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Daily Practice Makes for Perfect Dog Recall Training Part 1

Do you want to teach your dog to come when called? Here's fun and easy dog recall training to practice. Coming when called – a “recall” as it’s often known in dog-training circles – is arguably the most important behavior you can teach your dog. It can literally save his life. Imagine your dog gets loose and is heading for danger. When you call him, you want him to turn on a dime and race back to you so fast that it looks like his rear end is on fire and you have the only hose in town!

The trick to teaching a reliable recall is to set up your dog to successfully practice getting it right over and over again. Repetition rules in recall training. Your goal is to create so many successful training repetitions that turning and racing toward you becomes more like a reflex: When he hears the recall word, his body automatically turns toward you and he happily races back to you.

Think about when you first learned to drive a car. In the beginning, you had to concentrate on each individual behavior. Seatbelt on. Foot on the brake, start the car and put it in gear. Check the mirrors. Ease off the clutch or brake and onto the gas, and so on. But today, you probably drive without thinking about each adjustment you make to the pedals or steering wheel.

Similarly, it takes hundreds of successful repetitions to make coming when called a reflexive action for your dog, but don’t worry. Accomplishing that much training is easier than you think.

DOG RECALL TRAINING TECHNIQUES

Step 1: Hold treats within your dog’s smelling/licking range. Give your recall cue and back up as your dog moves toward you to get the treats.


Before you begin, pick a word to be your special dog recall word or cue. If you’ve been using “Come!” with mixed results, start fresh with a new word like, “Here!” or “Quick!” – and once you’ve chosen a cue, consider it sacred during the early months of your training program. Use this cue only when you are training, not for casual moments around the house.

The first step is designed to be simple for the dog, and to introduce the pattern of behavior into your dog’s mind. I do this by enthusiastically luring my dog toward me while quickly backing up about five or six steps and saying his name and special recall word. (“Saber, here!”) With your dog on a regular four- to six-foot leash, move backward as swiftly as your dog will follow, keeping your treats within licking distance.

Step 2: After about five days of practicing Step 1 (at least three to four times a day), continue in the same way, but with the treats behind your back. Practice this daily for at least three weeks before introducing distractions.

Another fun way to do this (and if backing up is unsafe or difficult for you), is to turn and quickly run several steps away, and have a happy party as you feed him treats when he gets to you.

After five or six steps, stop and reward generously. Use lots of tiny treats paired with praise and petting (in a way you know your dog enjoys) for 15 to 20 seconds. Repeat this process five times in a row at least three or four times per day. Five repetitions in a row over three or four short training sessions per day gives you 15 to 20 reps per day. And each session takes fewer than five minutes!

After about five days of diligent practice, keep all the steps the same except the part where you hold the treat within licking distance of your dog. We don’t want him to think he has to see the treat in order for the recall word to be rewarding. Conceal the treats in your pocket or treat pouch, but be sure to reward just as generously.

Remember: this is supposed to look and feel easy. Avoid the temptation to try and make it harder for your dog at this early stage. We’re building a strong foundation. Just as a house falls apart without a solid foundation, a recall falls apart in the face of distractions when it lacks a solid foundation.

One of the biggest mistakes people make when training the recall is to practice a handful of times at home and then expect the behavior to hold up away from home and in the face of distractions. We want to adequately train the behavior before we start testing it out!


TAKE IT ON THE ROAD

As your dog starts responding confidently to his recall word at home, practice the behavior while on your daily neighborhood walk. You can back up to step one and have treats at his nose-level for the first few days, especially if he’s distracted by the environment.

If he’s too distracted to focus on your treats, try experimenting with higher-value treats or toys if your dog prefers games like tug. Use very high-value treats – cooked meat, cheese, freeze dried liver, etc. And cut the treats into small pieces, so you can feed a lot of them!

Don’t get too concerned if your dog is so distracted by away-from-home environments that not even high-value treats hold his attention. Some dogs need to take in the environment before working. Maybe they’re genuinely curious, or maybe they’re a little nervous and need to make sure it’s safe. Giving dogs permission to check out their environment – without asking, nagging, or begging them to pay attention – while generously rewarding their choice to interact with us, can help prepare them for whatever training we have in mind. Continue to practice at home – and consider setting up acclimation trials in new locations.

ACCLIMATION TRIAL

To do this, pick a novel location, plant your feet, and let your dog explore to his heart’s content – but only as far as he can reach via the fixed radius of the leash. Don’t pull or tug on the leash; if he’s pulling, just pretend you are a post and simply resist his pulling. And don’t ask your dog for attention; this is his time. However, if he turns and looks at you, as if to say, “Um, are we going to do something?” offer copious praise and feed him a number of tiny, delicious treats, one at a time, so long as you hold his attention.

If you lose his attention, go back to ignoring him as you stand your ground. Relax and commit to standing there for as long as it takes for him to get bored with looking or sniffing within the length of his leash. If after 10 minutes or so, if he’s still fixated on everything/anything other than you, you may need to choose a slightly less fascinating novel location – for example, a big empty parking lot rather than a forested park. Meanwhile, continue your recall training at home and in other areas where your dog can successfully focus on you and your treats.

If you keep his attention, ask for a simple behavior such as “sit” or “down” and reward with a treat. If he stays focused on you, try practicing the the recall exercise.

ADD DISTRACTIONS TO YOUR DOG RECALL TRAINING


Jamee tied a furry tug toy to a post and let Nyx approach and investigate the toy. whiskey is not particularly interested in playing with toys, so this makes a good low-level distraction.

After about three weeks of regular, on-leash foundation training (and remembering not to use the special recall cue outside of these training scenarios), you’ll likely find that your dog is happily running toward you as you call him and move away. Congratulations! You’re building a solid foundation! Keep doing what you’re doing, but now we’re ready to introduce the concept of purposefully turning away from a distraction.

A dog’s ability to turn away from distractions (in favor of running back to you) will make or break the recall. When a dog is off-leash, it’s especially easy to become distracted. We need to teach the dog that coming when called – leaving really interesting stuff behind – is still worth it.


When Jamee brightly and cheerfully uses her recall cue (“Whiskey, now!”), Whiskey immediately turns and trots toward Jamee (who backs up a few steps before deliver