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Training your dog to come when called


Rapid, reliable recall!

Throughout the week I've been examining six behaviors that, in my opinion, every dog owner should teach their dog.  Part one looked at achieving a quick response to the dog's name, along with the art of recreational chewing.  Part two highlighted the importance of teaching your social canine how to handle being alone and the importance of developing and maintaining play skills.  This final installment, now divided into two parts itself, takes an in-depth look at training your dog to come when called, otherwise known as the recall.

The recall is the most important behavior you will *ever* teach your dog! It’s a skill that might save his life. Imagine that your dog is loose and headed for trouble. You want to know that when you call him, he’ll turn on a dime and start racing back to you so fast, it looks like his butt is on fire and you have the only hose in the entire town! 

 An off-leash recall is something we consider to be a relationship command. Your dog’s willingness to do it depends entirely on how much he believes, no, TRUSTS that returning to you will be the most fun he could possibly have at that specific moment. Always remember that whenever you ask your dog to do something, the very first thought that runs through his head is, “What’s in it for me RIGHT NOW?” It’s quite poetic to think that our dogs live to please us, but it’s just not true. Dogs live to please themselves. They do what works best for them. Period. The sooner we accept this as fact, the sooner we become better dog trainers!
The trick to teaching a solid, reliable recall is to set your dog up to successfully practice doing what you want – over and over and over and over and OVER again! Repetition rules in recall training. Your goal is to orchestrate so many successful training repetitions, that for your dog, doing what you want (turning and racing to you) becomes more like a reflex; he hears his recall word, his body takes over and he happily Auto Pilots his way to you. Think about when you first learned to drive a car. In the beginning, you had to concentrate on each and every piece of the behavior. Seatbelt on. Hands at ten and two. Check the mirrors. Put the car in gear. Ease off the clutch and onto the gas. Today, as an accomplished driver who has logged tens of thousands of miles, you hop in the car, your body takes over and you drive. Driving has become reflexive. Making coming when called a reflexive action for your dog will take hundreds of well thought out repetitions, but don’t worry. Accomplishing that much training is easier than you think.
Pick a word that’s clear, easy to say and is something you won’t be tempted to casually say to your dog. For that last reason, I generally avoid using “come,” as it seems to slip out of everyone’s mouth with the misunderstanding that the dog will automatically know what to do. Some of my favorites include “Here!” and “Home!”  I’ve had clients use “Zip!” “Bingo!” “Disco!” and “Free Beer!” We’re going to teach the dog what the word means, so as long as it’s easy to say and you’re not going to be embarrassed belting it out in public, feel free to be creative.
Never, ever, under ANY CIRCUMSTANCES call your dog to you for something unpleasant. This includes any type of reprimand (which by the time he got there, would come too late anyway!) as well as anything your dog might not like such as having a bath, clipping his nails or administering medication, etc. If you need to do something your dog may consider unpleasant, calmly walk up to him, ask him to sit, feed a cookie, attach his leash, feed another cookie and lead him wherever he needs to go.
Whenever you call your dog to you, REWARD HIM LIKE CRAZY! Make a big, silly fuss over him each and every time. Praise, petting and treats go a long way toward convincing your dog that coming when called is like winning the Doggie Lottery. Soft, high-value treats (meat, cheese, etc.) work best because your dog can quickly swallow them and they are easier to cut or pinch into little pieces. Good things come in small packages! Your dog doesn’t care how big each treat is; he just needs to taste it going down. Use this to your advantage by making your treats super small (think pea-size or even smaller!) so that you can easily dole out 15 without fear of over-stuffing your dog. Deliver them one at a time, while petting and telling him he’s so clever with each individual piece you feed. Make your love-fest last at least 20 seconds. We’re trying to make a big impression here. Now’s not the time to eat and run!
Don’t abuse your recall word and never use your word unless you’re *at least* 95 percent sure he’s going to come. For every ONE TIME you call your dog and he doesn’t immediately come, you’ll need to invest in AT LEAST TEN correct recall training sessions.   I personally save what I consider to be my emergency recall word (the one I teach using the techniques outlined in this article) to be sacred. It’s what I use when my dogs are off-leash outside of a fenced yard. It’s not the word I use when I’m walking down the hall and I want them to follow me, nor is it the word I use when they’re outside and I want to call them in. In those examples, I’ll use something casual like, “C’mon… inside” or “Lets’ go.” I reward correct responses to those words too, but the difference is, if I say “C’mon… inside,” I’m okay if my dog chooses to take a sniff or two along the way. On the other hand, if I say, “Here!” I expect my dogs to come racing toward me at top speed. My emergency word gets a lot more training and maintenance than my casual words.
