No amount of training will make your dog 100% reliable. There is always the risk that your dog will make the choice to not respond. It is possible, however, to increase the chances of your dog responding with constant practice in non-critical situations.
The key to a good recall is practice, practice, and practice. Get a good recall in place inside (low distractions) first before you start working outdoors. A good indoor recall is like getting a high school diploma; a good outdoor recall is like earning your PhD.
FOCUS GAME – CAPTURING ATTENTION. This game teaches your dog to check-in with you. Start in a no-distraction environment. When dog looks at you, click (or use a verbal marker – YES) and treat. Turn away to encourage the dog to disengage; then wait until the dog makes eye contact again.
NAME GAME. Call the dog’s name – if the dog looks at you, click and treat. The object of this game is to make the sound of your dog’s name FUN. You can follow up with the WATCH ME cue if you would like the dog to maintain eye contact.
CONTROLLED COME ON LEASH. Most dogs will follow you if you quickly move away in an excited manner. During a walk, when your dog is not distracted by other things, stop suddenly, make some sort of noise to get your dog’s attention and back up quickly. As your dog eagerly follows you, say COME and reward with a high value treat.
CHASE ME GAME. Get your dog’s attention by acting crazy, then run away in the opposite direction like mad! In all likelihood, your dog will chase you – as he approaches, you can turn around and reward him for coming! Then release your dog and allow him to continue doing what he was doing (sniffing, playing, etc.)
RUN FOR YOUR FOOD GAME. Hold your dog’s food bowl in your hand and toss a kibble off to the right. Your dog will run off to get the kibble; after he has eaten it, call your dog (COME) – when he comes back to you, toss the kibble in the opposite direction. Every so often, mix it up by grabbing his collar before you toss the kibble (see next game).
GRAB THE COLLAR EXERCISE. How many times have you tried to reach for your dog and he runs away instead and tries to engage you in a ‘catch me if you can’ game? The purpose of this exercise is to teach your dog that good things happen when you grab his collar. Several times a day, grab your dog’s collar (use a cue like "gotcha") and reward with a high value treat. Your dog will quickly learn that getting his collar grabbed is a good thing and may result in a high value treat or life reward. (Life rewards are things like going for a walk, playing tug, being pet - anything the dog likes that doesn't involve food.)
GROUP COME GAME. Get several family members to participate in this game. Stand or sit in a circle and have family members randomly call the dog to come. If the dog comes, he gets rewarded! If he goes to a family member without having been called – no reward.
RESTRAINT GAME. Have an adult family member hold your dog by the collar as you walk away. Bounce a ball as you go, toss your dog's favorite toy in the air or pretend to be eating something – do something that will keep your dog focused on you as you walk away. Call your dog to you – but have your helper hold on for just a few seconds. Often the delay of a second or two will increase the dog’s enthusiasm to COME.
NOTHING IN LIFE IS FREE EXERCISE. Practice the “no free lunch” or “say please” protocol.
FOOD BOWL COME EXERCISE. Most dogs will follow you as soon as you pick up his food bowl. Use his as an opportunity to practice COME. When your dog follows you, say your come cue and immediately feed your dog his meal.
THE DOG IS COMING ANYHOW EXERCISE. Seize the opportunity to use the come cue when your dog is coming anyhow, especially if you can reward your dog with a life reward! If your dog comes running when he sees the leash, say COME (while your dog is moving towards you), put the leash on, and immediately take the dog out for a walk. If you pick up one of your dog’s toys, and the dog comes running towards you for the toy, tell your dog COME and immediately reward by playing with your dog and the toy.
MAGIC FINDS. Before going on walk, keep something really high value in your pocket or hide a high value item ahead of time along the path you will be walking on. As you approach the hiding place, get really excited, run towards the spot, call your dog to COME, and when the dog does come – show the dog what you found! Or, just run ahead of your dog, point to the ground and discretely drop your high value item, call the dog to COME and show him what you found.
HIDE AND SEEK. Have your dog stay in one spot. Go into another room and hide. Ask your dog to “COME find me” (emphasize the word “come”). When your dog finds you, reward with a treat, a massage, a belly rub, verbal praise - something your dog likes. Repeat 3 to 10 times, and stop while your dog is really engaged. Once your dog knows this game, you can initiate this game unexpectedly. For example at the beach, dart behind a rock and call, “Come find me!” When your dog finds you, let your dog know how excited you are that he found you.
