Updated: Jul 27
……to come back when called.
It’s scary when your dog doesn’t listen to you calling them, especially if they are in danger, like going close to a busy road. It’s embarrassing too when your dog doesn’t listen and there are other people nearby, judging you.
Almost everyone has had the experience of their dog not listening and ignoring your attempts to call them back to you. When this happens often, you and your dog spend less and less time enjoying your walk together. You become frustrated and annoyed. Dogs very easily sense this and don’t like it when you feel nervous, angry or unsure. It makes them nervous, angry or unsure*study.
This doesn’t mean that your dog doesn’t love you or that they don’t love doing things with you. They likely enjoy cuddling on the couch, playing fetch with you, getting tidbits, being smiled at by you, and all the numerous moments of communication that they have with you throughout their day very much.
When there is the opportunity, chasing squirrels, meeting new people or investigating new smells is much more enjoyable than spending time with someone in a bad mood. Your dog might still be loving their walk because of their off-lead time. They just don’t enjoy the walk with you. This makes getting them back to you during a walk extremely difficult. The frustration this causes can become a vicious cycle meaning that your walks become less and less enjoyable.
Being able to call your AND have them come back to you is so empowering. Imagine that no matter where you are or what your dog you can get them back to you in an instant. How much confidence and peace of mind you will have on walks with them. Instead of feeling anxious and ashamed, you can relax and enjoy the exercise and the time spent with your dog.
Dogs that have been trained to come back when called not only get more freedom, they also have a better bond with their owner. That’s why I thought I would share a step-by-step guide on how to train a great ‘come back’ signal.
I have spent a lot of time learning about training this skill called recall. When I worked at a dog daycare, being able to call individual dogs to me was a really useful skill to have to keep harmony in the group. So I read books, took courses and watched webinars to help get better at teaching dogs to come back. And I was mentored by a recall specialist and got trainers to help me with Kippers recall too. So I have condensed all my current knowledge and experience to this blog. Here you will find out all you need to know to train a successful recall. This can be broken down into the following components:
Have a unique signal
Consequences and likes
Set your dog up to win by proofing
Why isn’t recall improving
Accept your dog’s limitations
I have seen many dogs, from tiny terriers to giant great Danes learn how to come back when called. Your dog can be trained to do this too. And so you can get your dog to come back to you whenever you want. Training this skill is a lot of fun, too. But the first thing that you must do is to pick your unique signal.
You NEED A Unique Signal
If the signal that you use to call your dog doesn’t stand out again the background noises your dog will encounter then your recall will never be very effective. Many people call their dog back by using their dog’s name. The problem with this is that they say their dogs’ name with the same volume, intonation, and tone of voice as they normally speak. Dogs, like nagged children, learn to zone out of hearing their name mentioned.
That’s not to say that you can’t use your dog’s name to recall them, you just need to create a recall name that is different to their everyday spoken name. When working at a dog daycare I got the chance to practice calling lots of different dogs back to me. I would use their names but elongate the vowel, for example shouting “Buuuuuuuuuuuuddy”. I found that this was a quick and easy way to get their attention and train recall to individual dogs.
Dogs can also easily respond to short, sharp, high-pitched noises. The first time I taught Kipper recall I trained a response to me shouting “kipkipkip”. It got his attention, was a happy and exciting noise and it was difficult for me to accidentally say. This noise worked so well that I suggest to people that come to me for puppy training that they say the similar sounding “puppuppup” as their vocal recall.
“Kipkipkip” works really well as Kipper’s recall still, but I’m aware of mistakes I made in training like letting him self-reward, not proofing the behaviour well and accidentally punishing him for coming back. I will explain more on this below.
This time training Kipper, I will be training him to come back to the sound of a whistle. Whistles are the ideal signal and are much better than vocal signals. Whistles are consistent and they don’t have the capacity to sound grumpy or sad. Their sound carries well over distances. Other people can’t easily interfere with the training unless they use the whistle too. And blowing the whistle is less embarrassing than shouting “puppuppup”.
