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Training a Steadfast Recall

Excerpted from Click for Joy: Questions and Answers from Clicker Trainers and their Dogs by Melissa Alexander, an unparalleled guide to the concepts of clicker training. Melissa is also the moderator of ClickerSolutions, an online discussion forum.

happy dog running

A recall can save your dog's life. It can stop her from running in front of a car, or from chasing an animal into the woods. It can call your dog away from a tempting but dangerous delicacy she has just discovered.

Getting the behavior

Teaching a recall is easy—just reinforce your dog for coming to you! Start by kneeling a few feet away and making happy noises. Click when the pup takes her first step toward you and give her a yummy treat when she gets to you. Run a few feet away and repeat the process. Make it a fun game! When she's coming to you reliably, start using your cue. Add distance and distractions to the recall just as you would for a sit or other behavior. Calling a young puppy from across the yard when she is exploring a new, interesting scent is setting yourself and your pup up to fail. Walk to within a few feet, kneel down, and call her from there—and make sure to reinforce her for abandoning the distraction with something even better.

Success comes from repetition. Don't increase your distance or distractions until your dog responds immediately and enthusiastically to the recall cue. While you're training, remember to give a super-good reinforcement every time you call your dog.

The collar grab

Click here for video
Click here for video on
teaching "come"

When you call your dog, take hold of her collar before you deliver the reinforcer—and do that every single time. It does you no good to have a recall if you can't then catch your dog. Dogs have been killed because they avoided their owners' hands and, at the last moment, bolted into the street. Having someone reach out to grab and restrain you is startling at best. Associate reaching and grabbing with good things by feeding a yummy treat once you have a hand on your pet's collar.

Exercises for excellence

Try these recall games to help teach your pet recalls are fun and rewarding:

  • When your dog is several feet away, say her name and give your recall cue. Then begin running backwards away from the dog. Click when she starts toward you and reward her when she catches up. This exercise engages the dog's natural desire to chase.
  • While you're training, remember to give a super-good reinforcement every time you call your dog.
  • Ask one or more friends or family members to help. Stand eight or ten feet apart, facing each other (or make a circle, if you have more than two people). Have one person call the dog. Click as soon as she starts toward the person, and have the person give a treat. Then have the next person call her. Repeat, gradually increasing the distance between people.
  • Practice recalls in your house. Call your dog from across the room, from another room, from upstairs, from downstairs. Have a friend hold your dog (or ask your dog to stay) for a moment, then play hide-and-seek.

While you're training, remember to give a super-good reinforcement every time you call your dog.

Tips for success

Keep the following tips in mind as you train your recall and incorporate the recall into everyday life:

  • Always make recalls rewarding.
  • Use the highest value rewards you have.
  • If you don't have a reward handy, make a big production of taking your dog to get one. She earned it, and the whole party is a jackpot.
  • Practice calling your dog away from something she wants, give her a high-value reward, and then let her go back to what she was doing. Practice that a lot.
  • Do lots and lots of short-distance recalls. You'll get more reps and build a habit faster. Grab your dog's collar before you give the reward every time. Again, a recall is no good if you can't catch your dog.

Why is cueing slightly different when training "come?" Read a Q&A on structuring the cue.

Call your dog one time. If she doesn't respond, go and get her (except during training, when a non-response is considered an error and dealt with through extinction). Don't call your dog when she isn't going to respond. Yelling "Missy, come!" over and over as she runs around ignoring you only weakens your cue. Practice your recall in distracting situations, increasing the level of distractions gradually.

