Teaching your dog to come to you when you call her (also known as the recall) is the most important lesson you can teach her. A dog who responds quickly and consistently when you call her can enjoy freedoms that other dogs cannot. She can play in the dog park, hike with you in off-leash parks and keep out of trouble in most situations. Even if you never intend to have your dog off her leash, things happen. Collars break, leashes slip, gates or doors are inadvertently left open. When an accident happens, having a reliable recall could very well save your dog’s life.
Teaching a dog to reliably come when she’s called is not necessarily easy, though. Some dogs do seem more naturally inclined to come when called. Typically these are insecure dogs who never want to stray far from you, or they’re dogs who are so motivated by your attention that they find coming to you quite rewarding. The vast majority of dogs, however, need to be taught to come when called. Although you might spend more time teaching this behavior than any other, the benefits make it well worth the investment.
No matter how much effort you put into training, no dog is ever going to be 100% reliable at coming when called. Dogs are not machines. They’re like people in that they have their good days and their bad days. Sometimes they don’t hear you call, sometimes they’re paying attention to something else, sometimes they misunderstand what you want, and sometimes they simply decide that they would rather do something else. And, let’s face it, sometimes our training is inconsistent or confusing.
There are breed differences in trainability when it comes to the recall. Hounds, for instance, are notoriously difficult to teach this behavior. Some sighthounds, such as whippets and greyhounds, are not highly motivated by the usual rewards, like dog treats and toys. They often need more creative incentives—furry toys that move quickly or wonderful treats like gorgonzola cheese. Scent hounds, like beagles and coonhounds, are often so distracted by the smells around them that they can be oblivious to your calls. This isn’t to say that these breeds can’t be trained to come when called. They certainly can—but you’ll need to be more patient and persistent when training some individuals of these breeds. Regardless of the breed you have, the goal of training is to make sure that your dog understands what you want her to do when you call her and to establish a strong habit of coming when called so that she’s less likely to choose to do something else.
- Whether you’re teaching a young puppy or an older dog, the first step is always to establish that coming to you is the best thing your dog can do. Any time your dog comes to you whether you’ve called her or not, acknowledge that you appreciate it. You can do this with smiles, praise, affection, play or treats. This consistent reinforcement ensures that your dog will continue to “check in” with you frequently.
- You’ll usually be more successful at getting your dog to come when you call if you run away from her while you call. Dogs find it hard to resist chasing after a running person, especially their pet parent. This is important to keep in mind if you’re in an emergency situation—for instance, if you see your dog running toward a road. As hard as it is to resist running after your dog, if you scream her name and run in the opposite direction, she’s much more likely to change direction and come after you. You should only run after your dog in a situation like this if you’re confident that you can stop her before she reaches the road.
- Dogs tend to tune us out if we talk to them all the time. Whether you’re training or out for an off-leash walk with your dog, refrain from constantly chattering to her. If you’re quiet much of the time, your dog is more likely to pay attention to you when you call her.
- Appreciate every effort your dog makes at coming to you when you call. Often, a dog will start off running toward her pet parent but then get distracted by something and veer off in another direction. Pre-empt this situation by praising your dog and cheering her on at the beginning, right when she starts to come to you and before she has a chance to get distracted. Your praise will keep her focused so that she’ll be more likely to come all the way to you. If she stops or turns away from you, you can give her feedback by saying “Uh-uh!” or “Hey!” in a different tone of voice (displeased or unpleasantly surprised). When she looks at you again, smile, call her and praise her as she approaches you. Reward her generously when she arrives. Whenever you’re out training the recall, be sure to bring delicious treats that your dog loves, diced into bite-sized pieces. It’s especially effective to use special rewards that your dog doesn’t get at any other time, such as chunks of chicken breast, cooked chicken livers, cheese, hot dogs, baby food or bits of sausage.
- Progress your dog’s training in baby steps. If she’s learned to come when called in your kitchen, you can’t expect her to be able to do it at the dog park when she’s surrounded by a pack of her buddies. That would be like a child suddenly jumping from first grade to eighth grade in school! If your dog comes when called in the kitchen, try the upstairs hallway next. If she comes there, try the backyard. Then continue to practice in the backyard—but arrange for kids to be playing next door so that there’s mild distraction. Try the hallway again, but this time scatter a few of your dog’s toys on the floor in advance. Next, progress to your front yard or somewhere relatively quiet in your neighborhood. Finally, try your local park, but make sure there’s no one around to distract your dog when you first test her recall. Use a long training leash (15 to 40 feet long) whenever you’re training her outside of a safely fenced area. Only when your dog has mastered the recall in a number of locations and in the face of numerous distractions can you expect that she’ll come to you when she’s playing at the dog park or chasing a squirrel in the backyard.
