Recall training Q and A

The following question was posted on a Q & A session I hosted recently. It’s an excellent question that is a common experience amongst many dog guardians: a dog who is very dependable in all kinds of training commands, but not so much when running around off-leash.


The question

Hi!! Ok so our 4 year old, 10 pound chiweenie has learned multiple commands successfully EXCEPT “come”. He will only respond to “come” if we have a treat. He responds to “sit”, “stay”, “down”, without a treat. We trained him using the clicker. I feel like he is so set in his ways that it would be impossible to teach him how to “come” without a treat at this point. Oh and when we were training him we tried and tried without a treat…it’s not like we caved in and gave him treats every time. We trained him the same way as we did the other commands which worked, so we are a little confused. Ps. Our dogs name is Louie :) any advice??

The answer regarding dog training and the recall

There are two primary things to think about regarding your dog, and this kind of training, considering your dog already understands what to do when you ask him to “come”.

  • Motivation: What does your dog work for.
  • Location and distance: What will your dog work for in this environment, and the distance between you and your dog (and we’ll include things like eye contact in this one).

You would have three things – your dog understanding the command (or what you want – your dog to come to you) itself – but you already have that covered! And that’s a major step. So lets look a bit more closely at motivation and location.

Your dog’s motivation

Lots of great things to sniff. Are these things better than you?

This is quite simply “what your dog will work for”. You’ve mentioned treats, and that’s a motivation. Here is a recent article I wrote about motivation.

The clicker is a motivation when its loaded, and then often your dog will work for little or “no” reward – as you’re seeing with your other training. But a sit is very different than a recall. Most often, a sit is when your dog is only mildly distracted, or not distracted at all, when in close proximity to you and usually with eye contact. The sit, in itself, can be rewarding because training is fun to a lot of dogs! For a working dog, doing sits and downs and spins is self-rewarding. Your dog gets attention, gets to do fun actions, and it’s generally better than sitting around the house being bored. This is why the clicker, or often nothing at all, is required as “reward” for this kind of work.

But a recall, outside? Come walk by you and listen instead of galavant around smelling smells, running about, having the chance at chasing a squirrel, and visiting other dogs? It can potentially be a mild “punishment” to run back to the human! So the motivation to run back to you has to meet or exceed the wonderful freedom of off-leash recreation. Not to mention, you’re not close by, perhaps out of mind, and you don’t have eye contact with your dog. It’s a very different kind of training.

My main question would be this: Is using a treat really a problem? I, personally, would continue using treats if that’s what gets the recall. When going to an off-leash area, I always make sure I have a toy on hand because that’s my “fall back” recall motivation for my toy-obsessed dog (I actually have to put it away to make him go off and enjoy the environment a little!)

Many trainers I know, some of the best out there, always use food or toys for recall, and never “fade” them. A reliable recall, especially at a distance, is often difficult to achieve. A recall off a chase is one of the hardest training commands of all. Unlike “sit”, recall involves safety and it’s important to use whatever you can to make sure your dog runs back to you – so while hard, it’s necessary. So if he’s running back reliably with food, I’d continue to use it. If you don’t have food on hand, reward with exaggerated love and affection and reward the next time with food (ie: keep your dog guessing). But there’s no need to fade out food altogether, because that’s when you probably will start getting an unreliable recall – mainly because there are often so many better things to be doing than running back to you in a rich, exciting, self-rewarding environment.

But there’s one more complication: location. You have to think about what your dog will work for in the location you’re in. More on that next.

Location and distance

Hittin’ the road in an off leash area, where horses are also allowed!

Location is important in dog training. Dogs are very location-specific, and before your dog truly understands what “sit” means, you have to teach him sit in a few different locations before he will “generalize” the information and know what sit means where ever you ask him to do it. It sounds like your dog understands the concept of “come” – so it’s probably the environmental motivators and possibly the distance that is causing him not to listen. Try something at home – try asking for a sit or a down with your back turned and no eye-contact, and then from a different room. These are a bit closer in comparison with an off-leash recall, and don’t even include distractions. A lot is involved in each training command: location, distractions, and even distance and eye-contact (ever ask your dog to do things with your face hidden behind a camera? It’s really hard to have them listen to you effectively without that eye contact!)

