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Just come when I call...

Updated: Jun 1, 2023

If there’s one thing most dog owners want from their dogs, it’s to be able to let them run freely off lead and be able to trust them to come back, without fail, every single time they call.

Yet no dog is perfect, even the most highly trained dogs can make mistakes and fail a recall, so how does the average dog owner have any hope of ensuring their dog comes back every time?

It can seem overly simple, after all how hard can it be to teach a dog to come when called?

Many dog owners may recommend that you let your new puppy off the lead straight away, as he won't venture far at this age. Of course, your new puppy probably will come to you, but as he grows, his confidence will grow too, and as he hits adolescence he's more likely to start venturing further and trying out new behaviours (running up to dogs). With this new found confidence, your dog will start to become less reliable with his recall and will be rehearsing unwanted behaviours (rushing up to dogs, jumping on people, disappearing off hunting).

The more your dog rehearses these behaviours, the better he will get at them, and the harder it will become to teach your dog a reliable recall.

Knowing what distracts your dog is an important place to start because with that in mind, you can set your dog up for success.

Setting up for success

For most dogs, a longline will be an essential part of the recall training process.

The longline means you can make sure your dog listens when you call, and a vital part of recall training is showing your dog that ‘come means come’. Every time you call your dog and he fails to respond, he’s learning to ignore you again and again. The longline will help to ensure that your dog isn't continuing to rehearse the unwanted behaviours, and is becoming more successful with responding to your call

Longlines unfortunately are not the most fun things to work with, they are a hazard if not used properly and they do take some getting used to. Many people give up with them because they don’t know how to use them properly and it becomes too difficult to cope with, so a few simple longline rules:

  • Use an appropriate length: 10 metres is usually plenty to give your dog space without it becoming unmanageable, for smaller dogs, 5 metres or 7.5 metres may be more ideal

  • Don’t give your dog the full length. Holding the end of the line makes you more likely to have a severe impact if your dog runs fast, it also risks tangling people up or you losing control. Hold the line shorter and adjust how much line they have depending on the environment and their listening ability i.e. more people/dogs around = shorter line, dog not listening = shorter line

  • Wear gloves. Especially if you have a stronger dog, it will help avoid rope burns and give you more control

  • Choose a line with rubber grips, for larger/stronger dogs, having a grippy line is essential

  • Attach it to a harness. Never put a longline on your dogs collar, if he runs fast, he will have a huge impact on his neck, so attach to the harness and manage your line to avoid sudden impacts

  • Continue to call your dog. The longline is not there for you to hold like you’re flying a kite on the end, it’s there to teach your dog a recall so USE IT PROPERLY

Okay, so longline rules covered, your next pieces of management are your environment and the distractions

  • Start in locations where your dog is more able to listen. That may be an empty field, quiet woodlands, or busy dog parks … it depends on your dog and what they find distracting

  • You’re setting your dog up to succeed so choose somewhere easier to begin with

  • If ‘walking’ is too much, choose somewhere you can stand in one area and practice without walking too far. Sometimes changing the focus of your walk is important, so think about it as ‘training’ rather than walking for miles

Find the Reinforcement

With your management in place, you can focus on how to reinforce your dog for coming back. Dogs repeat what they find reinforcing, so if your dog finds other dogs’ fun, he’s more likely to choose the other dogs than you. This means you need to outweigh that reinforcement and teach him that he must listen to you, before he can engage in another reinforcing activity.

Food is generally the easiest form of reinforcement so this is always a good starting point in recall training, find some high value treats which your dog enjoys and begin rewarding your dog during your walk. If your dog isn’t motivated by food, this is your starting point, it’s possible to build food motivation for any dog but it does take a little bit of work. Sometimes it’s a case of finding the right rewards or changing how you use the reward. Read our blog on building the value of food

  • Make the food fun. If you call your dog back and ask him to sit and hand him the treat every time, it gets BORING. Mix it up, throw the treat for him to chase or catch, wave it around in your hand before throwing it, or scatter it on the floor … whatever your dog finds FUN

  • Keep it varied. Teaching a recall requires repetition, hundreds and hundreds of repetitions, but don’t make it boring. Sometimes call your dog back and throw the treat, sometimes ask for another behaviour, sometimes quickly release him to carry on with what he was doing

  • Use your longline. The line is not there for nothing, after you call your dog, give the line a gentle tug and start moving AWAY from your dog, reel your dog into you if needing and praise him for coming back

  • If your dog can’t respond at 5 metres, shorten the line to 2 metres and work on closer recalls until he’s listening

  • Come means come. Don’t give up if your dog stops part way back to you and goes off sniffing or decides to turn and run to a dog, you need to be consistent, so if you’ve called him, make sure he comes all the way back to you

  • Use the environment to your advantage - Control access to valuable resources such as playing with dogs, diving into a puddle, saying hi to a person, going for a sniff, and make access to these resources contingent on responding to you first. I.e. ask your dog to check in with you, sit, down, spin, middle etc before releasing to the environment. With repetition, your dog will begin to enjoy responding to these less exciting cues. Find out more about using the environment to your advantage with our blog: The Power of Reinforcement

  • Call your dog back frequently - practise your recall throughout your walk, calling your dog back to you every minute or so. It's a good idea to have your recall cue fresh and ready on your dog's mind, and well reinforced BEFORE they become distracted by other dogs.

Some dogs enjoy toys more than food, so this is always another option but be mindful that in some dogs toys can ‘hype’ them up, you may need to teach some play skills first or work on switching between toys and food rewards so you can maintain a good balance.

Sometimes surprising your dog with a toy and a game of tug is the perfect way to add a ‘jackpot’ reward for a great recall.

Setting up to Succeed

Where we often fail with recall training is that we call our dogs at the wrong moments, when they’re chasing a squirrel or they’re in a game of chase or focused on a great sniff. There is an element of timing your recall appropriately so your dog is able to respond and be successful. This is where your management comes into play too, if you know your dog can’t respond when you get within 10 metres of another dog, make sure you’ve shortened your line so you can practice lots of frequent, short distance recalls as your approach the dog.

Longline are a hazard if you let your dog zoom up to dogs with the full length of the lead, so you need to be slowing your dogs’ approach and controlling the interaction closely. Keep calling your dog back and rewarding frequently as they approach dogs, and then stick to the pattern of allowing a few seconds of sniffing before calling your dog to move on. If your dog isn’t able to listen, your longline is there to help him out!

If you dog likes to run off hunting, have a read of our blog, The Hunting Habit for some top tips.

For support with your dog's recall training, you can find step by step video tutorials in the Adolescent Dogs Online Academy. There you will find videos on long line management, impulse control, response to name, adding distractions, proofing, the emergency stop, problem solving those dogs who don't like being caught and more! Try it for free here

We also offer residential training stays to help fast-track your dog's training and overcome tricky training struggles like recall!

Written by Naomi White

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