The Name Game
Your dog can’t have a good recall if your dog doesn’t recognize her own name. You might think, “But of course my dog knows her name. We use it all the time!” Many dogs, though, actually learn to tune out their name because they hear it all the time and it doesn’t lead to anything. Instead, you want your dog to learn that whenever you say her name, she’s supposed to turn and look at you—and then she’ll get good things.
- Step 1 Begin training at home while you’re reading the paper or watching TV. Be sure there are no distractions to compete for your dog’s attention. Say her name in a clear voice and, immediately afterwards, give her a treat or toss her a toy. Wait five minutes or so and then do this again. Repeat 10 to 20 times, not right in a row but with pauses of varying short lengths in between each repetition.
- Step 2 Wait until your dog is looking away from you. Say her name. If she turns to look at you, say “Yes!” and give her several tasty treats or play with her. Continue to make a fuss over her for a minute or so. Then ignore her until she loses interest in you. Say your dog’s name again. If she doesn’t turn and look when you say it, resist repeating it. Instead, turn and leave the room for a few seconds, or go to a corner and play with the toy yourself (turn away so that she can’t get involved in the play), or make a display of eating her treat yourself. (Choose your treats wisely! Cheese or hot dogs are best.)
Repeat the exercise three to five times in a row, and practice it many times over the course of a few days. Gradually introduce distractions: practice in different rooms in the house, in the yard, on walks and at the park. Practice while your dog is playing, chewing, grooming herself, sleeping, etc. She’ll learn that when you say her name, something fun is going to happen. She’ll also learn that if she doesn’t pay attention to her name, she’s missing out on something good. Once you can get your dog’s attention by calling her name, then you’re ready to start training the recall.
Teaching a young puppy (less than 4 months of age) to come when she’s called is relatively easy, because puppies are insecure and want to stay close to their pet parents. Practice the following exercises with your puppy to ensure that she’ll continue to come when she’s called as she gets older.
Have someone hold your puppy across the room or down the hall from you. Sit on the floor, facing her, with your arms outstretched. Call your puppy in a happy, preferably high-pitched tone of voice. Say her name and your cue just once—for example, “Sasha, come!”—and then cheer her on with “Pup, pup, pup!” You can also clap your hands, whistle and make kissy noises. Be as exciting and fun as possible! Have your assistant let your puppy go as soon as she looks at you. Continue to encourage and praise her as she comes to you. Make a big fuss and give her treats when she reaches you.
Hansel & Gretel
Run around your house or yard, calling your puppy and encouraging her to keep up with you. When she catches up, drop a few treats on the floor. (Be sure to show her the treats so she sees you drop them and stops to eat them.) Just as she’s finishing the treats, say “Sasha, come!” and run away from her. When she catches you, drop more treats and run away again. Repeat this sequence 5 to 10 times per training session. As your puppy matures, you can run further away from her before dropping the treats.
Stick Close to Me Outside
Take every opportunity to have your puppy off leash in your fenced yard and in safe areas away from home (for example, your friend’s fenced backyard or a nearby tennis court or fenced school yard). Move away from your puppy and encourage her to follow you by calling her name, bending over and patting your legs. Periodically give her treats or her favorite toy when she catches up with you. The objective is to teach your puppy to stick close to you. Puppies who are always on leash learn the exact opposite—they learn that no matter where they go, their pet parent is always six feet behind them at the end of the leash.
Training Exercises for Dogs of Any Age
Have your family members spread out around your living room or fenced yard, at least 20 feet apart. While your family stands quietly, call “Sasha, come!” and encourage your dog to come by clapping, slapping your thigh or making high-pitched noises she likes. When your dog approaches, gently take hold of her collar, tell her “Good girl!” and give her a tasty treat. Release her and, when she’s done eating, have someone else call her, just like you did. If your dog wants to stay with you since you called her first, just look away from her, put your hands behind your back and wait.
Give each family member a chance to call your dog. While one person calls the dog, everyone else should remain silent and still. Once your dog catches on to this game, your family members can move farther apart or even hide in different rooms in the house. You’ll need to coordinate who’s going to call your dog in what order, though, or you’ll confuse her with multiple people calling her at the same time.