Finally, don't take recalls for granted. Remember, your dog's life could depend on the reliability of her response. This means never, ever punish a recall:

  • Don't call your dog and then do something she doesn't like, such as crating or confining her and then leaving her alone.
  • If your dog is doing something you don't want her to do, don't call her and scold her—or even call her and ignore her. If you call her, reinforce her for coming.
  • If your dog is doing something she enjoys, don't call her away without rewarding her. Balance the times when fun ends with several "practice" recalls after which she is allowed to go back to what she was doing.
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Reliable Recall even when afraid - Question

I'm training a somewhat skittish, fully flighted, Ducorps cockatoo. (Sorry off topic of dogs... but still about recall.) We've come a long ways - from his flapping in panic when a human even entered the same room, to a now fairly well trained indoor flier who comes on cue in several locations. (He also cuddles, plays and preforms a large repertoire of behaviors/tricks, and is constantly learning new.) We have no immediate plans to fly outdoors, but would like to work toward it as a long term goal, and want to be well prepared in the event of an accidental sojourn. Slowly I am increasing the distance and distraction level at which I call him to me inside and he is making good progress. One major concern, though, is when he becomes afraid the object of his fear holds his attention above our training. We are working gradually to train closer to as many of such as possible (finally comes to me even if I'm standing next to someone in one of those 'terrifying' wheelchairs – assuming the chair has been still for a while), but there is no way we can train for each thing he might potentially be afraid of. How do I build a stronger recall regardless?  Might it be possible to actually capitalize on such fear response by making my arm his safety spot so he would reliably return even if we were blindsided by something new?

Toward that end, I instruct anyone visiting with us that when the bird is on me, they may not approach him. Instead, they need either wait for the bird to come to them or go to another neutral perch where they may approach. I am hoping it will aid his feeling that on me is the safest place to be if he feels uncomfortable with someone/something. I realize that's far from a training plan, but it's at least a start at setting one up. Any suggestions?

new problems with my recall

I think I've spoilt my dogs perfect record for a recall because of a bad feeling she has in coming to me when I want to groom  her.  Of late I have noticed she is beginning to ignore me and only returns on the second or third command. I think it may have started when I asked her to come to me to lift her onto her grooming table (which she hates)  she has never had a bad experience of the table and yet will not go near it.

PLEASE can you tell me what I should I do?  I don't want her running off to meet a dog which may not be friendly, and the distance between us will be too great for me to help her?

Do you have any suggestions as to how to  make the grooming table a happy event.  I have tried giving her tit-bits on the table but she spits them out. I have cuddled her and stroked her whilst on the table but she is still unhappy.

Thanks very much.


Tawmee's picture

Steadfast recall

I'm working on recall with my 10 month old Aussie.  He does great as long as there's a lead of any sort attached to him. I began walking in the desert with friends and their dogs. They encouraged me to let him play with the others.  I gave in and did so.  Much to my happy surprise, he would race after them for oh, 40 feet or so then turn and race back to me for a treat.  Needless to say I began inserting "come" into those race backs.  I treat and praise him with each return.  Daily however he finds "treasures" which he refuses to share...or abandon to come to me.  I don't ask him to come then and he just runs circles around me until he's tired of his new found plaything (or he eats it).  Then he comes back for that treat.   Any suggestions how I can discourage that behavior successfully?  Also when he's not on the lead (like in the house or small enclosure) and I don't have a treat, he blows me off...what can I do?  Thanks for your help

Pawsitive Side's picture

Have you tried teaching the

Have you tried teaching the 'Leave it' command?

Husky breed and the steadfast recall

Yes, I need to reconsider high value treats. Maybe I have gotten lazy and fallen into old patterns.

While on the subject of steadfast recalls, any thoughts on the runaway tendency of the husky and other breeds like it such as the Klee Kai? The breeders tell me that no matter how many dogs you have trained that these breeds can never be off leash. Is that true in your opinion? Or once again, the value of the reward?


Siberians and recalls

I've trained a lot of dogs and I believe that all dogs can be trained to reliably come when called.  I think it's a matter of  exercising the dog appropriately, finding the right reinforcement, using a variety of reinforcements and remembering not to poison the cue.    

My sister and I owned a Siberian mix many years ago.  We seriously considered naming him Houdini, we had buried fencing to keep him from digging out, we raised the height to keep him from jumping over and he still escaped from time to time. After about a year, we noticed a pattern.  If he went for more than 24 hours without a walk or jog, he would escape and go on his own. 