Avoid static recalls. People often practice the recall by leaving their dog in a stay, walking away, facing the dog and calling him to come. Many report great success in that exercise, yet the dog fails to come when called while off-leash on a trail. Why? The behavior looks totally different when on a trail. An off-leash recall relies heavily on the dog’s ability to turn away from a distraction before running to his human. It’s very different from the formal obedience recall. Also, remember that dogs love to chase stuff, so when you call your dog, move away from him as he’s coming. Standing still and facing a dog can be like hitting invisible brakes. Call him to you and scamper away a bit so your dog thinks he has to come catch you. 
There are as many ways to train a dog as there are trainers to think them up, but here’s how I like to teach dogs to come when called:
Once you’ve picked your word, the first step is to introduce the pattern of behavior into your dog’s mind. I do this by enthusiastically luring my dog toward me while backing up and saying his name and recall word. (Quiz, here!.... Quiz, here!...) Keep the dog leashed and move away as quickly as your dog will comfortably follow.  Smile and sound relaxed and happy as you call your dog.  It’s designed to be super simple: He’s leashed and there’s food in front of his nose! After just a few (five or so) steps, stop and reward like crazy. Lots of tiny treats paired with praise and petting for at least 20 seconds. Repeat three or four times in a row at least three or four times a day. When calling your dog, speak up and speak clearly. Imagine that you’re outside in your front yard and you need your neighbor who’s outside two houses down, to be able to hear and understand what you’re saying.
After about five days of diligent practice, keep all the steps the same EXCEPT the part where you hold a cookie in front of your dog. We don’t want him to think he has to SEE the cookie in order for the recall to be rewarding. Start keeping the cookies in your pocket or treat pouch, but still reward super-generously. I consider this exercise to be the foundation of a solid recall. If you’ll indulge me for just one more analogy, training a reliable recall is a bit like building a house. If you don’t want your house to fall apart, it better have a solid foundation. If you don’t want your recall to fall apart as your dog gets older (one word: adolescence!) or is tempted by distractions, it too, needs a solid foundation! In other words, don’t skimp on this step. Every successful repetition (all done on leash) is like cementing a brick into the foundation. The more bricks the better!
As your dog starts responding confidently to his recall word at home, start training the behavior while on your daily neighborhood walk. Don’t ask him to do it if he’s super distracted. Remember that the idea is still for it to be easy for him to be correct. Don’t worry – we’ll get to distractions in a bit.
Simultaneous to building your foundation, if your dog is a chow hound come dinnertime, you can also start pairing his recall word with the presentation of his food bowl. (Think Pavlov’s Dogs.) When it’s time to feed your dog a meal, simply say his recall word right before placing the bowl of food. Simple, huh? The idea is that the dog hears his word and VOILA! a big bowl of food appears! He already has warm fuzzy feelings for his bowl of food and if the two are paired long enough, he’ll begin to develop the same warm fuzzy feelings for the recall word. I call this “cheap and easy training,” since it involves zero extra effort. We have to feed our dogs. Why not sneak some training in at the same time? If you incorporate a stay or leave it into your feeding routine, wait to say your recall word until after you release your dog. For example, “Leave it,” as the dog sits and waits, staring at the bowl. When you’re ready to let him eat, release him and THEN say the recall word: “OK…. Here!” Don’t make him wait to eat after hearing his recall word. It’s imperative that he hears the word and is eating within a second or two at the most.
After about two weeks of regular, on-leash foundation training, you’ll likely find that your dog is happily turning on his heels and racing toward you as you call him and move away. Hooray! Keep doing what you’re doing (and keep him leashed), but now we’re ready to add the difficult lesson of leaving distractions, which we’ll cover (along with “sit”) in the final installment.
© 2009 Stephanie Colman. This original article is copyrighted. Please do not re-print in full or in part without express permission.


  • Debra 5 years ago

    It's never too late to start, is it? My dog isn't a pup and we've developed lots of bad habits. You have inspired me to give training a reliable recall another shot. Can hardly wait to begin practicing this with my dog. I *can* do this! Thank you for the excellent training information. Looking forward to the next installment.

  • Debra 5 years ago

    It's never too late to start, is it? My dog isn't a pup and we've developed lots of bad habits. You have inspired me to give training a reliable recall another shot. Can hardly wait to begin practicing this with my dog. I *can* do this! Thank you for the excellent training information. Looking forward to the next installment.

  • Apryl 5 years ago

    Fantastic article and lesson Stephanie. We had to use Wrigley's 'recall' in a real life situation last weekend when an opossum decided to get a little too close to the fence and the dog. Wrigley was almost on top of it and then we yelled 'WRIGLEY BACK!!!!' and she spun on a dime and came flying back to us!!! It works!!!! Woo hooo!!!!!! Thanks again for stressing the importance of this lesson. We couldn't agree more. I'm sure the opossum thanks you too :-)