Whenever you’re training or out with your dog for a walk, you can practice on-leash recalls. Use a six-foot leash so that you can get some distance from your dog. Start with short-distance recalls on leash and, over time, work up to longer distances off leash. While walking, call your dog, “Sasha, come!” in an upbeat, happy tone of voice, and hold a treat right in front of her nose. Take two to three quick steps backward, luring her along with the treat still in front of her nose. Praise your dog for moving toward you. Then stop moving, take hold of her collar when she reaches you, and lavish her with rewards (tasty treats or a favorite toy). When your dog is happily and reliably coming, switch to a “running-back recall.” Call your dog, reach forward and put a treat in front of her nose. Then run a few steps backwards. Reward her with the treat as soon as she reaches you. If she doesn’t follow the treat, tug gently on the leash until you get her attention (similar to what you would do if you were tapping someone on the shoulder). The first few times, praise and reward her just like you would if she’d come on her own. But after a few more repetitions, teach your dog that she only gets the goodies if she comes without you using the leash to guide her.
You can also teach your dog to come to you from a sit-stay or down-stay. (Please see our article, Teaching Your Dog to Stay, for information on teaching this skill.) Ask your dog to sit or down and stay. Then walk to the end of the leash and turn around to face her. Smile and call “Sasha, come!” in a happy voice. If she comes running to you, praise her while she’s moving toward you and reward her with tasty treats or favorite toys when she gets to you. If she hesitates, turn and run away, encouraging her to chase you. Lavish her with rewards (tasty treats or favorite toys) when she gets to you. (Be sure to regularly practice a basic stay with your dog, returning to her to release her from her stay. If you always call her from the stay, she’ll start to anticipate and break her stay, and then you’ll have to retrain her to stay.)
After you’ve practiced on-leash recalls for a few days, you’re ready to try it with your dog off leash. Be sure to do this in an enclosed area, such as your fenced yard or an outdoor dog park. Call “Sasha, come!” and put a treat right in front of her nose. Run backwards a few steps, luring your dog with the treat. Reward her when she catches up with you. After a few repetitions like this, call your dog’s name, and when she turns to look at you, show her the treat rather than placing it in front of her nose. Say “Come!” and turn to run away. Praise her as she chases after you, and reward her with treats and toys when she gets to you. The final step is to call your dog without showing the treat at all. Call her, turn, and run away a few steps. Praise and pull a treat out of your pocket for your dog when she reaches you. If she’s so excited about being off leash that she stops paying attention to you or the treats, switch to Long-Line Training, described below.
The Restrained Recall
This exercise takes advantage of your dog’s desire to chase. Few dogs can resist chasing someone running away from them. The desire to chase can be made even stronger by having someone hold your dog back until she becomes desperate to chase you. You’ll need two people to play this game effectively. Play in an enclosed area so that your dog can be safely off leash. Have your assistant hold your dog by the collar (a buckle collar, not a choke chain or prong collar), by a harness or by hugging her loosely around her chest. Jump up and down in front of your dog to get her really excited. Wave a favorite toy in her face or tease her with a yummy treat. When you’re sure she’s paying attention to you, say “Are you ready?” and take off running. Call your dog’s name and encourage her to come: “Sasha, come! C’mon, let’s go, let’s go!” Keep calling her as you run as fast as you can, without looking back at your dog. Resist the urge to run backwards to look at your dog—she should be looking at your back as you run away.
Ideally your dog will pull and struggle to follow you while your assistant restrains her. Your assistant should also egg her on: “Are you ready? Ready, set, go!” After a few seconds, the assistant should release your dog. If she chases you, reward her with praise, play and treats when she catches up with you. Some dogs don’t understand this game right away. They might seem frightened by all the excitement, they might want to stay with the assistant, or they might run off to explore the environment. Don’t worry too much if this happens a few times. Go get your dog and try again, but don’t run away quite as far this time. She should start to enjoy the game after three to five repetitions. If she doesn’t, try again another day in a more familiar area. If your dog isn’t inclined to chase you, try dragging a plush toy along the ground behind you as you run.
After a few repetitions, most dogs simply need to hear “Are you ready?” and they come running in anticipation of a chase game. Eventually, the game can function as a “back-up recall.” If you call your dog and she doesn’t come, say “Are you ready?” Then turn and run a few strides. Your dog will be with you in a flash!
Dogs are more likely to come when called if they feel insecure when separated from you. Young puppies are naturally dependent, but once they reach their adolescence at five or six months of age, like human teenagers they develop confidence and want to go off on their own. You can diminish this tendency by planning exercises to purposefully get your dog lost and arouse her anxiety about becoming separated from you. The objective is to teach her that you can disappear at any moment, so she’d better keep a close eye on you at all times.
