Teaching a Recall Command
By Honor Tarpenning, NextDayPets.com Staff
A recall is a command requiring your dog to stop in his tracks, look towards you, then come running immediately. This is probably the most important command you’ll ever teach your dog, because it might just save his life. It is best that you start teaching this command to your new puppy as soon as possible, but any age dog is capable of mastering this command.
Keep in mind that dogs from the hound and terrier groups, among other breeds, may be significantly more difficult to teach, and may never master the recall to the point that they are reliable off-leash. This is partially because hounds and terriers are bred to follow their nose and chase, respectively, and genetic dispositions can be stronger than training. Also, hounds and terriers have been bred to perform certain tasks, and unlike other working dogs, their tasks are performed independent of much guidance. When a hound is chasing a deer, he is not checking in with the master to make sure he is doing it right, nor is a terrier checking in or receiving cues as he burrows down a hole after a rabbit. This independent work mentality makes a “stop what you’re doing and come to me immediately” command difficult to train, but not impossible. Despite the difficulty, and the fact that you may not be able to trust your dog off a leash, training your dog to respect a recall command is still highly beneficial to defining pack leadership, and shaping other obedient behaviors.
Recall No No’s
The following behaviors will severely hinder your dog’s training. If you have been trying to teach your dog to come and feel like you’re beating your head against a brick wall, and any of these behaviors sound familiar, you've pinpointed the problem. Correct yourself and your dog might just shine with trainable talent!
Don’t train your dog to associate unpleasant experiences with coming when called. Do you only use the recall command to make your dog come to you after a fun time at the dog park? If this is the case, your dog doesn’t think “come” means he should run to you excitedly; he thinks it means “playtime’s over.” Also, don’t use your recall command before giving your dog a bath, or clipping his nails. Any time you’re going to do something unpleasant with your dog, don’t use the recall, just go get him or lure him to you with a little snack. Never, ever punish your dog after he comes to you.
Never use your recall command with an angry tone, and never say it more than once. If you say “Fido, Come” in a friendly and pleasant voice, and he doesn’t come, then you say it again, and he still doesn’t come, and then you use your super angry, “master means business” voice and scream “FIDO, COME,” and he finally comes, so you praise him, you’ve taught him two things. First of all, he’s learned that he can ignore your command without circumstance, and secondly, he’s learned that he only really has to come when you use your mean voice. You don’t want to have to call your dog in an ugly, harsh voice every time you want him to come to you. If he doesn’t come the first time, go get him.
Never call your dog if you don’t think he will come and you can’t enforce the action. If Fido’s in the middle of a fight with another dog, or snout-deep in something really tasty, there’s a good chance he won’t come when he’s called, especially before he’s really got the command down. Calling him when he isn’t going to respond only trains him that he doesn’t have to come every single time.
Do not praise or treat unless it is on your terms. If your dog wanders up demanding attention, pets, or snuggles, ignore him; or if you want to pet him, make him perform a task like a sit stay, a down, or a paw shake. The idea is that everything good comes from you, and only comes when the dog earns it. The same goes with food; never reward begging. If you give your dog treats and attention whenever he demands it, why should he perform tasks that he doesn’t feel like performing for treats and attention?
For a recall command to work properly, your dog must trust you. If your dog is fearful or dubious of you, it will be significantly more difficult to get him to come to you with any consistency. Develop a loving, trusting relationship with your dog by exerting yourself as the pack leader, giving lots of pets and love, playing with him every chance you get, and taking a couple of nice, long walks together every day. Furthermore (and this should go without saying) never lay your hands on your dog in anger.
Depending on your personal training strategy, a bop on the nose or the tush with a rolled up newspaper might be ok, but there is a big difference between a little pop and actually hitting or kicking your dog. If you want your dog to trust and respect you, and not just fear you, DO NOT HIT YOUR DOG!
Teaching the Recall
This training strategy uses food as the initial reward, so you’ll have to make a rule in your house that while this training is taking place, your pooch is not allowed to have ANY snacks between meals.
You’ll also have to come up with a recall command. Most people use “come” or “here.” If you have had a lot of difficulty teaching your dog to come, and if any of the no, no’s of recall training sounded familiar to you, you might want to start with a fresh, new command that has no negative connotations to your dog.
To start, divide your dog’s daily food ration into ten servings. If your dog is already comfortable holding a sit stay, have him do so, otherwise, have a helper hold his collar. Walk eight or ten steps away, holding one serving of the food out, then say your dog’s name and “Come” (or whatever recall command you chose to use.) As he approaches, bring the bowl close to you, until your dog has to be right in front of you to be close to the bowl. When he is right at your feet, tell him “good come,” and give him the bowl of food and praise. Increase the distance you stand from your dog with each of the ten mini-meals throughout the day.
The next step is a personal choice. Ideally, a perfect recall includes the dog sitting at your feet, or at your side, looking at you for the next direction. However, if you feel that it is enough that your dog just come right to you, and don’t care if he sits or not, skip this next step.
After a week of your dog coming to you ten times a day for his mini-meals, it’s time to up the ante. He no longer gets his reward for just coming to you. Now he must sit and look at you first. You can shape this behavior by starting as you did before, eight to ten steps away from your dog with your helper holding him. Say his name and say “come.” When he comes to you hold the bowl of food just over his head and push it back towards his tail. He will try to follow the bowl with his nose, and this will force him into a sit. The second his bottom touches the ground, say “good come,” give him the bowl, and plenty of praise. Do this every day, for each of his ten mini-meals for a week, or longer if he does not sit immediately upon coming to you even if you don’t put the bowl over his head.
The following week, perform the same behavior, but every other time, clip his leash on as you praise him and give him his bowl, and leave it on him while he eats. This will help your dog associate having his leash attached with good feelings of food and praise.
After a few days of this, you can go back to feeding your dog at predetermined times twice a day. You will continue working on your recall, but from now on you will use small, easy to eat, soft treats. Take your training sessions out in a fenced-in area and try it without a leash. If you don’t have a fenced in yard, you can get the same effect with a super-long training lead.
Puppy ping pong can be a fun game to help cement your recall command. Stand in your fenced in yard, or in the house with a helper several yards away. Each of you should have a treat pouch full of little treats. Take turns calling your dog back and forth between you and rewarding him with plenty of praise and a treat. This will also help your dog to respect the recall command from people other than you, which is extremely helpful if a friend has to watch your dog when you go out of town.
You can also play distraction games. Have your helper stand several yards away. You should be equipped with a full treat pouch and a ball or other toy your dog likes. Call your dog to you, and at the same time throw the toy to your helper’s feet. This provides your dog with a choice—does he do what he’s told, or does he go for the toy. If he goes for the toy, your helper should pick it up and completely ignore the dog. If he consistently goes for the toy, you should back up several steps in your recall training, you’ve either gone too fast, or you’re performing some of the recall training no, no’s.
Further cement your recall command by occasionally calling your dog when he’s playing, praising him for coming, and then letting him go right back to play. This will help him understand that coming when he’s called does not always mean playtime’s over. Also, use your recall command to call your dog to go for a walk, or to call him at dinner time. Sometimes, when you’re sitting around at home, use your recall command when you just feel like snuggling and petting your pup.
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