I recommend the gundog whistles, Acme gun whistle, either the 210.5 or 211.5 pitch. Choose either pitch, just know which pitch your dog is getting trained to.
The most important thing to know about this signal you are going to train is that you MUST NOT use your recall signal in situations that you haven’t practiced for. Whistles are better than your voice for training for this reason too as you can easily leave the whistle at home or in your car when you haven’t planned to train.
As well as an audio signal, I like to teach a visual signal for recall too. I use a specific hand signal. The clearest one for a dog some distance is to stretch your arm vertically above your head with an open palm. I like to teach the visual signal first as a big part of training is pairing the audio recall noise when your dog is already running towards you. By teaching the visual signal first, you also have a reason for your dog to want to run towards you.
So, once you have picked your recall signals, you next need to make them mean something to the dog. And the clearest communication is done by making the recall signal mean something that makes them want to do what we want them to do.
The consequences are what will make the signal meaningful to your dog. Consequences are what drives behaviour. An action carried out by a dog can have 3 possible consequences: things can get better; things can get worse; or things can stay the same for the dog. But, the consequences of a behaviour only affect the chance that the behaviour will happen again if they follow the behaviour in the next few seconds. While us humans can imagine delayed consequences like getting grounded for being late home, dogs learn best when consequences are immediate. It also helps if they are dished out in a logical, predictable and meaningful way. What this means for dog training is that when the dog comes back to you they need to be given something they like in the next few seconds for this to be effective training.
If the consequence of you holding your palm vertically above your head was that your dog’s had access to their favourite things by your side, your dog would learn to run to your feet whenever he saw you do that signal.
There will be many signals that you give your dog throughout the day that mean good things are about to happen. I have made an unintended recall signal in the house: the sound of the hairdryer. I have a habit of drying my hair immediately before taking Kipper out. So to him, this noise means that we are going outside very soon. Repeated pairing of me drying my hair directly before taking Kipper for a walk has caused him to learn to love hearing the hairdryer. This didn’t happen the first time I took him out after drying my hair. In fact, he did not like the noise at first. But, over time, I noticed that no matter what Kipper is doing he will come and look at me expectantly whenever I am drying my hair.
Although coming to me was an unintended consequence of the hairdryer noise, it is a good demonstration that giving signals that indicate good dog things helps to guide a dog’s behaviour. And once we understand this, we can begin to control the way he behaves in the future. You must control the consequences of your dog’s behaviour and use rewards effectively to teach your dog to come back when called.
List Of Likes
For you to get this behaviour of coming back when called, more than anything else, you need to find out what your dog likes. You get to think about all the things that your dog loves to do, all the things they love to eat, what games they enjoy and what places they like to explore. And just like how some people are bookish while others are party animals, dogs have individual tastes in what they like and enjoy doing too. Some dogs love a cuddle and some attention, others prefer to eat, others play. And what they want to do will vary with their their mood too.
Knowing what your dog’s likes, or as dog trainers call them 'reinforcers' are, when they will be in the mood for them and how to increase their desire for them, enhances the friendship between dog and human. Just like you know what jokes your good friends will like, what their favourite games are and what sweets they like, or what they like to drink, you will know what your dogs favourite treat is, when they most like to get it (and when they like it least), what games your dog likes and if and when they enjoy petting.
Reinforcers don’t always have to be food. Playing football, chasing, and dissecting teddies are some of Kippers favourite reinforcers. He also likes sticks, shredding tissues, and when I throw stones into the water. All the different likes your dogs has, you can control their access too, and give your dog when they come back to you when you call them. I can’t stress enough how important it is for you to spend time outside with your dog ding things that you both find enjoyable that gets you working as a team.
Your behaviour and emotions can be a reinforcer to your dog. Imagine the difference between you seeing a friend and them being down in the dumps, giving you a depressed “hi” with no smile and barely any eye contact to the same friend joyfully waving at you while smiling and cheerfully saying “hi”. You would much prefer the cheerful friend and your dog much prefers cheerful you. So, welcome your dog back with cheerful enthusiasm every time they come back to you.
