By popular demand: recall training

A happy dog responding immideately to the recall signal
A happy dog responding immideately to the recall signal (the stick was not thrown for him, he picked it up from the bottom of the lake…

We received an e-mail asking us to write something about recall training, so here are our thoughts on recall.

Recall is something where I believe one should focus on several different aspects at the same time. I teach the dog to:

1. Keep an eye on ME when off leash
2. Manage unexpected situations (ignore the distractions and choose me instead)
3. Come when called

Recall training for me is thus a lot of preventive training, focusing on what I want the dog to do.

1. Keep an eye on ME when off leash

The first step is about following me and the dog being observant on my movements. I want the dog to know that it is rewarding to keep an eye on me while we’re out walking. When the dog looks at my, or spontaneously comes back to me when off leash (without me calling the dog), I reward it. I vary the rewards a lot: sometimes it might be a treat from my hand, sometimes I throw a ball, sometimes I ask the dog to jump up on a rock and then give it a treat, sometimes I throw some treats on the ground for it to look for and so on. I want a “rubber band” dog, that is a dog that goes away a small distance (10-50 meters, I prefer to see the dog the whole time) and then comes back to me to see that I’m coming and to see if something exciting is about to happen.

When the dog comes back to me, or is near by, fun things will happen, such as a small training session, some hide and seek, hunting for treats and so on. Be creative and find out what your dog likes the most!

If the dog doesn’t come back, I might go hide behind a tree or walk the other way so that the dog has to come find me (of course I only do this when it is safe for the dog, that is in the middle of the forest where it will not run in to cars etc if it doesn’t find me straight away)

2. Manage unexpected situations

The next step is about teaching the dog what to do when unexpected distractions show up. WHen out walking I don’t want to focus 100% on the dog all the time, instead I want to teach the dog to come to me if a distraction show up, instead of running to the distraction. So for example if another dog or person shows up the dog should come to me or stop to watch the distraction instead of running to it.

I start teaching the dog this while on leash. First I let it watch the distraction. When the dog stands still and watches, I click and treat. I repeat that a couple of times until the dog watches the distraction and then looks at me. At that stage, I withhold the click until the dog looks at me, then I click and treat. We call this “tattling”, that is the dog “tells” me that it has seen something interesting. I do this in different environments with the dog on leash, before removing the leash and doing the same thing off leash. (when the dog is loose it is important that I can control the distraction so that the dog does not get a reward if it fails and runs to the distraction instead of watching me)

3. Come when called

The last step is of course about teaching the dog to come when called. It’s very important to remember to gradually increase the distractions and to make sure the dog succeeds many times. Recall is a lot about the dog ignoring distractions. Therefore I start this training as soon as I get the dog home. I start with very simple distractions, such as letting the dog sniff my fist when I’ve hidden a treat in it. I just keep my fist closed and let the dog sniff, lick and push it. As soon as it removes it’s nose ever so slightly from my hand, I click and give the dog a treat. Then I repeat that so that the dog stops pushing at the hand sooner and sooner, and finally it doesn’t care at all about the treat in my hand because it knows that it will get it when it stops pushing at my hand. Then I make the distraction a bit more difficult by opening my hand. If the dog leaves the treat alone, I click and treat (with the other hand). If it tries to take the treat, I just close my hand. Soon the dog will realise that this is the same game as before and will leave the treat alone. Then you let your assistant do the same thing and reward the dog when it ignores the assistant and instead comes to you. When the dog runs toward you, add your recall signal. (then you know the recall will be successful). Later on, when you’ve made many successful recalls, you can try to recall the dog when it’s running toward the assistant with the distraction. Remember to reward the dog with something very good if the distraction is difficult!

The idea is to “brain wash” the dog so that it doesn’t know anything else than coming to you when it hears the recall signal – because fun things will happen when it comes to you! If you suspect that the dog isn’t going to listen to the recall signal, DON’T recall it – just go and fetch it instead, otherwise you will destroy your recall signal. If the dog doesn’t “listen”, you’ve made it to difficult. Go fetch the dog, take a small break and then repeat several successful recalls and add distractions so that you successfully can recall the dog from the original distraction and reward it.

Another fun exercise to do is “the triangle”. Below you can see a video of how several people can help you to teach the dog a great recall.

In the recall training, a hand target can be very helpful. Hand target means that the dog touches the palm of your hand with it’s nose. Thus the dog will come close to you when you are recalling it (so that you for example can put it’s leash on). It is also a very clear criteria for you. “Come” means “touch my palm with your nose”, and the dog can’t do that if it’s two meters away, it has to be close to you to do it.

Start with holding the palm of your hand close to the dogs nose. When the dog looks at it or touches it with it’s nose, click and treat. Then put your hand a bit further away from the dog, so that it has to stretch or walk towards it to touch it (if it just sits there and watches you, you’ve made it too difficult, remove the hand and put it closer to the dog again). Then you can develop this into a fun game where you let the dog touch the palm of your hand when you have your hand in different positions and on different heights. When you’re out walking, the hand target is a nice silent recall, and it will succeed almost every time since you can only recall the dog when it’s looking at you. (be quiet and wait for the dog to look at you before showing the hand). As soon as the dog sees the hand it will be very excited and run towards it since it knows that that will lead to a reward. In this video you can see some different ways of using the hand target.

The hand target can also be used to “move” the dog (by moving the hand target so that the dog follows it), for delivery to hand (so that you don’t have to stretch to get the retrieve article but the dog gives it to you), to teach the dog to walk zig-zag between your legs and to teach the dog to put on its leash.

Teaching the dog to put on its leash is something I would recommend all dog owners to do. Instead of running away when you are going to put on the leash when the dog is off leash, it runs towards you and put its head through the collar as soon as it sees the leash. In the video below you can see how to do that.

Challenge: Make 20 successful recalls every day for a week (no unsuccessful ones) and reward the dog every time it spontaneously looks at you

Think about: What distractions can you recall your dog from today? What distractions would you want to be able to recall your dog from? (what is your end goal?) Be as concrete as possible! “All distractions” is not a good vision, because it is impossible to train for. Instead you should phrase it like “recall from exiting dog play”, “recall from chasing a rabbit” etc.

5 thoughts on “By popular demand: recall training”

  1. I really enjoyed this! Written explanations very clear in how to progress from easy to more difficult, and the videos demonstrated the skills very nicely. A real joy to hear the enthusiasm in the trainer’s voice and see joy reflected in happy tail wagging!

    1. Thank you! We’re glad to hear that you liked it! Isn’t this a wonderful way to train dogs? And we’re glad that you noticed how it shows, both in dog and trainer!

  2. Pingback: what command should I use for "stay here"? - Golden Retrievers : Golden Retriever Dog Forums

  3. This is great! Thanks so much. I stumbled across it when I was on GRF trying to come up with an idea of how to keep my 9 week old puppy from bolting back to go swimming, at the turn around point during our walk. We walk off leash. I started doing the first step, click/treat EVERY time she turned and looked at me. Well now she hardly goes any distance without checking back in with me.

    I have a questions, do you have a recommendation on naming this behavior, or just let it continue to happen to keep the focus on me?

    1. We’re happy to hear that you enjoyed it! I’d both name the behavior (to “come” or what recall signal you wish to use) and continue to reward her for doing it spontaneously as well so that I know that I can recall the dog if I need to and so that the dog knows that it is always rewarding to come to me – called or not. (so I might recall once, reward twice for coming spontaneously, recall etc). Good luck with the training!

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A happy dog responding immideately to the recall signal