Master the Recall (aka Come When Called)

It is, indeed, a sinking feeling that comes with seeing lost dog posters around the neighborhood and surrounding areas. Those families are heartbroken, and dogs’ lives are threatened. Dog owners want to get out and let their pets run and enjoy the natural world. And rightly so…. But in the absence of a well-trained recall, this can carry a heavy risk. An owner, who hasn’t put in the time teaching the dog to come reliably when called, takes a safety gamble. The odds are not in the dog’s favor. In the best of circumstances, it is a calculated risk. No one wants to jeopardize the dog’s safety.


Teaching your dog to come when called in the quiet of your home is the foundation. Even when this is solid, it is unlikely to be reliable in your yard. The context is different, and the distraction level is higher. Reliability for any obedience cue happens when distractions are introduced gradually and reinforcements are adjusted appropriately. While verbal praise works in some situations, it is unlikely to motivate your dog to come away from a compelling outdoor activity when called. You will need to haul out heavier artillery.
The transition from inside to outside recall responses is gradual, using long and light line tethers, varying distances, and high value reinforcements. This progression teaches the dog that ignoring you is not an option, and it’s worth his while to answer the call. Manipulate the exercises for success. The dog learns nothing from failed trials and quickly loses interest in the “game”.


Elicit your dog’s coming to you by clapping your hands or patting your leg. When he responds correctly, reinforce the behavior with a small treat. After several times, put a word to the behavior: “Belle, come!” Practice inside your house, rewarding with meals, treats, chews, playtimes, belly rubs, leash on for walks, etc…..When he’s responding reliably in the house, it’s time to change up the context and increase the distraction level.


If you believe that your dog will respond to your call as he did in the house or….because he wants to please you, you may be disappointed when moving this exercise outside. Start by interrupting his walks with a backward step or two and the verbal cue: “come”. Pack bites of great treats to reinforce his choice of coming to you as called. Continue training the recall by working outdoors on a 10-15 foot tether. This is enough distance to set up for success. If your dog doesn‘t respond, you have ready recourse. Reward with high-value food, such as bites of chicken. If you have no tether or recourse, do not use the verbal cue, “come”.
When a reliable response pattern is evident, you can switch to a different tether. A long, light nylon line works well, because the dog has a sense of being off leash. As the dog becomes more reliable in his recall responses, increase the length of the line. Practice in as many places as possible. Changing the context of any obedience cue makes it reliable.


Don’t punish your dog when he comes as called (even if he’s just dug up your prize-winning rose bush). You can use the recall rather than a reprimand to redirect an undesirable behavior. Reward your dog for coming to you as called and provide a substitute activity. When it’s time to come inside or for him to go into his crate, use another means of bringing him to you. The verbal cue “come” must be associated with a great payoff in order to achieve reliability.
Don’t stop reinforcing your dog’s correct response to the recall. When we stop reinforcing a behavior altogether, it dies. This is the behavioral definition of extinction. Dogs change throughout life’s developmental cycles. Puppy behavior changes as the dog moves into adolescence. Adolescent behavior evolves into young adulthood. Behavior changes are possible throughout the dog’s life, but early training and management work best.

© Kimberly B. Mandel CPDT-KA, 2015 all rights reserved
Kimberly Mandel Behavior and Training LLC