Set Dog Up To Win By Proofing
Humans have an uncanny ability to generalize our learning. This means that we can take a skill that we have learned in one place and apply that knowledge and learning in a completely different place or context. Dogs have much more difficulty in doing this. So, for example, a dog won’t understand at first that the recall signal given to them when you are in the house also applies at the park. People often get frustrated and mistake their dogs for choosing to be disobedient when it is because the behaviour hasn’t been proofed.
Keep in mind that if you cannot recall your dog away from an interesting visitor in your back garden, you stand no chance of recalling him away from a fascinating stranger in the middle of a field. The key to successful proofing is to introduce distractions one at a time, one level up at a time, beginning with the least distracting.
Proofing the behaviour means overcoming this inability of dogs to generalize commands. Proofing is the longest stage in training, lasting the remaining of the dog’s life, and it is the most neglected. Proofing involves the repetitive training of a response (coming back) to a signal (like the whistle) under lots of different conditions. It involves setting up fake scenarios where you control the introduction of all kinds of distractions that might otherwise cause your dog to fail to respond to your recall signal. Things like children playing football, joggers running past or cats close by. Once you have set up as many scenarios your dog will then be able to generalize and understand that the ‘come back’ signal means come back no matter where you are or what you are doing. Then you practice calling your dog back at least once during a walk for the rest of your dogs’ life. At some point you will notice that practicing the recall signal becomes an automatic part of your walk that you are barely conscious of doing, like indicating on your drive home from work.
Proofing is challenging because each new distraction we expose the dog to reintroduces the possibility that he will fail to respond to the signal. Each new distraction introduces fresh challenges when it comes to preventing your dog from self-reinforcing. Anything other than coming to you is regarded as self-reinforcing and will weaken your recall. But proofing gets results. As you learn from the mistakes you make, you will improve your dog’s recall. Proofing is a humane and kind way to establish reliable trained behaviour in all dogs.
When I first adopted Kipper, I had already known him for about a year. He was a client at the daycare and so I had already practiced recall with him loads in the daycare environment. But when I brought him home with me and we started going on adventures there were loads of new distractions to proof the behaviour, like livestock, wildlife, long distances, strange people, and a myriad of smells.
When I first started taking Kipper places, before his recall was good, I managed him by keeping him on long leads
Why Isn’t Recall Improving
In the consequence of coming back to you isn’t something the dog will like, they will be less likely to do come back in future. Dog trainers call this effect punishment. Lots of things can punish your dogs recall behaviour.
If things aren’t going well with training it will probably be because something is punishing the behaviour. For example, if you ask your dog to sit as part of the recall but they have early onset hip arthritis then sitting might cause them physical pain. Even though you have put good thought into the training and practice regularly your dog might be too sore or upset by something to respond well. Keep in mind that things like bad weather can aggravate painful conditions meaning that dogs can have good days and bad days with painful conditions.
If your dog isn’t coming back are you sure about what your dog likes? Many people try to reward their dog with a dry biscuit for coming back. But, unless your dog is very into food, this isn’t really a good enough reward in the early stages of training. What your dog will like can change depending on the situation. For example, some dogs love cuddles. Other dogs hate cuddles. But even for dogs that love cuddles there will be times when they are not in the mood for a cuddle. Watch how your dog behaves when you try to pet them in different scenarios. When you are out for a walk, unless they are a particularly cuddly dog I bet that they lean away from you and duck their head avoiding the touch!
Another way your dog’s recall can be punished is if your dog doesn’t like being chased and the result of you calling him to come back means that other dogs will chase him. And if there are dogs nearby a running dog, a chase is quite likely. When out for a walk with Kipper and one of his dog friends, if Kipper runs, she will chase him. But he doesn’t like being chased by her. She had run into him before. When they played chasing games in the past, she barreled into him, and he didn’t like that. After that, there have been times in the past when we have been out for a walk together and I have called Kipper and when he is running back to me, his friend starts to chase him. Because he doesn’t like his friend chasing him, this effectively punished the Kippers recall when in the presence of this particular friend.
