Getting our dogs to come when called seems like a no-brainer, but to our dogs it can be an extremely difficult choice. “Should I go to my owner who’s going to leash me up and take me home or keep playing with these dogs and chase after these squirrels?” To them, the right choice is whichever is most rewarding for them! All we need to do is make Recall (getting our dog to come to us) more rewarding than the thing they are moving away from. Here are a few easy games you can play anywhere to make Recall more exciting for your dog. If your dog escapes onto a street, is running towards an aggressive dog, or is headed towards dangerous wildlife, a good recall is crucial! In the end, it can save your dog’s life!
This game requires your dog to know “Touch” or hand targets, an easy but very useful trick. To teach hand targets, hold out your palm for your dog to boop their nose into. This is easy to encourage if your hand was holding some treats earlier and had leftover treat residue. When their nose hits your palm, mark the correct behavior and place the reward (treat) in the palm that they touched. This increases the value of the target (your hand) by making the objective very rewarding, much more exciting than handing the treat over to them. After many repetitions, you can start moving the target and increasing the difficulty such as asking for a “touch” around distractions like new smells and sights.
Now that your dog is a master at “Touch”, it’s time to play a game! Touch tag involves asking for a touch first. Instead of giving a treat when your dog’s nose hits your hand, run off as if to say “betcha can’t catch me!” to initiate a game of tag! Hold your hand out as the second target while running and your dog will bolt after it with their eyes on the prize! Once they reach your hand, you can reward them with a treat. Change things up, run in different directions, juke them out, keep things fun but not frustrating and proof the game around increasing distractions.
Call and Release!
This is another fun game that requires a little more preparation or thought. For many dogs, they’ve been conditioned to learn that coming back to their owner means leaving that awesome thing they were just at, making recall a less desirable choice. Recondition that feeling by calling them to you then letting them get what it was they wanted! To teach this concept, set some low value reward like kibble on the floor. With your dog on a lead, wait for your dog to attempt to get the food, once they hit the end of the line, recall them back to you. Once they get to you, grab their collar or harness and “bowl” them to the kibble as if to say “I’m letting you have that thing you couldn’t reach earlier, you’re welcome!” Remember not to pull on the lead during recall, the dog should make that choice on their own. If your dog doesn’t come, you could lightly tug on the leash but this means the difficulty of the choice is too high. You can lower the difficulty for your dog by using an even lower value reward bait or being further away from the bait.
Once you understand how the game works, you can experiment! For example, if your dog really wants to smell a bush, first let him reach the end of the line just out of reach of the bush. Recall him back to you, then release him to smell that bush! Or if he really wants to enter the park, recall him to you first, then run into the park together! After many positive repetitions, it’s time to phase out the reward of them “getting what they wanted”. For example, instead of recalling then releasing them to chase after that squirrel, let them get closer to that squirrel. Then alternate between being rewarded and not being rewarded. Since dogs are gamblers, the chance at being rewarded or “hitting the jackpot” is worth a spin!
This game requires two people but is great for ramping up that excitement for your dog to come sprinting back to you! You must use a harness instead of a collar to prevent injury and for a better grip on your dog. Have one person holding the dog still and the other person further away to build excitement with jumps, cheers, and other noises. The dog should be trying to step on their gas pedal to get to the other person! When the further person says the recall command, the person with the dog can release their hold. Reward the pup for coming! Remember to keep your dog on a long line for security in case they don’t come, especially if working outdoors in an open area.
With recall training, it’s important to know what is valuable to your dog. A toy can be a 10 on the reward scale for some dogs or 4 on the reward scale for others. Chasing after small animals can be a 9 on your dog’s scale and if cheese is an 8, then your dog will blow off your cheese treat and chase after the animal. Remember to also condition collar grabs with positive reinforcement separately and with recall to avoid your dog not committing to the recall: the recall ends when your dog is by your side, or when you have a hold on your dog. Never use your recall for punishment!
As with all training sessions, keep them short (3-5 minutes) and always set your dog up for success. If your dog is blowing you off, immediately stop and try again on an easier setting at another time. Don’t be caught begging your dog to come to you such as repeating their name because it eventually turns into white noise for them! With these games, you can change your dog’s idea of recall from fun is over to fun has started!