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Teaching your Dog an Instant Reliable Recall

Of all the silly or educational questions Jess Sandstrom from Howling Success Dog Training poses to her students in her classes, there is one that is answered correctly almost 100% of the time. That question is “What is the most important thing you need to teach your dog?”

The answer is of course – to come when called reliably. (Followed very closely by Calm, Stay and Leave It!)

Very few of us need to be told that recall or coming when called is an extremely important skill for our dogs to learn for safety reasons. Should any type of emergency occur when our dog is off leash we want to feel confident that we can call them to return to us under most reasonable circumstances. It is sort of Dogs 101: Sit, Stay, Come, right? 

But, there are other reasons to train your dog to exhibit a reliable recall. Particularly that a dog who can come when called is often afforded far more freedoms than a dog who cannot such as, access to off leash parks and the opportunity to roam on a large private property or farm.

In order to teach this important skill well ideally, we want to go into our training knowing exactly what we want from our dog and how we plan to show them what we expect them to do. One of the first things to do is to define the behaviour we are training. By that I mean, what do you actually want your dog to do when you say “Come”

I am sure that might sound a bit weird and that obviously when we say “come” we want our dog to… COME! But, I would define the behaviour of recall as my dog moving as quickly as possible to be within my bubble when I give the cue Come.

The next stage of teaching this skill is to ask ourselves if there are any prerequisite behaviours that we need to train. I would say that you don’t necessarily need to train these foundation behaviours but I find them to be extremely useful and effective in building a rock-solid recall like Odin’s.

#1. Trusting Relationship

Sola thinks his owner is the best source of fun - Credit: Pittwater Offshore Dog Club
This is the only one that is non-negotiable. As we know, not only in our relationships with our dogs but with any sentient being, if we don’t have trust we don’t really have anything. In order to train a truly terrific recall your dog needs to view you not only as safe but as the source of all (or at least most) things fun in the world. 

So, let go of the idea of being ‘in charge’ or being ‘the boss’ and start to think about how you can be your dog’s favourite thing at the park!

#2. Marker Word

Using a specific word or a clicker to mark your dog’s behaviours is not essential but it does add a great deal of clarity for your learner. The purpose of a marker word such ‘Yes’ is to pinpoint the exact moment your dog does the right thing and to signal that it is time to collect their reinforcer. 

I often describe it to my clients as being like a highlighter for your dog’s behaviour and a way for you to say ‘THAT what you did just then is why you are receiving this treat’.

#3. Name Recognition

Getting your dog to pay attention to you is honestly half the battle won! When I assist clients with their dogs recall this is usually where I will start. The behaviour I expect from a dog when I call their name is for them to orient in my general direction and I find that beginning with training a nice head turn followed by the marker word and a treat is a great place to warm up the recall exercise. 

Louis, Asher, Stevie and Viking practising their recall skills at the dog park - Credit: Pittwater Offshore Dog Club

I prefer to precede any cue that I give my dog with their name (especially if you live in a multi-dog household) so there are quite a few little wins in using this foundation exercise.

Once we have our plan and our prerequisites down it is time to start the fun part – Actually training!! Training recall initially is usually super easy, especially when you have the foundation behaviours trained.

#4. Recipe for Recall 

✔️ A calm, distraction free environment 
✔️ A hungry dog 
✔️ An enthusiastic attitude 
✔️ Your dog’s favourite treats*
(*This is honestly a misnomer as I prefer to use complete and balanced food as ‘treats’ just don’t tell Odin that!)

To start, let your dog mooch around so that they aren’t too focused on you but they also aren’t completely distracted by something else. You might say we are looking for a ‘goldilocks level of distraction’. When you are ready, call your dog’s name once clearly and jovially

Nat playing fetch with her dog Daisy at the beach
Credit: O'Neill Photographics
When they orient in your direction give the cue “Come” also in as enthusiastic of a voice as you can

It is important to note that at this stage your dog has NO IDEA what the word ‘Come’ means because we haven’t taught them yet! 

So, at this point the best thing to do is to throw a party with your voice and your body language when you give the cue. When your dog arrives in your bubble mark and reinforce their behaviour

At this stage you’re probably thinking – So what? This is too easy! Of course, my dog can return to me when I have a pocket full of bbq chicken and we are in a boring backyard. And you’d be right! It is easy and that is by design. This is what your dog trainer means when they say Set Up For Success.

When you have your dog returning to you like a little rocket the moment you say the cue “Come” in the above circumstances you can begin to improve on the skill using the 3 D’s: Distance, Duration and Distractions

When you begin working on the 3 D’s it is best to work on each criterion one at a time until you build the behaviour to the level desired (although sometimes you may need to combine them during training as it can’t always be avoided). 

Once each D parameter is trained up to the level you wish you can begin to combine them. Bearing in mind, that when you do combine each D parameter two by two in each combination and finally all three together – you must expect less from your dog than the level you had trained previously with each singular parameter. 

If I found that my dog was successful over a number of repetitions I would begin to gradually ask for more. But, if my dog was not finding success I would lower my criterion. This is not only important for recall but for building any behaviour. 

Make sure you have reasonable expectations and if your dog is struggling to perform then make it easier for them so they can learn.