If your dog doesn’t yet have good enough recall, you need to manage their environment while you are training. Long lines, enclosed dog parks and the gardens of friends and family are a few ways you can manage your dog’s environment. For example, I have been managing the environment while improving Kippers recall while with his friend with a long line. On our walk, his friend is kept on a long line so that she is not able to chase Kipper very far and Kipper is getting things he likes for coming to me with her around.
Managing the environment by taking Kipper to a dog park to practice recall
Accept Your Dogs Limitations:
Sometimes you have done everything you can to teach your dog perfect recall, but you are not achieving your goals. While the principles of training work for all species from human to snail, the ability to learn and what can be learned is constrained by genetics, experience, and ability.
Your dog’s temperament is mostly a result of genetics. Different breeds have been selectively bred for generations to have certain temperaments. A dog’s temperament is key to their success in guide dog training, greyhound racing, or any dog sport. There is no way you can train a pug to have the sled pulling abilities of a husky, a greyhound to have the tracking abilities of a bloodhound, or a cat to have the stomach of a Labrador.
A dog that spends quite a lot of time watching your behaviour will be easier to train than a dog that doesn’t often observe you. This means that, in general, hounds, sled dogs and terriers are more difficult to train the foundations of training which is mostly focus on the human. Collies and gundogs are generally, but not always, easier. This does not mean that some breeds are untrainable, just that some require more training and more thought put into training.
Past experiences the dog has had can limit your dog’s ability to recall, too. For example, if you have a dog that is petrified of fireworks, it is unlikely that you can expect your dog to come to you if fireworks are going off nearby. The dog will be too scared to be able to think clearly and unable to respond.
The way you manage, supervise and interact with your dog will set limits on how they respond to you. For example, making a timid dog work for every morsel of food can put a nervous dog on edge. Releasing an adolescent dog into the countryside and leaving him to his own devices, while you relax and enjoy the view is also not a good way to manage your dog. Especially for dogs that like to hunt, or one bred from working lines. So, you must tailor the way you manage and train your dog to your circumstances and your dog’s personality and capabilities.
Finally, as dogs age, they can lose some of their senses and cognitive function. This can affect their ability to make out your recall cue.
Good training is about creating good habits. Patterns of behaviour form well-used paths in our brains as well as in the brains of our dogs. The more times we walk the well worm path the harder it is to stray from it.
But a word of warning, if you fly into a training program with too much enthusiasm and intensity you can “burn out” and lose the will to continue training. You always want to enjoy a training session with your dog. So, keep your training sessions short and sweet until you have got a good training regime going on. You and your dog must approach training with the right mindset. And like Goldilocks porridge, your mindset has to be “just right”. Spend lots of time on the foundation exercises inside your home before practicing outside. Once you have mastered that, then it will be time for you to work on the progression of your dog’s skills needed for coming back when called.
Plan and execute so many opportunities for your dog to experience the sound of the recall signal while he is racing towards you that it becomes a deeply ingrained habit. Once he has recalled in many different places and under lots of different conditions, the recall response becomes virtually automatic and will then be effective in new locations and under new conditions. But this process takes time, and individual dogs vary in the amount of proofing that is necessary for them to understand that the recall always means the same, no matter when it occurs.
As for the amount of time you should spend training, aim for a couple of minutes once or twice a day, 4 or 5 days a week. The key is to get a reliable habit going that gives you an itch when you haven’t done it for a little while. Think how you feel when you haven’t brushed your teeth in a while for context.
Finally, keep in mind that all successfully trained dogs have people that do these 3 things: they are consistent, they control the rewards, and they interact with their dogs. Start your dog’s recall training now by writing down a list of what your dog likes. Then consistently signal to your dog that you have these things, and when your dog comes to you spend time engaging in the things they like to do.
I’d love to know how you are finding teaching your dog to come back? Let me know in the comments.