Dog Training Recall Games: Training Dogs to Come When Called
Updated: Feb 5
Do you have a dog that won't come when called? Maybe you have to chase him all over the neighborhood after he gets out by accident. Or perhaps you have a new canine addition to your house and want to get started on training a solid recall.
Calling your dog, otherwise known as a recall, is probably one of the more important things to train your dog to do. It makes your life easier if your dog reliably returns to you when you have them in your backyard, or if it’s time to leave the dog park. Additionally, it could be lifesaving if they get loose and were running around in your neighborhood.
Rules for training a dog to recall
There are a few things to make sure you’re incorporating into your recalls to make sure your dog continues to want to come to you.
Always make your dog happy when they get to you, no matter what. Too many times I’ve heard owners yelling at their dogs in an angry tone “Get over here, NOW!” when the dog wasn’t coming, or if the dog was doing something the owner didn’t like. The angry tone could work a time or two, but ultimately the dog may decide it’s in his best interest to stay away. Especially if when they do come the owner uses punishment for the earlier misbehavior. Whatever your dog is doing at the time you give your dog consequences, is what is associated with the consequences. So, if you yell at your dog after they come to you because prior to that the dog was digging in the garden, you just punished your dog for coming when called.
Alternatively, if you call your dog away from digging and when they arrive, they receive a couple pieces of cheese, a toss of their favorite toy, or something else they find pleasant, you aren’t reinforcing the digging. Instead, you’re giving your dog a great reason to want to come when called.
Even if your dog gets the best reward ever for coming when called, don’t follow that up with an activity they find distasteful. The piece of cheese really doesn’t make it worth it if afterwards they’re immediately placed in the bathtub. Your dog will remember that chain of events next time and may decide it’s just not worth it to come to you.
Only call your dog if you’re 90% sure of success. This will depend on your dog’s level of training, so consider carefully what could happen if you call your dog. If your dog is chasing a rabbit through the yard and you’ve never called your dog away from that type of situation, then don’t waste your breath. If you repeatedly attempt to call your dog from distractions and your dog isn’t trained well enough to come from them, you’re effectively ruining your recall training. The goal is that you’ve practiced your recalls with as close to 100% success as possible to create a habit of your dog coming immediately. You don’t want your dog training recall exercises to include repeated failures, as that will create a habit of your dog not learning your recall cue.
How to reinforce dog training recall exercises
Use the best reinforcement you can! This is not the time to use kibble or a toy your dog only likes, but doesn’t LOVE. Pull out the best stuff for recalls because we want the dog to be excited and ecstatic when they get to you. When training a dog to recall, you should be using the best rewards that you can. So, use real cheese, last night’s left-over chicken, or freeze-dried liver. This is the time to pull out that new toy your dog never saw before, but you know he’ll love.
Fine Dining vs. Fast Food I got this concept from dog trainer Leslie Nelson. So often when the dog comes when called and the owner only gives the dog a single treat. This is what we refer to as “fast food”. It’s so much better to reinforce with “fine dining”. With fine dining the dog gets to you and gets a treat, while you tell them how wonderful they are. Then they get another treat, and a few seconds later another, and a few seconds after that another. The goal is that you want the reinforcement for coming to you to be drawn out over 10 or 15 seconds with four or five fantastic treats, so that it’s memorable. Additionally, when training my dog to come when called I like using fine dining because it keeps the dog hanging around for a period of time, instead of doing a drive-by check in. This is helpful because you may need your dog to remain by you so that you can grab a collar or put on their leash.
Toy as a squirrel So often I see people simply hand their dog a toy thinking it’s reinforcing, or worse shaking a toy a few inches from a dog’s face, trying to entice them to play with the toy. If you really want to use a toy when training dogs to come to you, then make the toy fun for the dog, while at the same time interacting with the dog through play. It doesn’t have to be for long, sometimes 10 or 15 seconds is motivation enough to make your dog glad they came to you. Remember that as predators a lot of a dog’s play revolves around practicing predatory behavior. Pretend that toy is a squirrel. A squirrel isn’t going to jump into a dog’s mouth, or wiggle 4 inches from a dog’s face. A squirrel is going to try to get away from the scary predator. Practice evasive maneuvers with the toy, play a bit of keep away by waggling the toy as you run away from your dog and zig zag around. After a few seconds of this toss the toy a few feet away from the dog and let them have it.
Run Away! Dogs LOVE to chase us. One of the ways we can get a faster recall is to call the dog, and as they are coming, turn and run away. Don’t worry, your dog will catch up! And when they do you can reinforce with treats or toy.
Dog training games for recall
Everyone loves games, and our dogs are no exception! Games make learning fun, and also provide different ways to train a dog to come when called in varying situations. If your dog doesn't come when called, playing recall games can really help improve their reliability. The more variety you can provide during dog training recall exercises, the stronger your dog’s recall will become!
Toss-A-Treat Recall This is the game I usually start with when training dogs to come when called that are new to recall training. The wonderful thing about this game is that you can get a lot of successful repetitions in within a short amount of time. This helps create a habit in which the dog doesn’t even have to think about what to do when they hear the owner calling. Start the game inside to minimize distractions and ensure your dog can be successful. Once your dog excels inside you can take it outside to either a fenced in area, or with your dog on a long line. Use two types of treats – one that’s just ok, as far as your dog is concerned, and one treat that is AMAZING. To begin give your dog an amazing treat to make sure they know you have them, then toss an ok treat away from you. If your dog doesn’t seem to realize you’ve tossed a treat, put an ok treat right under their nose, and then while they’re still paying attention toss it away. This will help the dog track the treat as it is being tossed away from them. When your dog gets to the treat that’s landed on the floor, call: “your dog’s name Come!” If this is the first time your dog has heard that cue, clap or pat the floor. As your dog comes toward you enthusiastically praise and give your dog the amazing treat. Repeat this process and vary the direction you toss the ok treat, so your dog is kept guessing where it’s going to go. This is a great game to play inside to tire your dog out because it keeps them running back and forth. I enjoy playing this one on bad weather days!
