If you’ve ever had a dog, you know that feeling of panic when she sprints away off-leash, out of sight. Fostering reliable recall is one of the most important steps in training; here are a few tips from expert behaviorists on getting started.

By Hannah Harper
September 21, 2020

The name game

The command for “Come!” should be delivered in two parts: Get the dog’s attention by saying her name, and then make the request. So for pups to respond to “Come!” they first need to know you’re speaking to them. That means that name recognition, the foundation for all training, is crucial. “Say the puppy’s name in a bright, positive way, and when the puppy looks at you, give a treat,” says Penny Leigh, CPDT-KA, program manager for AKC GoodDog! helpline in Raleigh, North Carolina. Avoid using her name with negative or punishing words like off, no, or down. Repeat the name game until she responds consistently. “You’ll [start to] see your dog isn’t just guessing, they’re actually listening to what you’d like next,” says Francine Coughlin, CPDT-KA, certified behavior consultant and owner of Bark n’ Roll in North Reading, Massachusetts.

Give some distance

Once your dog is responding to her name, start adding distance: Walk a few steps backward, then reward her when she comes to you. Practice the name-trot-treat pattern for a few days before actually saying the command word. “When your puppy is in the act of trotting to you, name the action—‘Come!’—as it’s happening,” says Leigh. Start creating farther distances and adding in distractions. The most important thing about recall is to give the command word a positive association in your dog’s mind. If the cue gets “poisoned,” your pup will begin ignoring the command, and you’ll need to start training all over again using a new cue word.

Test it out

Once your pup has been consistent at home, try taking her to a public space that allows dogs off-leash, like an enclosed dog park. There will be a lot more distractions here—other dogs, people, new smells—but it’s a great way to test her training. And even after she’s “mastered” the skill, continue to brush up on training. (Remember the piano lessons you took in middle school? If you don’t practice, you lose it!) “You’ll always want to be going back to basics with them,” says Coughlin.

Recall dos and don’ts

• Don’t call your dog over for something she perceives as negative. If she comes to you and immediately gets her medicine or a bath, she’s going to equate the command with that situation. If you need your dog for something she doesn’t like, just go and get her.

• Do use recall to check in with her often. In a public place like the dog park, dogs can become overstimulated. Calling your pup away from playtime periodically helps her keep her cool and makes leaving easier.

• Don’t repeat the command if your pet is not responding. This will transform your command word into white noise, making it easy to ignore. When this happens, Leigh suggests going back and reinforcing the beginning training.

• Don’t chase your dog as she runs from you. Instead, run away from her and make happy noises; she’s likely to turn around and start chasing you.

This article originally appeared in the October 2020 issue of Health Magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

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