Dog Training – Teaching Your Puppy to Come When Called – Starting Points

We do not spend lots of time discussing recall in our Puppy Headstart class; there simply is not enough time in the four weeks we have. However, it is a critical behavior, and one most new puppy parents want to start teaching their puppy. A puppy usually stays pretty close to its new family the first few weeks, making it is easy to get a false sense of security, believing that your puppy has already mastered the recall behavior and will instantly come back to you in any situation. Based on twenty plus years as a professional dog trainer, I can tell you that this is extremely unlikely.

It is not my intention to scare you but to be honest with you. Your puppy will reach a point where they will be confident and ready to leave your side without warning. This urge to bolt often happens between twelve and sixteen weeks of age, roughly equivalent to humans becoming teenagers. The recall that you thought was perfect will no longer work. That is why I recommend that dogs be secured in fenced areas when they are off leash. I have had too many phone calls from students telling me that they wished they would have followed my advice because their puppy bolted into the road in front of a car and was seriously injured or killed.

Below I describe how you can start building a reliable recall with a game called puppy ping pong. This is something that you can start doing immediately. However, pleased understand that having a recall that can save your dog’s life takes lots of practice. In my experience, very few dogs are at that point before they are twelve to eighteen months of age.  Some dogs, despite working with incredible trainers, never reach the point where they can be safe off leash in non-fenced areas.

OBJECTIVE: To teach your dog to immediately come to you in any circumstance, when given a single visual or verbal cue.

“Come” is the most important cue your puppy/dog needs to know. It means, “Come to me without any hesitation or wandering.” It is a behavior which may save your dog’s life. It takes many months of training and thousands of repetitions before you will have a dog that comes reliably. Even if you think your three-month-old puppy knows to come when called, do not be surprised as this changes when the dog becomes older and begins to explore the world. Training a reliable recall takes time and patience.

Recall Rules

  1. NEVER scold or punish your dog after he has come to you. Your recall cue must be the most positive word that your dog hears and should never be associated with anything negative. (Remember, think like a dog. Coming to you must not be negative from his point of view. For example, asking your dog to come when they are playing outside and then putting him in his kennel or calling your dog to you and then trimming their nails will be considered to be negative for most dogs.
  2. ALWAYS praise and reward your dog for coming to you, even if you did not ask them to come.
  3. While training the recall, do not use the cue you are training unless you are 100% sure that your dog will come to you. You do not want to give your dog the opportunity to ignore this cue. Until the dog knows this cue, just go and get him when required, rewarding him for being “captured.”
  4. ALWAYS use a pleasant tone of voice when asking your dog to come. If you sound angry, your dog is not going to want to come to you. Many times I hear people start with a very friendly “COME” and then when the dog does not come, follow it up with a harsher sounding “COME.” They have made two mistakes; they have not adequately trained their dog to come on the first cue, and they have said it negatively, which decreases the probability of the desired behavior.
  5. ALWAYS use “dog-friendly” body language when asking your dog to come. Standing or kneeling with your arms open and outstretched and leaning back is very inviting for most dogs. Even the slightest lean forward by you can be seen as confrontational by your dog.
  6. Even after you dog has been trained to respond to a verbal cue for recall, ALWAYS make sure you have your dog’s attention before telling them to come
  7. Only say your verbal cue once and only after you have your dog’s attention. Saying it several times just reinforces that the dog does not have to come the first time, and the verbal cue you are using for recall becomes irrelevant.
  8. If after training to your dog to 99% reliability and they do not come, go and get him, praise him AND reward him with a treat! If you yell at him, you have just taught him that “getting caught” results in punishment. Also, understand that you need to do some more training.
  9. Do not overuse the cue “come.” Allow this word to remain meaningful.
  10. Get your dog used to being handled by their collar when they come to you. This is usually the only thing you will be able to use to restrain your dog. Dogs that are not given positive reinforcement for allowing us to handle them by their collars frequently become collar shy.
  11. Do not always tell your dog to come after he has been placed on a stay. You do not want your dog to lose his stay position because he is anticipating your next cue.

What If My Dog Does Not Come When Called?

No matter how well you train your dog, there may be some times when your dog does not come. If this happens, there are two things you can do:

If the dog is running away

  • Throw your arms up, scream and run away from your dog. Most of the time the dog will come quickly after you. When your dog arrives get control of him, praise him lavishly and give him a jackpot of treats.

If the dog is not coming to you

  • Crouch or lie down on the ground and start whispering to the ground as if you have just found something incredibly wonderful. Your dog will probably come over to investigate. When he does, place your hand on your dog’s collar, praise him lavishly and give him a handful of treats.

Exercises to Build A Strong Recall

Puppy Ping-Pong

  1. Start with two or more people at opposite ends of a long hall or room. Each needs a clicker and some treats. We recommend you always use a high-value treat, such as freeze dried liver for training the recall and recommend that you only use this high-value treat for the recall. A group of people sitting in a circle also works.
  2. The first person crouches or kneels, leans back, and says the dog’s name.

NOTE: Dogs respond positively to reduced body posture, which is why we crouch or kneel. Do NOT bend over at the waist, as this is a threatening position to the dog.

  1. Get the dog’s attention by clapping your hands, making squeaky noises, whatever is necessary to get your dog to come and investigate. If necessary run up to the dog quickly then quickly run backwards, praising your dog as he comes towards you.
  2. As the dog starts coming towards you, praise him lavishly “Good Dog!” “Good Job!” Many people make the mistake of waiting to praise the dog until he has arrived. We want to reward the actual act of coming towards you.
  3. When the dog is in front of you, put your fingers on the dog’s collar and click and treat with a high-value reward, such as freeze-dried liver. It is imperative that you grasp the collar, so your dog associates this as being a good thing. The first few times he comes, praise him for a good 15 seconds, making a big deal about how wonderful he was to come to you.
  4. Repeat the above steps, having the other person call the dog.
  • When the dog starts to automatically return to the other person after the click and treat, you are ready to play this game in another location.
  • As the dog gets proficient at this, fade the hand clapping and noises.
  • When the dog is consistently coming, you are ready to play the next game.

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