A recall can save your puppy from running in the road, approaching dogs that are on lead and getting lost chasing small furry creatures whilst on walks. Whilst all new owners can appreciate how important this is, many struggle to know how to train an effective recall. Not only is an unreliable recall a safety concern but it’s also nuisance for other dog owners and the public.
Not helping matters is a bit of an urban myth doing the rounds in relation to young puppies and recall training. It’s being suggested that owners should let their puppies off lead as soon as possible to try and teach their puppies a recall. Whilst many puppies will initially choose to stay close this is not the same as training puppies to return to a recall. There are several problems with the idea of just letting young puppies off lead and using their inexperience of the wider world and initial insecurity to keep them near (not least that more confident puppies may well run off and get lost).
Calling your puppies name in the beginning may work well initially, to start with a little bit of praise may be all it takes to encourage your puppy to return. However, as your puppy gets older and becomes more confident in the outside world this is unlikely to be enough to maintain any kind of reliable recall. As puppies get older and more confident they will seek less reassurance from their owner and be less likely to stay close when out and about. This is when any initial recall can start to fail. A reliable recall takes time to achieve and needs to be trained in a structured way.
To create a dog that wants to come to you when called you need to offer something exciting in return. Otherwise, your dog may as well just ignore you so they can keep having fun! A little bit of praise just isn’t going to compete with lots of exciting scents, play with other dogs and attention from other people.
Toy play can be one way of creating a really effective recall. Toy play works best if you invest time at home with lots of short play sessions throughout the day. This helps create an association between you and exciting play times, making your puppy more interested in playing with you than other puppies. It is also worth putting aside a favourite toy or two just for recall work to help maintain the excitement. When using toy play as a reward you must make sure that you engage in an exciting game to keep your puppy’s interest, just waggling a toy a little bit then taking off your puppy once they have run over and grabbed it isn’t much of a game. Run around and make it interesting!
For dogs that are not as motivated by toy play, you may find a really tasty treat works best. This needs to be a high-value reward not just a bit of boring dry biscuit. Again you need to make it worth your puppy’s while to come back to you otherwise they aren’t going to come away from all that fun. Experiment with what works best for you and your puppy you may be surprised, what works at home isn’t necessarily going to be what works best in the park.
To start teaching the recall start somewhere where there are minimal distractions, such as at home or in the garden. The easiest way is to enlist a helper. Have your helper take your puppy off lead and holding gently round the shoulders face them in your direction. Now show your puppy what you have and call their name. If your reward is exciting enough your puppy should run right to you. Repeat this between you several times before gradually increasing the distance between you and your helper. If you are on your own start close to your puppy showing them what you have before moving backwards and calling them. You may need to toss a treat away from you in order to create some distance so you can repeat the exercise.
Once your puppy is progressing well then add in a specific recall word such as ‘come’ or ‘here.’ Use this only as your puppy begins to run to you so they start to associate running towards you with this word. Just calling your puppy’s name is not always the most effective, think about how many times you use your puppies name during a day!
A specific recall word gives your puppy a much clearer instruction to follow.
Head outside to a quiet area for more practice. Use a harness and a long line for safety so your puppy can’t run off if it goes wrong. Always increase the difficulty gradually so your puppy gets to practice being successful every time. Going straight to the busy park is too big an ask at this stage. Start to progress to calling your pup when they are not looking towards you. To do this, use their name to get their attention first before trying your recall word. As you build on your success, start to move on to busier areas increasing distance and distractions over time. One of the most common reasons for recall problems is when the difficulty is increased too quickly so be careful not to ask too much too soon.
Once you have that all-important recall it’s also important to remember to maintain it. To achieve this you need to reward every time wherever possible. This keeps the desire to return high. If you stop rewarding the recall the quality of your recall can sometimes decrease quite quickly. Even if your puppy is rather slow to return be pleased to see them and don’t tell them off. Telling off a dog that has just returned to you will only make them more reluctant to return next time, in fact whenever my dogs recall is a bit disappointing, I actually up my excitement levels to improve the next recall.
If you find yourself struggling, consider whether you have included too many distractions too soon, whether you are offering your puppy a high-value reward for their return and if your puppy has had enough practice at each level of difficulty. Teaching the recall requires plenty of practice and planning but can be achieved with a little bit of patience.
Tamsin is a qualified animal behaviourist having obtained an MSc in Clinical Animal Behaviour from Lincoln University in 2013. In 2017 Tamsin started running Puppy School classes in Solihull, having received tutor training from renowned author, dog trainer and canine behaviourist Gwen Bailey. Prior to running Puppy School Solihull Tamsin spent over two years working at Dog’s Trust gaining valuable experience in caring for and training a wide variety of rescue dogs. In 2014 Tamsin and her husband adopted their own rescue dog, Milo, with whom Tamsin has worked successfully to reduce his reactivity towards other dogs. In addition to dog training, Tamsin enjoys writing articles and resources on the topic of dog behaviour for both professionals and dog owners.