The most important thing to teach your dog is……
……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 conceptualise delayed consequences like getting found out and arrested, dogs learn best when consequences 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 ge