YOU’RE THE MOST WONDERFUL DOG RECALL. Call your dog to you. When your dog comes, get down on the ground and play, play, play for at least three solid minutes.
The COME must be very happy, upbeat and positive! Make the dog think that coming to you is the best thing in the world! Never scold your dog when he comes, even if it took a bit of effort to get his attention.
It’s hard to get your dog to come to you when you can’t get his attention. Be sure to practice the FOCUS GAME - CAPTURING ATTENTION.
Many dogs have a bad association with the word COME, because it usually means something fun is about to stop. It may be necessary to use a new word for the recall cue (quick, here, now) and start over with the training.
During the early stages of teaching COME, never say COME when your dog is running away from you (otherwise he won’t make the association between the word COME and moving towards you). Also, don’t try calling the dog to you when you KNOW he is totally distracted – wait until you get his attention first, then call him. You don't want to teach him to ignore the cue (set him up for success!)
When your dog does come to you, do not ask him to sit - we want the dog to understand he is getting rewarded for the come, not a sit. (If your dog offers a sit, that's OK.)
Another trick – since dogs love movement, you can also just start running in the opposite direction and when the dog starts to chase you (thinking it’s a game), you can say your come cue. When you stop and he catches up, tell him YES, GOOD COME and treat!
If you can’t get your dogs attention, squeak a favorite toy or shake a MILKBONE treat bag! Once you get his attention, you call him to COME.
If you’re having problems with COME, make sure you’re training in an area with little or no distractions.
Watch your posture. For a small or nervous dog, it may be better to bend your knees and lower yourself to the ground and call the dog from that position.
You might want to add a hand signal to the verbal cue (to use in situations where perhaps your dog cannot hear you but can see you.)
Never use COME to call your dog to you for something he might consider negative – for example, leaving the dog park, ending a play session, administering medication, grooming, bathing or trimming nails (if dog doesn’t like these things). In these cases, go to your dog instead and snap on his leash. You might consider using a different cue for things your dog may consider negative – such as leaving the dog park (use LET’S GO instead) or going into his crate (GO TO YOUR CRATE). Use COME only for positive associations, such as giving a treat, beginning playtime, or going for a walk.
Make the rewards for coming when called interesting, exciting, and most importantly, unpredictable. List all of the things your dog likes – favorite foods, favorite toys, a favorite game, a belly rub, a scratch under the chin – and rank them in order with his favorites at the top of the list.
Make a list of things that distract your dog; prioritize them (easiest to most difficult). Start working on the easy distractions first and practice these distractions in different areas. Work up to the more difficult distractions.
Always follow a recall with one of your dog’s favorite things – food, tug, a game of fetch or frisbee, a belly rub or playing with another dog.
When your dog is distracted, time your COME for the moment the dog can most easily disengage from his other activity - for example, when he turns away from another dog he was interacting with.
Avoid repeatedly calling your dog when you KNOW he won’t or can’t come. Go get him instead. You don't want to teach your dog that it's OK to ignore the come cue.
While you are teaching him to come, never end your dog’s play or fun by calling him to you.
Always be enthusiastic and upbeat when your dog comes to you, no matter what he was doing before he came!
Practice, practice, practice!
It’s always a good idea to have a back-up recall plan if your dog isn’t responding to your recall cue.
Ignore your dog and become very interested in something on the ground. Most dogs can't help themselves and will become so curious that they will come over to investigate. (This works best if you play the 'magic find" game regularly with your dog.)
Ask the dog to do something he knows how to do, like SIT. You’d be surprised at how often your dog will respond. (Be sure your dog knows the “gotcha” cue – so he won’t run away when you reach for his collar.)
Call your dog’s name, clap your hands and joyfully run in the opposite direction. Turn this into a “catch me if you can” game.
Sometimes just turning your back and walking away will get your dog to follow you. If you are in safe area, you might even consider just going into the house and closing the door. Some dogs will immediately come running to the closed door.
Does your dog love car rides? Walk over to your car and open up the car door.
If there is something your dog is passionate about, save that for an emergency. For example – do you want a cookie? Do you want to play ball? Do you want to go for a walk? Do you want to eat?