A critical skill for your dog: Coming when called!

By Mindy Cox, BS, CPDT-KSA



(Please read this important article note: We are not advocating off-leash walking or training in public spaces. Unless your dog is 100% reliable and will return to you immediately when called (even when highly distracted), it is unsafe for your dog. In addition, it can be unsafe for other dogs as well if your loose dog runs up to them. Many pet parents struggle on walks with their reactive or worried dogs. These dogs do not respond well to other dogs coming into their space. Please be a good dog neighbor and keep your dog on leash! Work on these exercises in your fenced backyard or on a long line. And please follow your community’s leash laws.)


It’s fun when your dog is reliable and well-trained enough to immediately come to you when called even with lots of distractions competing for attention. The other day I was at our local beach (which allows off-leash dogs) and there were several dogs playing. I could tell that an owner was getting frustrated as he called his large breed dog over and over with no greater success each time he yelled. The dog continued to play with the other dogs and completely ignored her owner. Why? Probably because there was no strong built-up history for the dog coming when called and being rewarded, the dog figured, “Why listen when I’m having so much fun here?” Or perhaps the dog listens great at home but the owner was expecting his dog to respond under very new and difficult conditions, something for which the dog was not trained.

Should the pet parent punish the dog when he finally gets her? Well, I think he should roll up a newspaper and hit himself in the head for asking the dog to work above her level by placing her in a situation that she was not trained for! Coming from off-leash play at the beach is graduate school or Ph.D. level training. (And punishing your dog is a great way to get her to NOT come to you in the future.)

One time, I was walking my three high-energy dogs off-leash around our quiet neighborhood. All of a sudden a rabbit popped up and my Australian Shepherd mix, Runi took out after it. I let her have some fun for a moment and then called her. She returned to me immediately.  I rewarded her with a tossed tennis ball, one of her favorite activities. You know what? If I didn’t know she would respond, I would not be walking her off-leash! That behavior took lots of time, patience, and reinforcement to achieve; it did not happen overnight, but I’m so glad that I can trust my dogs.

I got a very quick video (below); sorry for the bad technique! You can see a rabbit running across Runi’s path; this was after she had chased it up the street and then it turned and ran in my direction. When I called Runi she came immediately. Check it out.


Want your dog to come when you call? Check out my 5 tips.

Tip #1: Follow the 5 rules of recall

 If you adhere to some important training principles, you can begin to build up a solid foundation.

1. Never call your dog for anything unpleasant. Including nail clipping, bathing, or having his leash clipped on to go home from the beach or park. In short, anything that might give him pause the next time you call him. And even if it seems like it took forever for him to finally come to you, don’t punish him; it will make him think twice about repeating that behavior.

2.  Never call your dog if you are not sure he will come. All recalls should be successful recalls. Work at your dog’s level: If he has a kindergarten-level recall, don’t give him a graduate assignment like being called away from a fleeing rabbit. Here’s one way to test if you want to call your dog. Will you bet $50 that he will come when you call? If not, don’t do it. Instead go and get him.

3. If you call your dog and he doesn’t come, you must make it happen. Run over to him and put a treat in front of his nose, backing up as you get his attention so he follows you. Or clap your hands, make funny noises, or run the other way.  Do anything that will work. Then don’t set him up to fail again.

4. Never repeat the command. Resist the urge to call over and over and over. It only teaches your dog to tune out the command. Call once and, if necessary, use rule #3: Make the recall happen.

5. Fabulous rewards get fabulous recalls. If you want your dog to stop whatever interesting doggie thing he is doing and come running to you, make it worth his while. Use extra yummy treats—no dry biscuits here!—or a well-thrown ball, if that is your dog’s fancy. This is not the time to be stingy!

Tip #2: Reinforcement is key.

Reinforcement increases behavior so use the one that is meaningful to your dog and reinforce desirable behavior every time. For a difficult distraction use the best reinforcement and consider giving more of it to reward your dog (such as handing a treat to your dog every second for 10 seconds to pay your dog for a great behavior). Find the reinforcement that is meaningful to your dog whether food, toy, or other. This may vary depending on the situation.

You have voice, body, and food lures to get your dog to come. Another key is learning how to pay your dog. Lots of distractions compete for your dog’s focus.

 Tip #3: Distractions & Timing

Smells and movement trigger a dog’s interest. Social dogs will be attracted to people or other dogs. Every dog is different. Anticipate what will be challenging for your dog: squirrels, rabbits, and lizards. Plan to work at your dog’s level for that situation and distraction.

It’s easier to call your dog when you’re a few feet away from him than 50 feet, and it’s easier when the distraction is farther away. Timing is important too. The longer your dog interacts with or becomes focused on the distraction, the harder the recall becomes. Call quickly and before your dog gets too close or too invested in the distraction. The more difficult the recall, the bigger the reward should be, both in quality and quantity.

Tip #4: Work at Your Dog’s Level
This drive and enthusiasm is such a joy to watch

Don’t put your dog in situations that he or she is not ready for. If your dog won’t come to you when she’s running loose on the beach, don’t let her loose at the beach. Figure out what is reinforcing the undesirable behavior and remove it. (For example, if she gets reinforced by playing with other dogs on the beach and ignores you, don’t allow her access to that reinforcement.) Build up your recall success, staying at each level in each different environment until you are near 100% successful. Then add more difficulty. Having problems? Make the exercise easier to gain success.

 Tip #5: Thinking Ahead

Eventually, you want to trust your dog. Practice in these areas with a long line to give the illusion of freedom but maintain training control. When she is reliable on the long line, graduate to her dragging her regular leash so you can grab hold of it if things get too challenging. Take steps slowly always working at her level so she stays successful.

In the video below, my dogs are in a down-stay and I call them one at a time (which you can’t hear in the video. I call using the dog’s name and the cue, for example, “Zander, come”. When they get to me they get praised and then I toss them a ball, a very high-value reinforcer for them. If I had not built up this solid foundation of stay and come, I would not be doing this in an unsecured area off-leash. 

Training Tips: If your dog does not have a reliable stay (as good as the dogs in the video below), have someone hold him or her. Or use a long leash to keep your dog safe if not practicing in a fenced, secure area.

Now get out there and practice, patiently build your dog’s skills. Have fun and stay safe!

Bonus Training Tip:
The first step to a great recall is to build strong focus and attention. Get started today with our May I Have Your Attention Please course.

Listen to the audio version of this post.