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How to Ruin Your Dog's Recall

Updated: Jan 13, 2022

A guide to ensuring your dog never comes when called:

1) Punish them when they finally do come.

Is your dog ever slow on the uptake when you call? This is a common stumbling block. On multiple occasions I have seen a dog ignore the recall cue and when they do manage to show up, the owner shouts at or even physically punishes the dog. In many instances this can be due to embarrassment. Not only is the dog not coming when called, they're doing it in front of a crowd!

Unfortunately all the owner has done here is guarantee that the dog won't come when called in the future. The intention is to punish the delay. However, the behavior immediately preceding punishment is coming when called, and therefore that is the behavior that is punished.

Instead, try reinforcing your dog according to their response time. If they come immediately, throw a party with a ton of treats, praise and play - along with allowing your dog to go back to whatever they were doing beforehand. If it takes them a while to begin making their way to you, provide only a couple of food treats. No matter what, never punish your dog when they do come to you, even if they dawdle.

2) Use your recall cue all.the.time.

In the name of "practicing," I used to signal my dog to come multiple times in one walk. I was rewarding her well for performing the behavior, but it was still breaking down. I was abusing my recall cue. Coming when called is a vastly different skill than "hey, come here," which we use frequently each day with our dogs. Coming when called should be reserved for implementing your incremental and well thought out training plan, and of course, when you actually need it.

No matter what food or toy reinforcers we use, there is always the risk of our dog satiating on those reinforcers and instead choosing to do their own thing. Avoid this by being sparing with your recall cue.

Instead of running your formal cue into the ground, try reinforcing your dog every time they check in with you on their own. A treat or two for doing so will teach them to stick around.

3) Always use your recall to leash up your dog and go home.

While coming when called may mean a food reward, it will also come to mean being leashed up and the fun ending. Ending an enriching activity can be more punishing than the food reward is reinforcing, so this is something to watch out for. Every once and a while do a practice trial, reward and leash up your dog, then let them go again.

4) Use the same reinforcer all the time.

When we find something our dog likes and is willing to work for, we may be tempted to use that to the exclusion of all else. Don't fall into this trap. Mix up your food and toy rewards. You may love having your favorite pasta dish for dinner, but if you had that same pasta dish every day of the week it would get old fast. Novelty is reinforcing not just for us, but for our dogs as well.

5) Be stingy with reinforcement.

I often see folks not only using their dog's recall cue constantly and unnecessarily, but also hardly ever reinforcing the behavior. This is the equivalent of your boss calling you into work on your day off and then forgetting to pay you. Eventually you would stop answering their calls. In this example it is easy to see that your behavior is not about disrespecting your boss or their lack of "alpha energy." Behavior evolved to produce outcomes. Our dogs will not behave, and thereby expend precious calories, for nothing. In fact, no properly functioning organism will.

Don't just provide reinforcement, provide generous, high value reinforcement. Never underestimate how difficult this behavior is for dogs. There are a lot of interesting sights, sounds and especially smells out there that your reinforcers have to contend with. Make sure you are ready to pay big for your dog's hard work. Think steak, chicken and cheese!

6) Rush through the training plan.

Walk before you can crawl, train incrementally. Don't make the mistake of thinking your dog can recall from chasing a deer when so far they've only done it in your backyard. Go slow, take your time. Be the turtle instead of the hare.

7) Cue a recall right after letting your dog off leash.

While you may want to include this as a parameter of your training plan, don't do it right away or often. Your dog's recall will be more successful if they have had a chance to explore and even satiate on the new environment, thereby increasing the value of your reinforcer.

8) Repeat your cue over and over.

If our dog doesn't come right away, it can be tempting to keep repeating the cue. Repeating your cue devalues the association between the cue and the reinforcer. It also makes it easier to tune out. Instead, give your cue once, and then prompt your dog as needed. This can include clapping, whistling, happy talk and running away from your dog to encourage them to chase you.

In the end, recalls are an invaluable tool that give our dogs freedom and keep them safe, while also being behaviorally expensive. If you need help training your dog to reliably come when called, don't hesitate to seek the guidance of a qualified trainer in your area.

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