Training Your Puppy to Come or Recall on Cue

What is a recall?

In dog training lingo, “recall” refers to the behavior of coming when called. The first step in training the recall is to teach your dog a cue or label for the behavior. Cues tell your puppy which behavior is needed order to gain access to a reward. The recall cue may be verbal, such as the word “come”, or it may be a novel sound, or visual signal, or all the above. Once the signal is trained, your puppy will immediately run to you to be rewarded when you give the signal.

A reliable recall helps keep puppies safe. Since no recall is perfect, you should keep your dog on leash if there is any chance that a large animal or vehicle could cross her path. If your puppy were to escape, having a solid recall increases the likelihood that she will return to you before she gets into harm’s way.

"A reliable recall helps keep puppies safe."

Recall training should always be fun. There should always be a reward, whether it is a play session or some treats. Never call your puppy and then scold her - for any reason. If she comes when called, any past crime should be dismissed. Scolding a dog after the fact is counterproductive and contraindicated in any case.

Similarly, avoid calling your puppy from play and then immediately putting her inside and leaving the house. Plan to spend a few minutes with her, engaged in a mutually enjoyable activity, before you leave her alone. Otherwise, she will not come readily, as she will anticipate that her positive response results in her being left alone.

When should recall training begin?

Training should begin the moment you bring your puppy home. You can practice inside the house as well as outdoors, provided your puppy is in a safe fenced area or is on a 6-foot leash. Practice at least 10 times every day and keep it fun!

What is a good cue to use for the recall?

A verbal cue for your recall should be a unique word that your dog will not hear in other contexts. It should be easy to say and remember. Two commonly used cues are “here” and “come”. As training progresses, you may also introduce a unique non-verbal sound such as a whistle.

How do I begin training my puppy to come?

Hide a treat or toy in your pocket while you walk around the house or yard with your puppy. Your puppy will likely follow you closely as you are his new special person! Wait for a moment when your puppy looks away from you and quietly move just a few steps away. Your puppy will undoubtedly head toward you; reward him by playing with him and/or treating him. Don’t give a cue yet - this first step teaches your puppy that moving close to you brings wonderful things.

Next, take a few more steps away and this time squeak the toy or shake the treat bag to get his attention. Your puppy is certain to come - which means that she is doing a recall!. Soon your puppy rush to you whenever she hears the toy or treat. Now, you can introduce the verbal cue. As soon as your puppy starts moving toward you for the reward, say “come”. Keep your tone very cheerful, not stern, and say the word just once.

Continue to practice every day: quietly wait for your puppy to notice you, then say “come”, and reward. As your puppy succeeds with the recall at several feet away, try calling from a further distance. Try from around the corner or, if outside in the fenced yard, hide behind a tree. This game should be very fun. If your puppy is busy playing on her own, capture her attention with a toy or treat before calling her - that will ensure her success.

Over time you can add more distractions, but keep your expectations reasonable. If your puppy does not respond, go back to some of the easier steps. It can take many weeks or months of practice before your dog is ready to respond to a recall cue in the face of distractions.

How does the “collar touch” fit into recall training?

Once you are certain your puppy enjoys the recall, there is one more important step to add: the collar touch. If your puppy ever escapes, you may need to secure her quickly after she comes back to you. It is helpful to prepare puppies for this possibility. Your puppy will need to be wearing his collar for these sessions and you will need to have several treats in hand.

To begin, call your puppy and give a treat. Next, keep your puppy close by, feeding several treats in a row. For the final stage of this training, while your puppy is eating the extra treats, gently reach out and briefly touch her collar. Release the collar while there are still one or two more treats for your puppy to enjoy.

"If your puppy ever escapes, you may need to secure her quickly after she comes back to you."

As your puppy gains comfort with being touched this way, begin to gently hold the collar for a few seconds while your puppy enjoys the treats. For the final stage, hold off on giving the first treat until your hand is gently securing the collar, then continue to hold gently while your puppy eats.

Practice the collar touch recall at least twice daily. If there is ever an emergency and your puppy is separated from you briefly, this training ensures that you can touch her collar when she returns and she will not become alarmed.

Are there other training games to improve the recall skill?

Ping Pong

The ping pong game is a name recognition game that can help to improve recall. It is a great way to build value in your puppy’s name and eventually, your recall word. Your puppy’s name should be a magic word. Use your puppy’s name only when you are in a pleasant frame of mind and expect them to respond immediately. A puppy should be happy and pleased to hear their name at any time; it should be associated with pleasant emotions and a desire to be together.

