Ways to Fail at Training A Recall

Recall is not hard to train, but you do have to do the work.


Let’s consider a few common training mistakes when training a recall cue:

Recall is a learned behavior, just like anything else you teach your dog. It’s not hard to teach and it’s not hard to train, but you do have to do the work. Unfortunately, dogs don’t come with an English software package installed, so it’s up to us to teach them the behavior, then add the cue and then practice the recall so that the dog truly learns the behavior.

Practice should take place through all four stages of learning: acquisition, fluency, generalization, and maintenance. First, the dog has to begin to acquire the skill of returning to you. Then you continue to practice so that the behavior is fluent and is occurring with regularity. Next, generalize the behavior of coming to you in a variety of places and settings, always beginning in a low-distraction environment, and as your dog makes progress, moving to a slightly more distracting environment.

Do all of this before ever practicing in a highly distracting environment (such as off-leash play with other dogs). Eventually you reach the maintenance phase of learning, where you continue to practice recall so that the behavior stays solid.

Here’s a common scenario: People train their dog to come to them when they say “Come” – but almost as soon as that is accomplished, they begin using the word very casually and taking the (formerly much sought-after) behavior for granted, and failing to even acknowledge, much less reward it.

As an example, say you use the word “Come” to call your dog when she’s outside enjoying herself; she returns to you the first time you call because you’re nice to her and you feed her; there’s a bit of reinforcement history between the two of you. But then you bring her inside the house, you pick up your car keys, and you go to work.

From your dog’s perspective, you’ve just taken the “good stuff” away (the outdoors with all those awesome smells!) and ignored her (by locking her inside and going to work). In dog training, taking the good stuff away constitutes punishment, and punishment makes the behavior of coming to you less likely.

If there’s one sure way to insure your dog never comes back to you, it’s yelling or screaming at (or heaven forbid, hitting) your dog when she doesn’t come back to you. If you do this, it cements in your dog’s brain that you’re unpredictable and the behavior you cherish and want so much is very likely to not happen again.

For more information about the rocket recall cue, download the ebook The Recall from Whole Dog Journal.