What to Do When “Come” Won’t Cut It: The Emergency Recall Cue

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This month’s Clicker Classic article, Training a Steadfast Recall, explains step-by-step how to teach a recall. But what happens when that recall doesn’t work?

Picture this. You are enjoying a peaceful walk with your dog. Your dog spots a squirrel darting across the street. Before you know what has happened, your dog has torn the leash from your grasp and is racing after the squirrel. You shout for your dog to come, but he is already in mid-pursuit, too focused on the bushy-tailed prize to respond. What can you do?

The emergency recall cue is a powerful cue that can be used to summon your dog during urgent situations. In her book Click to Calm, Karen Pryor Academy faculty member Emma Parsons offers the following tips for teaching an emergency recall to your dog:

A dog running in the grass
  1. Choose the word that you will condition. Make sure it’s a word that you can remember easily in an emergency situation. Refrain from using a word that your dog hears often, such as his name or the cue that you normally use to ask your dog to come to you.
  2. Choose a highly delectable treat that your dog will only get when this particular word is spoken.
  3. For the next few weeks, simply say the word and give your dog one of the precious treats. Remember that at this point your dog does not have to perform any kind of behavior to get the reward. You are simply teaching your dog to associate the word with the reward. Practice this step seven to ten times per day, variably and unpredictably throughout the course of the day.
  4. Test the cue after one week. Go into another room and wait until your dog is busy doing another activity. Say the word loudly and watch how quickly your dog flies to you! Reward the behavior.
  5. As your dog grows to love this word, you can vary the reinforcers that you use.

Be careful to use the emergency recall cue sparingly and only in true emergency situations when your conventional recall cue has failed. This cue is not only one of the most important cue in your training toolbox, it just might save your dog’s life one day!