What is Dog Recall Training and How Do You Start?

Author: K. Marie Altoby K Marie Alto Updated 13 min read

What is Dog Recall Training and How Do You Start?

Dog recall training is the process of teaching your dog the ability to come to you when called.

Do you ever get jealous to see a dog-and-parent pair that seems so exceptionally connected that the off-leash dog will obediently come when called no matter what he was doing? Do you ever wish you had the same type of relationship with your pup?

If it makes you feel better, it’s not necessarily about the strength or quality of their relationship, or perhaps because that dog is smarter or more obedient than yours. Odds are, s/he went through dog recall training. But, what is dog recall training?

Those obedient dogs that run to their parents upon a simple and effortless “come” call have been trained to be just as rewarded by obeying that call as with any other exciting event around them. Such as a passing squirrel for example.

Recall is your dog’s ability to come to you when called. Recall training is a vital skill you should work toward with your dog, and in this post I’ll discuss everything about it.

If you are looking for more dog care guides, make sure not to miss the further reading section at the bottom. As always, my blog is packed with resources.

Happy reading!

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Training a Dog Image by Toe Beans

Have you ever witnessed an event like the one in the video below?

Or, similar instances where a dog is having the time of his life, and his totally-over-it parent has to trudge after them, through mud and water or even across a field?

Sure, we all get excited sometimes. It's easy to get focused on something we enjoy, and in a dog, that kind of enjoyment and excitement can be an overriding force.

Ordinarily there’s nothing wrong with having a little fun, but, when your pup ignores your commands because of distractions, this is indicative of one thing: poor training.

You might be thinking, I've never trained my dog to do anything and now he's a little too old to learn. Is it really possible to recall train my adult dog?

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As I mentioned in my post about socializing adult dogs, with the exception of senior dogs that suffer from dementia, any dog can be socialized or trained no matter how old they are. Recall training is no exception.

Of course, dog recall training will always be easier with a puppy, especially during those initial formative weeks and months, but that doesn't mean it's not doable with an older dog.

Recall is perhaps the #1 trained behavior your dog should have. There are many situations in which you may need your dog to come to you on call.

To get started, there are two very important things: First start young and second, know how to do it.

Interestingly, recall training at its core is pretty simple.

In essence, all you need to do is have treats and rewards on hand and reward your fur baby when they come to you. Easy peasy, right? Sure… after your pup has mastered this skill.

How Recall Training Works

Dog recall training is just like any other training.

You pick a behavior you want; you reinforce that behavior with positive reinforcement (generally through high-value treats), and you repeat it until it becomes second nature to both you and your fur baby.

How Recall Training Works Image by Toe Beans

Trust me, if you apply this logic you can train your dog to do almost anything he is capable of doing.

Recall training should begin in a distraction free environment. Your living room or a fenced-in yard with no other distractions is ideal.

A doggy park, not so much. The more isolated you can make the behavior, the easier your pup will learn to associate the cue with an action.

If you have a really active pup that’s easily distracted it can be a challenge. Consider having a rowdy play session first to expel some of that excess energy. It’s also a good idea to practice before mealtime.

Doing so will make you pup more interested in a food-based reward. If s/he has a full belly, what you have to offer might be less appealing.

Generally, recall training works best when done in phases. You also need to make sure you have all the supplies you need on hand, though you don't really need much. Just be sure to have the following:

  • A cue word or phrase (if you go with a phrase keep it to just a few words)
  • A leash
  • A high-value treat or toy
  • Optionally: A clicker

That's all! Your cue word should, generally, be something simple like "Come!" or "Heel!"

Picking something uncommon can lead to issues if your dog has to interact with strangers who might want them to obey – common commands are common for a reason – but you can really pick whatever you like.

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The high-value treat or toy is the reward and incentive to follow the command.

In puppies, it works best to have a high-value food, like beef liver, chicken, or a bit of cheese. It needs to be something attractive enough for your dog to love it over just about anything else, because your goal is for it to be enough incentive to come.

Once training has progressed somewhat, you can switch to a toy instead of a treat.

This helps avoid wrecking your dog's diet, for one thing, and it lets you use something like a rope toy to reinforce behaviors with a game of fetch. I'll get to that more in a bit, though.