This sounds risky, but it doesn’t have to be if you can identify a place that’s fenced or otherwise contained, such as a narrow strip of land extending out into the water (a cape or peninsula). The place, however, should be unfamiliar to your dog and it should have trees or other structures that you can hide behind. To minimize distractions, take your dog at a time when people or dogs aren’t likely to be in the area. Let her off leash and let the leash drag on the ground. (If you’re concerned that you might not catch her again, attach her to a long line (a lightweight leash or rope that’s at least 20 feet long). Walk along and wait for your dog to get distracted by something. When she’s not looking at you, silently duck behind a tree or large rock. Don’t say anything to her. Wait for her to notice your absence. This can take just a few seconds for some dogs. For others, it can take minutes. Most dogs will eventually look for their pet parents.
You’ll need to sneak peeks at your dog from your hiding place to keep tabs on her whereabouts. Before your dog has a chance to go far from you, call her name. Call just once and then wait. Hopefully, she’ll search for you. If she doesn’t, wait another minute or two and call again. If she starts to go in the wrong direction, call again, this time a bit louder so that she’s better able to locate you. Don’t move out from your hiding place until your dog finds you. Only call her if she’s searching in the wrong direction or if she’s close but can’t seem to locate you. When she finds you, reassure her with plenty of hugs and kisses. Again, your goal is to teach her that you might disappear at any moment, so she’d better keep a close eye on you at all times.
Some dogs only need this experience once, and they never stray far from their pet parents again. Others need a few experiences like this before they get the message. If you do have to repeat the exercise, wait at least a week in between. You want the experiences to have a strong impact on your dog, so it’s best to spread them out. If your dog never seems to get upset at your disappearances, this type of training isn’t appropriate for her. Try it a few times, but if it still doesn’t work, focus on the other exercises outlined in this article.
Never allow your puppy or dog to be off-leash at the park until she’s reliable at coming when called at home and in your yard and neighborhood. The first time you go to the park, attach a long line—a lightweight leash or rope that’s at least 20 feet long—to her collar. Walk in the park while holding the end of the line, but make sure the line isn’t tight. Allow it to drag on the ground between you and your dog.
Any time your dog turns to look at you or nuzzles you, praise and reward her, either with a tasty treat or a quick game with her favorite toy. Watch her carefully, and when you think she’s about to turn and look at you, call her. If you need to, turn and take a few steps in the opposite direction. As soon as your dog looks at you, praise her. Keep encouraging her to come to you. When she reaches you, praise and reward her with a few delicious treats or a game with her favorite toy.
Don’t call her if she’s sniffing the ground, saying hello to another dog or playing. If you call when she’s distracted and she doesn’t come, you’re teaching her to ignore your call. Instead, call her when she’s highly likely to come so that you can establish a strong habit. And remember to be generous with your rewards!
Once your dog is reliable at coming when you call while wearing her long line, start to test her when she’s more distracted. If she doesn’t come right away, turn and run a few steps away from her while calling. She’ll either decide to chase you or she’ll be dragged by the long line. Either way, praise her for coming and encourage her to catch up to you. Be genuine with your praise and generous with your rewards when she does.
As your dog’s reliability improves, you can let go of the line and let it drag so that your dog has the illusion that she’s off leash. Continue to practice calling her, initially when she’s highly likely to come and later when she’s somewhat distracted. If your dog doesn’t come when you call, pick up the line and run away while calling her. Reward her when she catches you. As she continues to improve, cut a few inches off the line every three to four training sessions. Behave as though nothing has changed. Eventually, you’ll end up with a short one-foot line attached to your dog’s collar that you can grab if you suddenly need to restrain her for some reason. You can leave that “handle” on her collar indefinitely if you wish.
Trail Walking or Cycling
If your dog regularly hikes along trails with you, she can learn an important lesson to help her come closer to you and follow when you call her name. She can learn that when you call, you’re going to change direction. Dogs seem to have a natural inclination to follow trails, probably because prey animals like rabbits and deer often move along well-established trails. Dogs also like to run out in front of their pet parents. This is an ideal occasion to teach your dog that when you call her name, she’d better pay attention because you’re taking a different path. Walk along the trail with your dog off leash. (If your dog isn’t already reliable with coming when called, make sure you’re in an enclosed area.) As long as you’re continuing along the same path, don’t speak to your dog. When you come to a fork in the path, choose the one your dog has not taken. Call her name and walk along the new trail. Keep an eye out for her, as it may take her a few moments to notice that you’re no longer following her. She may dash back the way you came, so if you see her running in the wrong direction, call her in a loud, clear voice. If she can see you, wave at her as you call her. Praise her when she gets to you. After a few experiences like this, your dog will respond immediately when you call her so she doesn’t get left behind. This lesson has even more impact on your dog if you ride a bike or rollerblades and can move more quickly. Your dog will hesitate to get very far away from you because, as far as she knows, you might disappear in another direction and she may have a hard time keeping up.
