Getting your dog to come when called seems like a fairly basic cue to teach, but in reality this behavior can be difficult to master! Building a reliable recall takes foundation work, time, and a lot of consistency in order to get your dog running back to you no matter what is happening around them. It’s a very common training issue that we get asked about how to work through all the time. If you have been training your dog to recall but have not had as much success as you wanted, you may be making one of these common mistakes!
#1: Your Rewards Aren’t Valuable Enough
Recall is a very “expensive” behavior in the sense that any time we use the cue, we need to really make sure what we have is worth our dog’s while to leave what they’re doing and come back to us. I like to find a few different “highest value” food items for my dogs and reserve those rewards for recalls. These foods can range from real meats like chicken and steak, pungent cheeses, liver paste, fish like salmon or sardines, or even “people food” like pizza crusts or french fries! Anything that is dog-safe in moderation can be used, so long as your dog is super excited to work for it!
Even if you have a dog that is otherwise motivated to work for food, we need to consider the difficulty and impulse control our dogs need to have to recall back to you around distractions. If they associate the recall cue with meaning that something extra special they don’t usually get is coming, they’re going to build a much stronger reinforcement history with that behavior and be more likely to do it even in challenging contexts. “Run of the mill” training treats can be great for everyday scenarios, but when we really need to build a behavior like recall to work in any situation, it’s time to bring out the big guns!
#2: Something Undesirable Happens When You Recall Your Dog
If your dog’s recall is not consistent, you may want to look at what happens AFTER your dog successfully recalls to you. Dogs may build the association that recalling is an undesirable behavior if the consequence to it is perceived to be negative. A couple of different examples come to mind that include:
Recalling means “the fun is over.”
If every time your dog recalls to you, they’re put back on leash or taken away from the desirable environment, they may start building the association that recalls mean their fun is over and they will be more inclined to avoid you than come to you. So, to combat this, try practicing your recall in a structured way when you don’t actually need it so that your dog is able to return to playing, exploring, etc. after they are rewarded for their recall. Practicing your recall and releasing them again will ensure that your dog doesn’t always feel like they’re having all the fun taken away every time they hear the cue, and will be more likely to come back to you when you really need it.
You Are Punishing Your Dog For Coming Back to You
Sometimes in the training process, your recall may fail. You may get caught in a scenario that you weren’t prepared for yet, or increased difficulty too quickly. In those situations, it may take some effort or “chasing down” to get your dog back to you if they are not listening to your cue. Often, people make the mistake of punishing or scolding their dog when they do finally get control of them again, thinking they’re punishing their dog for not initially coming back to them when called. However, dogs are very “in the moment” creatures and cannot link current consequences to past behavior. Instead, your dog is likely making the association that they are being punished for eventually coming back to you, and in the future may be more inclined to keep away or avoid you instead of recalling if they think they will get scolded for it. Even if they didn’t recall on the first try, be sure to generously reward them anyway when they do eventually come back to you.
#3: You Missed Some Training Foundations and Moved Too Quickly
It’s really easy to see success in our training and think our dog is ready to take their skills to the real world right away! However, it’s important to understand that dogs have difficulty generalizing cues and behaviors, which means we need to systematically work them up to more challenging situations in small pieces to see success carry over into “real world” scenarios. A “sit” to a dog in the living room needs more practice to also mean “sit” on a busy restaurant patio. Our recalls are just the same!
If you progress to letting your dog off leash too quickly, or ask for recalls in highly stimulating environments like the dog park/a hiking trail after only practicing in the backyard, you will likely not see the same consistency from your dog that you did in that “easier” scenario. Dogs need time to build up a strong reinforcement history with a behavior (90% or higher success rate) before progressing to an incrementally more difficult scenario. Then from there, we need to again see a high success rate consistently before making the context harder. If you are struggling to get recalls in highly distracting environments, you need to take your training back to the last step that you saw consistent success and rebuild from there. That is simply information for you that you moved too quickly!
Are you interested in learning how to build a reliable recall from the ground up? I will be hosting a live webinar on this topic on February 23rd, 7PM EST. You don’t want to miss out on this webinar if you have dreams of having a rocket recall no matter the context! Sign up today!