Now about those distractions. Remember that distractions, especially certain ones like prey or other dogs, are rewarding. If the reward of visiting that other dog is greater than the food in your hand, your dog will choose visiting that other dog. Food is better? Then he’ll recall to you. If you’re using a clicker, that click still has to be “loaded” – he has to know that’s a better thing than rewarding himself with visiting that other dog. So if the food works, use it. If you can find something else (a toy, or really amazing affection), then use that. But you have to figure out what is a better motivation than whatever elements are in the location you’re visiting (the beach, a field, etc). And then you have to work at the right distance for that recall, too. Figure out where your dog stops listening to you entirely, and make sure you’re working at a shorter distance than that one.

Dog training tips for recall

  • Start from scratch: Start practicing recall at home with no distractions, add distractions, add distance, add lack of eye-contact, and so on. Then transfer this to outdoor locations with increasing levels of distance and distraction (start with a back yard or safe park, and gradually end up at someplace like the beach for the master class). At each level, you can try fading out the food – but I would always recommend having whatever your dog will work for on hand for recall. Remember, safety is the most important aspect – you must have voice control for safety, and you must use whatever motivates your dog to listen to you. You do not need a formal cue, but the idea here is to generalize the action of running to you from different distances and at different locations.
  • Walk backwards when calling: Don’t run towards your dog, as he will often have a natural inclination to stop or start moving in the opposite direction. Move backwards and use body language that pulls your dog into you by moving and tilting your body backwards.
  • Never punish: Returning to you must always be a positive thing. You must always be a great thing to return to. Never punish your dog in any way when he gets back to you.
  • Formalize the recall: Once your dog has something reliable, you can add your specific cue. This will lead to the expectation your dog will drop what he’s doing and run to you immediately. You want to only use this cue when you know it will be successful (to the best of your knowledge. Try to learn when your dog will run back to you. Learn when he’s listening (this could be a cocked ear when you call his name right before you use the cue – don’t use the cue if he’s not listening.)
  • Use an obvious tone/volume to a formal recall: I call this fishmonger voice – the kind of tone and volume that naturally turns a head, including your dog’s head. This might be a distinctive whistle. Make sure your voice or whistle cuts through the distractions. Make sure you are not “easy to ignore” with everything else going on in the environment.
  • Be extremely consistent: Make sure that you always use exactly the same word and tone/volume above.
  • Motivate your dog appropriate with where you are: Do you have livestock around, or are you in a boring fenced yard. You need to use the right level of reward depending on the level of excitement. For example, you might need to drop a rotisserie chicken if there is prey around, or you might be able to ask your dog to “come” if you’re in a boring patch of grass. Remember – locations are not created equal, and you have to entice your dog with something better than what he has available in the environment.
  • Motivate your dog with what works for him: Is your dog obsessed by toys, work for food, or loves affection? This motivation has to be greater than what’s in the environment, but also appropriate for your dog.

There are many other elements to recall, other problems and solutions too. Dogs are all unique, so these tips are not a one-size-fits-all solution. Want to share something that worked for you? Please feel free to add your tips to the comments!

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About Author

Jen deHaan is graphic designer, small business owner, and dog person living in Bay Area, California. Jen enjoys learning about dog training and behavior, and has taken several courses and seminars since 2010. She also contributes articles to leading websites, such as Victoria Stilwell's Positively . It all started with a great dog called Mikey (aka "dude"), loved and lost but remembered forever. Jen also runs a freelance business focusing on graphic, web, and UI design at FoundPixel, and a small business creating hand crafted dog products at Stylish Canine.