing and overall quality of life. It’s also a great way for you to have fun with your pet and build your bond together.
So, how do you do the basic groundwork to make sure that your dog will always come when called? I’m going to set out my approach to teaching a recall to puppies, though the same technique will work on an older dog too. What I’m not going to cover however, is how to work with a persistent offender in ignoring your calls, I will cover this in more detail in a separate post.
When I get a new pup one of the first things I teach is a recall – even at eight weeks old. Now, I don’t mean in a formal, boring or regimented way, I just mean I start it out as a game which will slowly develop into a rock solid recall.
All I do to begin with is start indoors and wait until the pup is distracted for a moment, then I rush away from him in an excited manner. As soon as he notices and runs after me I am going to say the recall command – doesn’t matter what it is, so long as you use the same word EVERY time you call him. It’s no use saying ‘come’ one time, then ‘here’ another, they might both mean the same to us, but they are entirely different commands to a dog. You also need to make sure that everyone else who will be calling your dog follows the same command too.
Once he reaches me I am going to make a massive fuss and give him praise – see information here about using a ‘good’ word. Sometimes I will also have a treat for him, something like a small cube of cheese or a slice of carrot. Notice I said sometimes, we want our pet to associate coming back with something good, but we don’t want to make the coming back reliant on us having a treat every time.
Failure is not an option
By this I mean that I only start calling the pup when they are already coming to me. I do not call them first and then give them the option of coming or not. This builds confidence immensely, as they don’t get to fail, because I only ask them to come when I know that they are going to obey. Don’t be tempted to start calling them to you before they have mastered this, because every time you call them and they ignore you will diminish the reliability of your recall in the future.
From here on we are simply going to add distance and distractions to develop a rock solid recall. Once you are getting it right indoors you can move outside – if you have a garden you don’t need to wait until puppy vaccinations are complete – remember as soon as you add more distractions it gets harder for your pet, chasing you in the living room might be fine, but once there are other people, other pets and other interesting things to look at you have to make him want to choose you over the crisp packet, or the squirrel, so you need to be interesting enough for your dog to choose you (and your rewards of fussing, praise, treats, etc) over the other options.
Reward the good, ignore the bad!
This is a favourite term of mine and you will see it throughout other blog posts on this site. With regards to teaching the recall this is really important. If you call your pet and they don’t come back immediately, first time, you might be tempted to scold them. This is unlikely to make them want to come back to you next time you call! If you’ve followed the steps above you should not be in a position where they have ignored your command, but if it does happen for some reason simply ignore it and move onto something that they do get right and get lots of positive feedback from.
Little and often
This is another favourite phrase of mine – I’m on a roll today! I always advise that pet owners don’t train their pets in long sessions, as they will no doubt get bored and maybe even stressed a little. The most effective way for a dog to learn new stuff is to keep the session short (two or three minutes max), but lots of repetition, say three minutes, but five times a day. This approach makes for rapid progress in most training scenarios.
Take your time
Don’t be in too much of a rush to get this training fully finished, take your time and take your cue from your dog. If you move too quickly onto the next step you might find that you lose the progress you have made, as soon as your dog is struggling to complete the recall successfully EVERY time, simply move back one step until they are ready to move on, eg if you are getting a lovely recall at the park when there are few distractions, but then you find that your dog is less attentive when there is another dog around simply move back to only practicing recalls when there aren’t dogs around until they have perfected that, then try moving again.
Anyway, that’s my take on teaching a reliable recall, its so important from both a wellbeing perspective, but also essential from a safety point of view, it really is worth putting in the time early on so that you both benefit in the long run.
If you have any questions, or any feedback and suggestions about the method I’ve outlined here please drop me a note using the comments box below and I’ll be sure to get right back to you.