Does your dog come when you call? Teaching your dog to come when he’s called (what we trainers call “Recall”) is an essential skill. If you’ve got a pretty good, but not perfect recall, you can improve it. The training isn’t complicated, but you do need to practice effectively to truly perfect it.
Keep the training simple. I’ve had the most success using “back chaining” – starting with the last step first which then becomes the most practiced step. In the case of a recall, “dog in front of you” is the last step (the goal), so start there. Don’t complicate things by adding another behaviour like “sit.” Once the recall is perfected, you can add in more behaviours.
For maximum success, control the outcome as much as you can: your dog must end up in front of you when you practice. Use long-lines (four metres max) or contained areas so, if your dog doesn’t come when you call, you can get to them quickly and help them. Then you need to re-evaluate that training step – what went wrong? Don’t repeat your cue or get louder or more forceful in your “ask” because that will reduce the fun and effectiveness of your training.
Reinforcement is critical to teaching and maintaining any behaviour. Initially, it’s important to reinforce every time using high value rewards. You will have the most success if you use rewards that you can dole out quickly to get several repetitions into a short period. Small, super tasty food treats are ideal because food is a primary reinforcer – dogs need it to survive – which makes it highly motivating. As you progress, you can replace food treats with other rewards that your dog enjoys like fetch, tug, and chase.
To maintain your dog’s recall, you must continue to reward randomly. This is the main reason recalls eventually fail: people stop reinforcing them. It’s like a casino: people keep playing games because they’re never sure when they’ll win (be rewarded), and random wins keep them playing. If your dog’s recall starts to deteriorate, you simply need to reward more often.
Practicing regularly is the only way to perfect a recall. When something is practiced enough, it becomes a habit, which means your dog will perform the recall behaviour subconsciously – much like when
we hear a “ding” and unconsciously glance at our phones.
Initially, practice one element at a time: either how far your dog is away from you, or the distractions in the environment. When you increase difficulty in one element, decrease the difficulty in the other. So, if there are other dogs around, stand closer to your dog when you call him to come. Remember to occasionally make things easy, too. If a job is always getting harder, it stops being fun and having fun is part of the reinforcement! Five minutes of training, two or three times, several days each week is plenty if you do it effectively.
For more tips, see my Blog post “Shaping Up the Recall” at dogpartners.ca. Keep your training positive and fun!