Ping pong is easy! You’ll need some delicious treats, or even just one of your puppy’s meals if they love their food. Sit on the floor or in a chair with the bowl of treats or kibble in your lap. You’ll be asking your puppy to run back and forth between two treats (ping pong) when they hear their name.

  1. Toss a treat a few feet away from your left or right side. Use a motion your puppy can easily see.
  2. As soon as your puppy picks up the treat, say the puppy’s name in a happy, cheerful voice, and toss a new treat a few feet away on your opposite side so that the puppy passes right in front of you as they run toward the new treat.
  3. Repeat the process 10 to 20 times, tossing the treat a little further each time, until you can toss the treat about 10 feet away to either side of you.

The goal is for the puppy to turn around as soon as they hear their name, anticipating a new reward. This game teaches them how to quickly turn away from a distraction when they hear the most magical word: their name.

"Use your puppy’s name only when you are in a pleasant frame of mind
and expect them to respond immediately."

Once your puppy can easily switch between two treats tossed 10 feet to either side and is turning around quickly at the sound of their name, introduce the recall component to the game. Your puppy will now “ping pong” between one tossed treat and you!

  1. Toss the first treat.
  2. As soon as you see the puppy pick up the first treat, say the recall cue.
  3. As soon as your puppy turns their head, drop another treat between your feet so the puppy runs to you rather than past you. Place your hand on the puppy’s collar while they’re eating the second treat.
  4. Hold their collar and toss a treat away from you. Release the puppy so they can get the treat.
  5. Repeat the process of ping ponging between the tossed treat and you.

Restrained Recall

Another training game is the restrained recall. For this game, you need an assistant and a very special toy or some delicious treats. The “helper” will gently restrain the puppy while the “ trainer”  carries the rewards and calls the puppy.

  1. To begin, have the helper gently restrain the puppy by holding the puppy’s harness, collar, or leash.
  2. When the puppy is comfortable, the trainer should show the puppy the treat or toy, then quickly begin to walk away.
  3. After taking just a few steps, the trainer should, while still walking, call the puppy using a cheerful voice. Simultaneously, the handler should release the puppy to follow.
  4. When the puppy catches up with the trainer, the trainer should reward and have a party!

Start with short distances at first, perhaps 6-10 feet. Over time, increase the distance the trainer walks away, eventually even jogging out of sight before calling the puppy. Always finish the recall with a happy party. Repeat about 5 repetitions per session. Keep sessions short, high energy, and fun!

Remember to watch the puppy’s body language during these sessions. If the puppy shows any fear of handling or of being restrained, consult with a professional positive reinforcement trainer before trying this game again.

What is an emergency recall?

An emergency recall relies on a novel “emergency magic word”, to be used in a situation in which you urgently need your puppy to return to you but you are concerned that the recall response might not be fast enough and that your puppy could be injured. If you find yourself using the emergency recall more than once every few months, it is a clue that your regular recall needs a tune-up.

Choose a word or phrase you rarely say in daily conversation that can be said cheerfully and that is easy to remember. An example is the word “surprise”.

Teaching the emergency magic word is easy:

  1. Say the emergency recall word or phrase (“surprise!”) in a somewhat loud, cheerful, happy voice.
  2. Immediately scatter 10-20 delicious, high-value treats around your feet. Choose your dog’s very favorite food for this exercise.
  3. While your dog is eating the treats, practice attaching a leash or grasping the dog’s collar.

Start in an environment that’s free from distractions and stand close to your puppy for the initial lessons. Gradually incorporate practicing the emergency recall word in more distracting environments and at greater distances from your dog.

Maintain the value of the emergency magic word by practicing it a few times a week during normal activities when there is no emergency - this way, it will be a very strong cue if you ever need to use it in the future.

What about adolescence?

As your puppy grows, they become more aware of the world around them and more willing to explore farther away from you – which is why it’s important start recall training games early. Continue to practice recall training and games regularly throughout your puppy’s adolescent and adult life. Always keep in mind the distractions your puppy may face during training. Work in an area where you believe your puppy will be successful, while gradually increasing the difficulty level as the puppy’s skills get stronger and stronger.

Can a leash be used to train the recall?

Use a harness and long line, as needed, to keep your puppy safe. Remember, the harness and leash are there to act as a safety belt if your puppy fails to respond. Resist the urge to use the leash to pull the puppy to you when you call. Pulling the dog in with the leash usually makes them shift their weight backward, which is the opposite of what we want them to do.