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Teaching your dog to recall

As much as we would like to believe it, teaching your dog to come or ‘recall’ is not a pre-programmed response. While it is a natural instinct for a baby puppy not to venture too far from the pack, usually we find that as the puppy gets older and more confident, selective deafness tends to set in, and with that the previously reliable recall quickly fades too.

Despite all of that, recall is one of the most important commands to teach a dog to obey. It  is particularly important if you ever want to enjoy the pleasures of having a dog roam free on a walk, playing with other dogs or even just enjoy general social behaviour. Whilst not the easiest command to teach our dogs, by setting your pup up for success and keeping each training session simple, teaching recall can be a great bonding exercise and a load of fun!

It’s Disneyland out there!

Imagine taking a child to Disneyland and then while attracted by all the interesting sights and sounds, your try to teach the child something new. You would be unlikely to be successful because of the many distractions that Disneyland would offer. It is much the same when you take your dog to the park where there are all kinds of interesting smells, sounds and sights that catch the dog’s attention. In such a situation trying to get him to concentrate on what you are trying to teach him, is often extremely difficult. For this reason, in order to get the best success with a recall, you should not un-clip their leash until you are confident they will return when called, the area is safe (e.g. a fully enclosed oval) and there are treats on hand to encourage the dog to return.

Make it worthwhile!

While some snacks may or dry food may be effective at home, these may not have the same affect out and about. It’s important you take along snacks that your dog loves whether that is raw meat, cooked chicken or liver treats. Dogs will appreciate pieces small enough that can be devoured in a split second so that they can quickly return to their other activities. If we make the reward for returning to us worthwhile, then your dog is going to be much more willing to return because it associates this response with reward.

Come means only good things happen

In order to make a recall fast and reliable, your dog should only associate being called to you with good things. This means that you should never call a dog or puppy for discipline, or ever punish a dog because it has taken longer to come back to us after we have called it. Although it may be frustrating, a recall should always be a positive thing and your dog should always be rewarded for choosing to come back, even if it does take a while. While at the park, call your dog back regularly, not just when you want to leave. This way, the recall is of little consequence – your dog will enjoy the food and then enjoy returning to play with friends. If you need to get your dog to do something it doesn’t like, for example clipping nails or bath and grooming, then it would be better to simply set everything up and then retrieve the dog, rather than calling them to you.

‘Come’ should also be spoken in a happy and cheerful voice. Using a higher pitched voice is more attractive to dogs and therefore more likely to respond to it. Teaching a recall in a gruff voice may tell your dog to stay away.

Don’t become a nag!

In the training phase, repeatedly calling your dog 20 times may be much less effective than if you call your dog’s name when he is already heading back to you. Give your dog the best chance of success.

Fun ways to achieve a really reliable recall!

While this may seem like a daunting task – teaching your dog to come when he is called can be fun for everyone in the family – most importantly the dog. Below are some suggestions which will help you achieve the best recall results!

1) The name of the game

Play a game with your dog so he makes an association with his name and food. Start around the house or in the backyard. As soon as your dog looks at you when he hears his name, reward him with a treat. Very soon you’ll have a dog that when he hears his name his head will whip around to see where that treat is hiding! This can also be played on walks too when your dog is clipped to a leash.

2) Catch me if you can

This is a great one-person game to play. Drop a piece of food on the ground, make sure your dog sees it and is eating it, then run as fast as you can in the opposite direction. When your dog catches up to you, drop another treat on the ground and sprint off in the other direction… fairly soon your dog won’t want you out of his sight.

3) Piggy in the middle

If you have several people in your family, playing this game with your dog can be loads of fun. Have everyone loaded with your dog’s favourite treats and spread out. The one by one, each person should call the dog and when he reaches a person he is rewarded with a treat. This game is a great way to mentally and physically stimulate your dog and is most effective if the people calling the dog avoid using distractions such as making noises and squeaking toys.

4) Hide and seek

If you have two people – have someone hold your dog while you find a place to hide (remember to keep it easy for beginners). When you are ready, call your dog and wait until he finds you. When he does, make sure that you praise him and reward with a favourite treat.

What to do if it isn’t going to plan

Despite all our efforts, your dog isn’t always going to be a perfect angel and sometimes things will go wrong. You may find that your dog has found an irresistible good smell that he just can't leave. Remember, don’t waste your breath calling his name, instead go towards him and clip him on his leash for the rest of the walk - practising your name game the rest of the way home. Alternatively, run in the opposite direction, if it is safe to do so. The dog should always come to you – so moving away will encourage the dog to recall. Remember, even if it takes time, always reward Fido for coming back. There is also little point to calling a dog that is fully engrossed in something else.

If your dog is making a habit of not recalling, restrict his freedom for a few weeks and work on the recall activities as above. A long line (5m leash) can work as a good intermediate between being off lead and on a short lead. If your dog has had a lot of experience with ‘come’ and is not responding to it, changing the command to something like ‘here’ can help get the ball rolling again.

Make sure you don’t jump too fast too soon. At first, make it easy for your dog – start playing games in the house or yard, where distractions are low. Gradually make this more difficult for your dog as he gets better at the games and the concept. If he is having difficulty, drop back a step, make it easier and then progress from there.

If your dog does not respond to food, try something that he is really focused on, possibly a favourite toy. The simple answer is use whatever works and whatever the dog values most highly.

It is important to remember that it is a privilege to have our dogs off leash. For this reason, and out of courtesy to others, please only let your dog off leash if you have complete control and he is friendly with all dogs and people. All of these games, while fun, should be only played in a controlled environment where you are able to intervene if need be. If your dog does not have a reliable recall, off-leash play with other dogs should be done in fully enclosed parks, where you know all members are safe.

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