Phase One: Attractive Treats

In the first phase, your fur baby has no idea what the noises you're making mean. All they know is that the toy or treat in your hand is fun or tasty, and they want it.

Giving Obedient Dog Treats Image by Toe Beans

In this first phase, start with your pup on a leash.

Give them some slack so they can wander a bit, then show them an attractive toy or a high-value treat you know your fur baby loves. When they notice and come toward you, praise them for it.

If you opt for getting an inexpensive clicker, when the desired behavior occurs, click and immediately follow with a treat. (If your pup doesn’t come, give a little tug on the leash to get their attention.)

Even if your pup doesn’t know what the words mean yet, they will associate the happy tone of voice and/or click noise with they did something right.

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Phase Two: Verbal Cues

The second phase, is simply adding in your verbal cue.

You can probably do this after just a few repetitions of phase one; it typically doesn't take much to keep your dog’s interest when they know you have something tasty in your hand.

Dog Responding To Verbal Cues Image by Toe Beans

As you’ve gathered, phase two is just like phase one. Still using the leash, hold the high-value treat or toy where your fur baby can see it. But this time, when you see them start moving toward you, add your verbal cue.

Note: Your verbal cue doesn't have to be a word. While using a word is probably the most common method, some people use whistles or specific noises. The key here is to be consistent. If you decide to whistle as your cue, but a family member isn’t able to repeat the same sound, your pup may not understand that it’s the same command. Beginning with a word cue and then training with a whistle is a great alternative.

Using your voice cue after your pup starts heading toward you, helps them associate the sound with an action.

If they are across the yard and you’re yelling “come” “come” your pup might just ignore you since they don’t have a concept of what come means.

So, yes, in the beginning it’s less of a command and more of a reaction to them performing the desired behavior.

The goal of this phase is to start to associate a particular sound or word with a particular behavior. It doesn't matter which happens first, so long as they are associated with one another.

Just make sure you're only adding in your verbal cue when your dog is actually coming to you. If they look at you, see the treat, and go back to playing with the sprinkler or chasing the squirrel, adding in the cue just muddies the waters.

It ends up being ignored, just like how people with a common name might ignore their own name spoken in a crowd when they aren't expecting it to be referring to them.

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Also, and this is key – do this both on and off-leash.

Dog recall training is critical if your fur baby gets out or runs off or if you want them to heel at the dog park, but it's not a substitute for a leash, either in terms of behavior or in the eyes of the law.

Always keep in mind that while in some states there are no statewide laws regarding leashing your dog, many localities have ordinances that require even the most obedient dogs to be kept on a leash whenever they aren't on your property.

As your pup improves with their understanding of come, remove the leash and continue practice.

Important Note: Train in sets of 5 repetitions at a time, 3-4 times per day, every day. We get it, you have a job, so it’s not going to be easy to spread out the trainings. Consider doing a small session after the morning walk, right when you get home, and later in the evening.

Phase Three: Continued Practice

I know what you might be thinking, oh I’ll just send my pup to obedience school, and we’ll be good to go.

But you can't do a little bit of work training them at an obedience class and never do any "homework" to follow up. Training requires sustained effort to reinforce the behaviors you're looking for in virtually every context.

Practicing Recall Training Image by Toe Beans

Phase two will obviously be the longest part of recall training. Phase three is when you start putting the learned behaviors to the test. After all, you can't give them a treat every time they come to you for their whole life.

It is in this phase where you start putting the treats away and instead use toys, verbal praise, or physical affection.

Your pup might consider it a lower value reward, but at this point, the behavior is starting to be ingrained.

If your dog doesn't seem interested if there's no treat, start offering the treat, but hiding it some of the time.

The goal is to teach them that they'll be rewarded when they come, but making it less obvious. When the desired behavior occurs, sometimes they’ll get the treat, and sometimes they get affection instead.

In other scenarios, you might just lead them somewhere else and start again.

"Remember: this is supposed to look and feel easy. Avoid the temptation to try and make it harder for your dog at this early stage. We're building a strong foundation. Just as a house falls apart without a solid foundation, a recall falls apart in the face of distractions when it lacks a solid foundation." – Whole Dog Journal.

