A recall cue only works if a dog understands what's required

This may seem obvious, but if a dog doesn't understand that a particular word or sound means they should return to the person who made the sound (or other cue), then they will carry on doing other things. Sometimes dogs will learn a recall cue at home and in the garden, but fail to respond in the park. This may just be that the training hasn't been generalised i.e. a dog needs to learn that the cue means the same thing, in all places, whenever the cue is given.

A recall cue is only as strong as a dog’s desire to come back

This means it doesn't matter how you instruct your dog to return, if they don't want to come back, the recall cue won't work. Perhaps you've been cross with them before, or you put them on a lead to go home, or there are more exciting things happening, or they're just busy in a task, or they're so full of energy they can't stop. A big part of recall training is increasing a dog's motivation and willingness to return because good things happen when they do. We want them to want to come to us! The stronger the desire to return, the stronger the recall cue.

Recall cues include:

  • Words e.g. “Here!”
  • Vocal sounds: excited talking/ repetitive high-pitched noises etc
  • Whistle
  • Body language: crouch down/ arms outstretched/ slapping legs or ground with hands/ holding a treat in your hand
  • Clapping hands (as if applauding)

Rewards for recall:

  • Food…tasty food, not boring kibble that they get all the time!
  • Toys…fun toys!
  • ‘Silly time’ with you – run around, be daft for a bit and have some fun.
  • Freedom to explore, run and sniff.
  • Opportunity to play with other dogs
  • Praise and fuss … but only if this gets your dog excited. Otherwise it’s not a reward!

Telling a dog off when they come back makes things WORSE

Don’t tell your dog off once they’ve come back, however annoyed you are. Even if they've taken ages or taken a circuitous route. After all, who wants to approach an angry person? You can interrupt their thought process if they're about to roll in something unpleasant, or about to run towards a road, or about to eat something potentially unsafe - perhaps by shouting out "Don't do it!" or "Stop!" or "Leave", but as soon as they’re looking your way, repeat the recall cue and be happy, especially as they make the first little movement towards you. They’re coming, and that’s good…even if you wish they’d done it ages ago!

If they can’t be trusted…prevent mistakes

There's always a point where training hasn't yet caught up with real life. To stop them getting it wrong, use an extendable lead or long training line, or train somewhere with less distractions. If you sense resistance when you call/ whistle etc, you know you've got to up your game. Although you need to insist they come back when you call them (because this is what you're going to expect when they are fully free), you need to increase the frequency and importance of the rewards on offer. Make it worth their while! The better they respond, the more freedom they can have.

Remember that dogs will respond differently in different environments… a good recall on your usual playing fields does not immediately mean you’ll get a good recall in a woodland. Be aware of potential safety issues (for your dog, other people/ dogs/ local wildlife)… and keep your dog on lead if necessary.

Dogs don't have to be off lead to have a good time

Being off lead is great, but being on lead doesn't automatically mean a dog is having a bad time. Dogs can be walked in new, interesting places, experience new things, say hello to new friendly dogs and people, and all the while getting plenty of interaction with you. No walk should be a chore. It's a great feeling to be able to share a walk with a dog or dogs. Some dogs have the call of the wild so strongly that no amount of recall training will be able to compete with that. That's okay, because there are other things you can do to exercise them mentally and physically, and there will be one or two secure places you can find where they can be free to run, even if most of the time they have to stay on a lead. 

Recall training shouldn’t be rushed

You and your dog need plenty of practise, in many different places and levels of distractions, for it to become a reliable habit. You may wish your dog to be fully trained within a week, but that's not the right mindset to have. In fact, recall training should be a lifetime project - they should always be rewarded for returning, because you never know when their speedy return might save them (or prevent issues with other animals or people).

(c) Sarah Crockford 2024