Mastering the Recall

It is my belief that a good recall is one of the most important things a dog can have. It is relatively easy to teach yet continues to evade a lot of dog owners. If you are not happy with the consistency of your dog’s recall then hopefully the pointers below will be of some help.

Just to clarify, when I refer to ‘recall’ I am referring to a dog running free and returning to its owner’s vicinity, so that if necessary it can be placed under physical restraint. I am not referring to the competition style formal obedience recall. I have never had any problems with my dogs confusing the two as I use different cues.

The basic principle that I work off is that when I am out and about with my dogs they should always be waiting for the moment when I ask for a recall. I have worked to develop this response using classical conditioning, as famously demonstrated in Pavlov’s experiments with dogs. Basically one stimulus (the cue for the recall) leads to another (a reward).

To do this, start off by ‘priming’ the cue. In a quiet environment, give the cue (I use their name as this is not something that can be used in formal obedience) then immediately give the reward. Repeat this many times until your dog starts looking expectantly at you for the reward upon hearing the cue. Eventually, and very slowly build up distance to the point where your dog is turning around and coming to you to receive the reward. The dogs opinion of the cue should not be “I have to go back to my owner now” it should instead be “something fantastic is happening at my owner and I need to get there quickly or I will miss out”. Very slowly add distractions and new locations. If the dog doesn’t come then go back a step (you have gone too fast too quickly).

Some pointers and things to be aware of:

  • Dogs don’t generalise very well. If you have spent all your time practicing in your living room and suddenly go to the park your dog may well not have clue what you are on about as it has associated the behaviour with the living room. When you move to a new location, start from the beginning. You will be able to move through quicker at each new location as your dog learns that the cue/reward sequence applies everywhere (not just at home and at dog club).
  • Don’t ever give the cue if you don’t think the dog will respond. This is very important. If your outcome is for your dog to respond the first time every time, then don’t practice calling them whilst they are running away after something more exciting. Until they are recalling reliably you need to find another way to manage the situation – take them somewhere fully enclosed and safe, or run them on a long-line if you need too. I have found that some people get a bit cranky if your exuberant puppy is running up to them and you don’t appear to be trying to stop them. In that situation I used to yell out meaningless words so not to confuse my dog by giving the cue when his response was to run the other way.
  • As you move to more challenging environments the value of reward needs to be increased. To get the dog always waiting for a recall cue they have to expect that the reward will trump the environment. If I give a couple of boring plain old dog treats in a row then typically my dogs start either coming in slower or having a final sniff or two before heading my way. At the moment I am using slightly old camembert cheese and they are twisting themselves around mid-stride in their hurry to get back to me. Typically, I chuck a variety of things in my bait bag, usually something special (e.g. tasty human left overs), something good (plain cheese or devon) and several dog treats (schmakos) and some dry kibble. I also usually carry a tennis ball and a tug toy for a quick game if I need to call them then distract them from something. Then it’s just a lucky dip, sometimes they get an awesome treat and sometimes it’s mediocre. If they do a hard recall off something exciting then I make sure they get the special treats.
  • Thresholds. I have discovered with my dogs that there are certain situations where they just shut down. My older girl, (typically little miss perfect) will put all of her focus onto someone about to throw a ball. It is simply not possible to get her attention at that point and I either have to wait it out or go and get her. The ball carries more value to her than any other reward, so these days I typically wait it out and she will now recall from chasing the other persons ball to chasing one that I have instead thrown for her. My adolescent males’ thresholds are more about his distance from me. Once he is beyond a certain distance the reliability of his recall drops. I have also noticed that I have to ‘catch’ him before he takes off after another dog. Once he has decided to run his recall is a bit hit and miss.
  • Don’t call your dog, only to put the lead on and end the fun. Whilst this will have to happen fairly frequently you need to balance it in the other direction by doing plenty of recalls and immediate releases. Throw in the occasional collar grab and put the lead on then immediately release again. Doing this frequently enough will make sure your dog is always guessing and if you balance it right then it pays for them to take the gamble and come back. 

So what do you do if you give your cue and your dog doesn’t come back? This happens fairly frequently as you test the strength of their recall. The make or break is how you deal with it. First you need to consider why your dog did not come back. Was it the environment (another dog, a scent, a toy) or did the dog not understand what the cue means (in a new location perhaps)? Figuring out what went wrong will help to prevent it happening again.

When my dogs don’t come immediately I typically go and get them and put them on lead. I never make a fuss of it and allow them the length of the lead to sniff so long as it doesn’t interfere with what I am doing (I don’t want my dogs to associate me going and getting them and putting them on lead as a bad thing or they might start avoiding letting me catch them). My rule is that off lead privileges are for dogs that can recall. After a minute or two I give them an opportunity to earn ‘off lead’. They get a recall from the end of the lead, then once off lead, an immediate recall from a few meters away, and again once they have got a bit more distance between us.

The big key is to practice a lot in lots of different locations and under all reasonable distractions. Throw in the occasional hard recall every now and again but make sure that your dog is succeeding most of the time. Put a special emphasis on practicing under the circumstances that your dog is not so good at, always remembering to take it back a step if you fail.

Remember to never ever tell off your dog when it comes to you regardless of the circumstances or you will undo all your good work.

If you are interested in learning more there are a few links I recommend you follow.

Fido Come Home
Come at the Park
Clicker Training
Recall Training in Dogs (PDF)
Training Dogs to Come

Written By: Kiara O’Gorman
KODC Committee Member
Photo Credits: Brandy, Max, Mason, Nelson, Bree

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