What If You Call Your Dog and She Doesn’t Come Right Away?
Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and animal trainer Kathy Sdao, MSc, ACAAB, uses the parable of The Prodigal Son to teach the importance of always rewarding your dog for coming to you. The story is about a father with two sons. He divides their inheritance between them and the youngest son squanders his wealth on wild living, while the eldest son stays home and tends the farm. Eventually, the young son runs out of money and returns home. The father, rather than being angry and turning him away, greets him with open arms and calls for a celebratory feast, proclaiming “My son was lost but now is found,” Remember this story the next time your dog comes to you, regardless of how furious you feel. She was lost but now has come. The only way your dog will continue to come to you when you call is if you always greet her with open arms, a big smile and a celebration.
What If You Call Your Dog and She Doesn’t Come at All?
Refrain from repeating your recall cue. If you repeat “Come, come, COME!” over and over again and your dog doesn’t come, you’re teaching her to ignore your calls. Call her once in a clear voice. If she doesn’t come, call once more in a stern tone of voice, turn and run a few strides away from your dog. If she still doesn’t come, don’t say anything further. Just go and get her if you know you can grab her. If she’s inclined to dodge away and not let you take hold of her, don’t play her game of “catch me if you can!” We can’t win when “playing” this game against our dogs—they’re faster than we are. Instead, if your dog is good at sitting or lying down when you ask her to, try that. If she does, tell her to stay and then take hold of her collar when you get to her. If she won’t stay, just walk away and ignore her. If she’s loose and you need to catch her, walk into an enclosed area and hope that she follows you. Never chase your dog after you’ve called her. She’ll quickly learn that she has the upper hand and will continue to run away from you.
If All Else Fails
Sometimes, no matter how hard you work at it, your dog will fail to reliably come when she’s called. It could be because she’s learned to tune out your recall cue. You can try going through all the exercises outlined here again, but change the word that you use to call her. So, for instance, instead of calling “Sasha, come!” you could change to “Sasha, here!” This new word may be enough to grab your dog’s attention and help her associate the word with good things when she comes to you. An even more dramatic effect can come from changing her name. If you’ve been trying to get your dog to come when she’s called for months or even years with no success, she might have learned to ignore her own name. Changing her name and consistently working through all these exercises could help.
In rare instances, it may be warranted to consider remote collar training, such as with an electronic shock collar. The ASPCA does not condone the use of electronic training collars except in highly exceptional cases, such as a working with dog who has to be off leash in order to perform her duties. Most dogs who fail to reliably come when called can simply be kept on leash or in confined areas for exercise. If your dog performs a duty that demands she be reliable off leash, such as scent detection or search-and-rescue, consult with a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB) or a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT) experienced in the use of electronic collars. We do not recommend that you attempt this training on your own. Training the recall with an electronic collar is a complex procedure that can easily be misapplied and cause damage to your dog. Only an experienced trainer can know what intensity of shock your dog should be subjected to and precisely when a shock should be applied to teach a dog to come. In addition, only an experienced trainer can foresee and avoid common problems. For instance, a frightened dog experiencing a shock is more likely to run away than to come to her pet parent, further worsening the problem. An experienced trainer can take measures to prevent this from happening. For these and many other reasons, we strongly advise you to work with an experienced professional if you decide to resort to an electronic collar for your dog’s training. For more information about finding a behaviorist or trainer in your area, please read our article, Finding Professional Help.
What NOT to Do
- NEVER call your dog and do something she doesn’t enjoy, like bathing her, clipping her nails, scolding her or even ignoring her. When you have to do something your dog doesn’t like, simply go and get her from wherever she is. She should always trust that something wonderful happens whenever you call her.
- Refrain from repeating your recall cue. If you repeat “Come, come, come,” over and over again and your dog doesn’t respond, you’re just teaching her to ignore your calls.
- Avoid calling your dog to you when you know she’s unlikely to comply. If she’s playing with another dog, running to greet a friend or chowing down on a discarded pizza crust, she’s not going to come running when called. Most dogs wouldn’t. Every time you call your dog and she doesn’t come, she learns to ignore your call. Instead, set her up to succeed by progressing through your training in baby steps so that she gets in the habit of always coming when you call.