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Phase Four: Adding Distractions

Once you've reached the point where your fur baby comes to your side reliably, even when there's no treat offered, you can start taking the show on the road.

An unexplored park, a new backyard, a place with toys and distractions; this is ideal.

Just make sure it's not someplace they can get lost or find themselves in danger. If you have kids, have them join in on the training.

Let them throw a ball back and forth, and during the fun, call your pup to come.

Adding Distractions To Training Image by Toe Beans

Your goal here is to let them explore in a more real-world scenario.

In this phase you’ll go back to using high-value treats to reward them when they come back to you.

Chances are, they won't be very obedient right away; they're exploring a new environment, checking out new sensations and smells, and even a high-value treat won't be enough to pull them back.

That's fine! It's a slow process.

Pro Tip: Don't be static! Dogs love to chase things, so when they're coming to you, back away a few steps to give them extra distance and excitement.

    Once your dog is more reliably coming when you call in a distracting environment, you do the same thing as above, and start hiding or removing the treat some of the time in order to wean them off of needing a treat to obey.

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    Phase Five: Continued Reinforcement

    Once your fur baby is pretty reliably coming when called, even when there's no treat waiting for them, you're pretty much there.

    Now, you just have to stick with these habits for the rest of their life. That's not too much to ask, right?

    Continued Training Reinforcement Image by Toe Beans

    Alright, well, you can do some other things too. There are all sorts of games you can play to add reinforcement. For example:

    • Puppy Ping Pong. Get two or more people involved. One of them says the cue word and gets your dog to come, with a reward. Then, once the reward and praise have calmed down, the other person does the same, "bouncing" your dog back and forth with reinforcement and treats.
    • Fetch with Praise. Using a toy, toss it out and get your dog to retrieve it. When they start to bring it back to you, use that opportunity to reinforce the cue word.
    • Combined Training. "Come" likely isn't your only training, so mix things up by alternating between "come" and "sit" in a red-light/green-light framework.

    Watch the short video below for additional useful reinforcement dog recall games.

    Fun Dog Recall Games

    Whatever you do, keep it consistent and positive, and you'll have the best outcomes.

    Beware of Poisoned Cues and Negative Reinforcement

    One of the worst things you can do is associate a behavior with something negative.

    If you shout your cue word, your dog doesn't come, and you go after them with a smack or a shock collar or a scold, all you're doing is training them to know that word means something bad.

    You've "poisoned" the cue and will need to pick a new, distinct cue for positive recall.

    Likewise, even if something unpleasant is required (like a vet trip, trimming their nails, or a bath they don't like), don't use their recall word. Go to them, put on the leash, and lead them to the unpleasant task.

    Otherwise, you're still associating something negative with the cue word, and that will hurt the progress you’ve made in training.

    Recall Training Dogs Image by Toe Beans

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    Unfortunately, many people feel like punishment and aversion can be good training tools.

    But punishing your pup doesn't teach them the desired behavior. Use positive reinforcement for behaviors you want, not punishment for behaviors you don't.

    Once you've gotten training with positive reinforcement down, you'll have a great time building up a positive, happy, and obedient puppy for their whole life.

    Here are three basic don’ts of dog recall reinforcement:

    • Do not call your dog for anything you know he does not like.
    • During early training, do not call your dog if you think odds are he will not come.
    • Do not repeat the command if you call your dog and he does not come. Always say it only once and make yourself interesting (use a cheerful voice, clap, squat, etc.)

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    Have you ever attempted recall training with your canine companion? If so, how did it go? Did you start with any professional obedience training? Was it as successful as you hoped it might've been? If you haven't attempted recall training before, are you interested in giving it a try now?

    We hope this post helped you understand what dog recall training is and How you can Start.

    Be sure to leave all your thoughts, stories, and questions in the comments section down below! I'd love to hear what you think and would be more than happy to answer any of your questions!

    Additionally, if you are feeling like getting a little special something for your fur baby that is made right here in the USA, 100% pup safe, USDA certified organic and brought to you by a US company, check out Toe Beans boutique online pet supplies store!
    K Marie Alto
    K Marie Alto

    K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer, and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 50K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-). Read more

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