One of the last things to do is to help your dog generalise their learning in a variety of different environments

Odin the Rottweiler @odinsandstrom nails his recall at the beach - Credit (and lead shot): Sandstrom Dog Training
This will help to teach them that the cue “Come” means move as quickly as possible to be within my humans bubble not only in the boring backyard but also, in the lounge room, the front yard, the footpath down the road, the beach, the dog park and so on. 

Just like our D parameters when you change the environment expect a slight regression in your dog’s recall behaviour and be prepared to build it back up again. Each new environment comes with its own host of exciting sights, sounds and smells so don’t get discouraged if things are tricky! Get inspired to conquer this new challenge with your dog.


Okay, let’s just be blunt with this – DISTRACTIONS! This will be your biggest challenge and the biggest difficulty my clients come to me with is “Rover's recall is perfect so long as there are no other dogs/other people/birds/insert your relevant distraction around – then it’s like I don’t exist.”

There are a few common themes to this type of problem. Mainly being that we usually have trouble with this when we ‘wing it’ as opposed to planning structured training sessions around distractions. You know that I love I good wing it training session!!

But, in most situations, especially if you’re struggling with something - prior preparation prevents poor performance! So, have a little think about what your biggest distractions are in training recall and how you can structure your sessions to find another Goldilocks training moment

I would bet money that if you go down to a busy park on a Saturday afternoon, let your dog loose and see what happens you’re probably not going to find a lot of success. Once you see steady improvement in your structured sessions you can start to move towards some more ‘real life’ stuff.

Another really excellent point is that when working with big distractions with your dog you should be mindful that those distractions are also reinforcers, in fact they are arguably the most powerful reinforcers in that moment because they are what your dog wants at that time! 

The Premack Principle is a great one to read up on in this case, being that: ‘A high instance behaviour can reinforce a low instance behaviour’. 

Rufus and Blossom love a good swim at the beach
Credit: Pittwater Offshore Dog Club
So, if you have a dog that loves to swim and may ignore you in order to have the opportunity to swim you can consider using the opportunity to swim (high instance) to reinforce a behaviour that requires attention to you (low instance)

One of my current training goals with Odin is to use more ‘life rewards’ and a little less food for known behaviours

Using Odin as an example for the above two points. His major distraction right now is dogs, he just LOVES them! So, I like to organise play dates with Odin’s friends. 

This means that I can work on some of his skills including recall in a structured manner, because I can ask my friend to prevent their dog from reinforcing Odin’s behaviour should he not be able to do as requested. 

The best part is that if Odin does do what I ask him to do I can then communicate with my friend and we can release our dogs to go and play together as a life reward for paying attention in the presence of a big distraction.

Finally, we need to understand a few important principles:

  • Avoid cuing a behaviour unless you are reasonably sure your dog will be able to do it.
Lest we risk showing our dog that ignoring our cue can be reinforced with continuing to run around with their friends. We don’t ever use force or punishment when teaching our dogs (because ... science!) so we need to make sure we are smart when giving cues.

  • Avoid repeating the cue if your dog doesn’t respond as expected.
Otherwise we risk showing our dog that COME is just a word we say sometimes and nothing happens or that we teach our dog the cue is not “Come” but “Come…Come.. COMECOME COOOOMMEROVERCOME” because if we say it 6 times every time then that will become the cue.

  • Recall means fun starts. Not, fun ends. 
This is going to sound silly but – If you only use recall when you need it then you will ruin the beautiful behaviour you have built with your dog. 

Think of when you need recall? Time to get in the car and go home... You’re rolling in a muddy puddle, stop that! You are playing a bit roughly with that dog, come here and calm down!

Asher loves running on his favourite beach - Credit: Pittwater Offshore Dog Club
This doesn’t mean that we won’t use recall when we need it down the track, but we need to be sure to keep the balance of fun recalls to 'need to do it' recalls, leaning heavily on the side of fun.

When training recall or any other skill, remember that the first and most important thing is to be fun and to have fun. Use your dog's distractions to your advantage and if you are having trouble surmounting a particular obstacle: seek help! 

Did you know you can search a directory of force free dog training professionals on the Pet Professional Guild Australia website? It has never been easier to find a qualified and experienced force free dog trainer in your area.

And remember – You’re either seen by your dog as the means by which she or he accesses fun things OR the barrier she or he must evade in order to access fun! Which will it be?

written by Jess Sandstrom, Howling Success Dog Training and Behaviour for Australian Dog Lover (June 2020)

About the Writer 

Jess Sandstrom from Howling Success Dog Training & Behaviour has been working with dogs professionally since 2012. Beginning in Rescue she then moved on to complete formal qualifications in Dog Training: Diploma of Canine Behaviour Science and Technology (CASI); Statement of Attainment in Dog Training (TAFE); Living and Learning with Animals (Behavior Works) and accepted in the Karen Pryor Academy Dog Trainer Professional Program for 2021. Member of Pet Professional Guild AustraliaAssociation of Pet Dog TrainersAssociation of Animal Behaviour Professionals.

Jess believes that by helping her clients create a deep relationship which goes beyond the basic dog/owner dynamic, this benefits not only the team she's working with, but greatly reduces the risk of dogs being surrendered to shelters or abandoned due to behaviour which may be labelled as ‘antisocial’.

She uses science-based, positive reinforcement techniques, allowing both person and dog the space to learn how to communicate with each other without the use of force, and allowing their relationship to flourish. 

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