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Teaching Your Dog to Come When Called

Teaching your dog to come to you when you call her (also known as the recall) is the most important lesson you can teach her. A dog who responds quickly and consistently when you call her can enjoy freedoms that other dogs cannot. She can play in the dog park, hike with you in off-leash parks and keep out of trouble in most situations. Even if you never intend to have your dog off her leash, things happen. Collars break, leashes slip, gates or doors are inadvertently left open. When an accident happens, having a reliable recall could very well save your dog's life.

Teaching a dog to reliably come when she's called is not necessarily easy, though. Some dogs do seem more naturally inclined to come when called. Typically these are insecure dogs who never want to stray far from you, or they're dogs who are so motivated by your attention that they find coming to you quite rewarding. The vast majority of dogs, however, need to be taught to come when called. Although you might spend more time teaching this behavior than any other, the benefits make it well worth the investment.

Realistic Expectations

No matter how much effort you put into training, no dog is ever going to be 100% reliable at coming when called. Dogs are not machines. They're like people in that they have their good days and their bad days. Sometimes they don't hear you call, sometimes they're paying attention to something else, sometimes they misunderstand what you want, and sometimes they simply decide that they would rather do something else. And, let's face it, sometimes our training is inconsistent or confusing.

There are breed differences in trainability when it comes to the recall. Hounds, for instance, are notoriously difficult to teach this behavior. Some sighthounds, such as whippets and greyhounds, are not highly motivated by the usual rewards, like dog treats and toys. They often need more creative incentives—furry toys that move quickly or wonderful treats like gorgonzola cheese. Scent hounds, like beagles and coonhounds, are often so distracted by the smells around them that they can be oblivious to your calls. This isn't to say that these breeds can't be trained to come when called. They certainly can—but you'll need to be more patient and persistent when training some individuals of these breeds. Regardless of the breed you have, the goal of training is to make sure that your dog understands what you want her to do when you call her and to establish a strong habit of coming when called so that she's less likely to choose to do something else.

Recall Fundamentals

  • Whether you're teaching a young puppy or an older dog, the first step is always to establish that coming to you is the best thing your dog can do. Any time your dog comes to you whether you've called her or not, acknowledge that you appreciate it. You can do this with smiles, praise, affection, play or treats. This consistent reinforcement ensures that your dog will continue to “check in” with you frequently.
  • You'll usually be more successful at getting your dog to come when you call if you run away from her while you call. Dogs find it hard to resist chasing after a running person, especially their pet parent. This is important to keep in mind if you're in an emergency situation—for instance, if you see your dog running toward a road. As hard as it is to resist running after your dog, if you scream her name and run in the opposite direction, she's much more likely to change direction and come after you. You should only run after your dog in a situation like this if you're confident that you can stop her before she reaches the road.
  • Dogs tend to tune us out if we talk to them all the time. Whether you're training or out for an off-leash walk with your dog, refrain from constantly chattering to her. If you're quiet much of the time, your dog is more likely to pay attention to you when you call her.
  • Appreciate every effort your dog makes at coming to you when you call. Often, a dog will start off running toward her pet parent but then get distracted by something and veer off in another direction. Pre-empt this situation by praising your dog and cheering her on at the beginning, right when she starts to come to you and before she has a chance to get distracted. Your praise will keep her focused so that she'll be more likely to come all the way to you. If she stops or turns away from you, you can give her feedback by saying “Uh-uh!” or “Hey!” in a different tone of voice (displeased or unpleasantly surprised). When she looks at you again, smile, call her and praise her as she approaches you. Reward her generously when she arrives. Whenever you're out training the recall, be sure to bring delicious treats that your dog loves, diced into bite-sized pieces. It's especially effective to use special rewards that your dog doesn't get at any other time, such as chunks of chicken breast, cooked chicken livers, cheese, hot dogs, baby food or bits of sausage.
  • Progress your dog's training in baby steps. If she's learned to come when called in your kitchen, you can't expect her to be able to do it at the dog park when she's surrounded by a pack of her buddies. That would be like a child suddenly jumping from first grade to eighth grade in school! If your dog comes when called in the kitchen, try the upstairs hallway next. If she comes there, try the backyard. Then continue to practice in the backyard—but arrange for kids to be playing next door so that there's mild distraction. Try the hallway again, but this time scatter a few of your dog's toys on the floor in advance. Next, progress to your front yard or somewhere relatively quiet in your neighborhood. Finally, try your local park, but make sure there's no one around to distract your dog when you first test her recall. Use a long training leash (15 to 40 feet long) whenever you're training her outside of a safely fenced area. Only when your dog has mastered the recall in a number of locations and in the face of numerous distractions can you expect that she'll come to you when she's playing at the dog park or chasing a squirrel in the backyard.