Throughout all of this my sister worked on recalls, consistently.  Always a reward, always something positive.  If he had escaped and was out running, she would called him and snap on his leash and take him for a walk, calling him to her and taking him home was a punisher.  This dog earned his U-CD an U-AGI and several CPE titles.  He also had one leg towards his U-CDX before his hip dysplasia became too bad to compete. This dog died of Hemangiosarcoma at age 16. A week before he died, because my sister had not walked him in two days, he took a walk on his own.  This was a dog who needed exercise.

Her current Siberian came to her at age 4 (he's 5 now), he has had a long history of being punished for coming when called.  If he escapes (usually through a door a someone has not latched properly) he will run.  The first time he got out, she searched for hours.  Someone called her the next morning, he was 17 miles away from her house.

Regular exercise and a lot of rewards and he now has a recall.  Recently, a neighbor child opened the door and allowed him out of the house (management always fails).  He had been exercised recently so when my sister stepped outside, she called him and he came to her.  He got liver treats and a short walk.    I think a lot of people call the dog, and pet them or give them food treats, then takes them right inside and puts them in a crate.  This is so punishing for dogs who really want/need to run for several miles a day.



Hi there the recall is

Hi there the recall is really important given the working cocker s need to hunt. My little cockers prey drive is high what do you guys think I should to try and stop it or at least help her to focus on the pack drive?/


Hi there, I have an English working cocker spaniel, she is just two, and I have done lots of training, kennel club good citizen guide and going out with individual trainers about her recall. She was great until she hit about a year old and then she got the smell of something and she would go and hunt. I'd use the recall whistle but alas she just ignored me until she had finished her hunt. I have just got clicker gun dog - Helen Philips, and I am trying to reinforce with the clicker but would welcome any input form you guys. I really enjoy walking may be four five miles an wanted the dog to be my companion but I am now afraid she will not stop and then return to me can you help

Hi vaue treat

Jenny Ruth you are correct, if you want to capture the behavior start with High Value Treats (meat), then work down to lower value treats (dog food works). Once the behavior is captured, you can wean off the treats all together and replace it with tons of praise. I trained Libby to shake in 30 minutes and by later that night I had replaced pepperoni with praise. Every dog learns differently so be patient and consistent. That is the key!

This concept seems so

This concept seems so simple but i still struggle with the steadfast recall. When she doesn't come I usually end up by going to get her. That is where my training breaks down. This is the first dog that I have had that resists the recall. I have to admit that I get very discouraged. My husband says that I spoil her by giving her treats when she comes and that she will only come when I have a super valuable goodie. What if I call her sometime and I don't happen to have a high value treat? Thanks in advance.


I'm not sure how to answer

I'm not sure how to answer your question but I would like to say don't listen to your husband on this. If giving treats when an animal does what you want is "spoiling" them then we all have spoiled animals. A reward can be anything the dog enjoys, though. Maybe if you dont' have a treat, do something she likes.

Bribe vs Reinforcement, & Intermittent Reinforcement

Also depends if treat is given as bribe or reinforcer. (Bribe: the dog hears/sees/smells you get the treat before he/she offers desired behavior.)  If as reinforcer, then you're A OK.  As for having a good treat available every time... it would actually be better for you now to put the behavior on intermittent reinforcement by not giving food every time.  Gradually decrease frequency the behavior earns that type of reinforcement, while keeping the interval between random enough to keep dog's interest.  ie treat on first recall, no treat on second, treat again, go two to three times with out treats then treat twice in a row.  And, as stated in the last post, vary the reinforcer - attention/praise can often be even stronger than food as it is always available and one can never have too much or become 'full'.

Hope it helps.



In an emergency (for example, my nine month old golden was in the same area of a beach as an offlead bitch on heat and we knew that if he did recall-he did!- he would definitely deserve a high value reward), most dogs find being allowed to stick their head in the treat bag very rewarding. Chase games can also be fun. I remember reading an article by Ian Dunbar somewhere that described playing a game where if the dog recalled, it was then allowed to be chased. I can well believe this since my dog loves trying to get me to chase him round the garden after 'stolen' items.

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