Round Robin This multi-person game is great for families that want to teach the dog to respond to a recall cue no matter who is doing the calling. It takes some space, and for safety reasons should be played in a fenced in area, or with the dog on a long line either being held by a person, or tied securely. Everyone should be given awesome treats or a toy the dog will love, and spread out to give the dog some space. Take turns calling the dog, and avoid going in a specific pattern to keep the dog from guessing. Use fine dining with this game! If the dog gets “stuck” at one person and, doesn't come when called, the person that the dog is “stuck” to should cross their arms and turn their back on the dog. The person doing the calling should come up to the dog, put the hand holding the treats or the toy (squeak it if there’s a squeaker!) under the dog’s nose and call again, turning and running back to their spot. Use lots of praise and fine dining, or several seconds of play for success!
Hide and Seek - how to train dogs to come when called when they can’t see you! This is a great game that will help your dog learn to train a dog to come when called even when you’re out of sight. It’s easier if one person holds on to the dog, while the other person hides. But if you’re by yourself and want to play the game, you can try sneak away without your dog following. Initially when playing this game be sure to make it easy for your dog to find you – maybe start out in the next room with your dog being able to see you as soon they come through the door. With each success you can incrementally make your hiding places more difficult to get your dog to work harder to find you. When playing this game with my dogs I have hidden behind the shower curtain in the bathroom, in a closet with the door partially open, and wedged in between the bed and the wall. It’s amazing to see how hard a dog will work to find you, and many start using their noses to do so. Use those amazing treats, or a really wonderful toy to reinforce your dog for working so hard. Out of sight recalls can be really difficult for many dogs, and we want to keep them motivated to stay in the game. If your dog is struggling to find you, then call again, or even move in such a way to make it easier. Too many frustrating episodes of seek will demotivate your dog from wanting to play the game. And the next couple of times you play the game hide in really easy to find places to make sure your dog can be successful.
Tag This a game most dogs seem to enjoy. An added benefit is that you’ll get some exercise as well! Load up on awesome treats and call your dog. When your dog gets to you praise and use fine dining, with the last treat being dropped on the ground. As your dog is reaching for the treat on the ground, call your dog and run away. When your dog catches up repeat the reinforcement from the first repetition.
Grass kibble recall - how to train the dog to come when called with distractions This game is helpful to start training a dog to recall when there’s something interesting to investigate. Load up with some dog kibble, but also awesome treats. Show your dog the kibble and toss several to the ground. As your dog is eating the kibble, call your dog. If they come to you praise and reinforce with fine dining with the awesome treats. If your dog is struggling to come away from looking for the kibble, walk up to your dog, put your hand with several awesome treats right against their nose and call again, backing up a few steps. After a few repetitions your dog should learn that you are the holder of something more awesome than the boring kibble on the ground, and will be more likely to come to you immediately. If your dog is highly toy/play motivated you can use that in place of awesome treats.
Recall on a leash walk You can practice recalls on your walk if you want to make your walks a little bit more interesting for both yourself and your dog, and at the same time practice recalls in a new environment. Keep your dog on leash for safety for these recalls! Make sure to bring some awesome treats or a toy with you. When your dog is mildly distracted call and run a few steps in the opposite direction. Reinforce with food or a few seconds of play with the toy. You can let your dog carry the toy for the rest of the walk if they want to.
Chase the person - training dogs to come when called from a chase Earlier I mentioned that you shouldn’t call a dog off a running rabbit unless you’re fairly certain that can be successful. But how do you get to that level of recall training? Here’s a game that will help you get started with that. This is a game requiring two people. One person will be the “distractor” and one person the caller. To start the Distractor should pat their leg and encourage the dog to follow. Initially the Distractor should just move at a slow walk to make it a little easier for the dog, and more likely for the recall to be successful. Then the other person should call the dog, and as the dog starts to come to the person calling, that person should start running away from the dog. Allowing the dog to chase the caller is a fantastic reward for the dog coming away from a person that they themselves are chasing. In addition, when the dog catches up to the person calling, they should reward with fine dining, or 10 seconds of play with a toy. Making the recall reinforcement highly memorable will make it much more likely that the dog will come when called in the future. As the dog succeeds at coming away from the Distractor at a slow walk, the Distractor can increase their pace. If at any time the dog struggles with coming away, the Distractor should stop moving and look up at the sky, while the caller comes closer, showing the dog their amazing treat or wonderful toy. The next repetition or two should be easier with the Distractor moving more slowly than the repetition where the dog struggled. Practice with each person taking a turn being the Caller and Distractor so the dog gets practice coming to a number of people. Eventually you’ll be able to call the dog off chasing the Distractor who is running as fast as they can!
Practice makes perfect, and incorporating some or all of these recall games when training dogs to come to you, will make training less of a chore for you and your dogs. After all, you’re playing with your dog, not just doing homework! In addition, playing these games provides opportunities for your dog to practice coming in different situations and environments, which will help when you need to call your dog for real!
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