“Don’ts” When Training Recall (“Come!”)

In my last post I explained why what I call “Leading” is a more helpful obedience ritual to have mastered than recall (“Come”) when taking your dog offleash.

Still, “Come” can be a very useful command, particularly in various emergency situations. For instance:  your dog is disappearing into the woods; running toward a busy street; about to cross into a “No Dogs” zone; about to step in something gross or dangerous; the list goes on.

Below I lay out the two most common mistakes to avoid when training recall, and my tips to be successful.


The two most common mistakes 

Mistake #1:  Follow through

Your dog runs off after a squirrel, and you shout “Fido, COME! Come here right now!” Of course he ignores you, as you expected, and keeps on going. Or again, your dog discovers the remains of last night’s barbecue in the park; again you shout “Come here! I have treats for you – COME!”. Again he ignores you because his treats are better than yours.

In both of these cases, your dog hears you, chooses to ignore you, and — crucially — gets rewarded for disobeying. Why do I say rewarded? Because by ignoring you he gets to keep doing the fun thing. Therefore you’re conditioning your dog to be disobedient; you’re reinforcing that behavior, and instead of improving it will now get worse.

Mistake #2:  Punishment

You’re chasing your dog around the park for 20 minutes trying to leash him up. “Fido COME HERE! I have a treat, COME!” Finally he gives in, stops romping with his friends, and wags over to you. “Bad dog! Why didn’t you listen?” Or again: the same scene, except you say “Good boy!” and give him a treat; however you then clip the leash on him and drag him away, because you need to get home.

In both of these cases, you punish your dog for coming. In the first case obviously, purposely. But even in the second case, despite giving him praise and a treat. Yes you reward him…but then you also punish him, by leashing him up and walking him away! (If you want more info on this topic, look up the distinction between “positive” and “negative” punishment.)

Keeping in mind you want to avoid those two mistakes — you want to always follow through, and never punish — here’s an outline of my most popular tips and tricks for training recall, quickly and effectively.


The Calm Energy recipe

  1. Don’t say “come” unless you can make it happen. (I.e. “Always follow through.”) Some helpful tricks to accomplish this include using a long leash (say come then reel her in), grabbing the collar and backing up while saying “Come!”, crouching (this is non-threading and inviting to dogs), being fun, shaking treats, squeaking a ball, running the opposite direction.
  2. Once Spot starts toward you, encourage him with a “Good boy!” to mark the desired behavior. Too often people try to wait until he’s all the way done to give any indication that he’s on the right track.
  3. Grab Spot’s collar and praise/rub/treat. If you forget this, you’re liable to inadvertently train what I call the “drive-by” or “fly-by”: Spot grabs the treat and takes off, or simply whizzes past at an arm’s length, and though he came close, it’s no cigar as far as leashing up and having control.
  4. Release your dog after the rewards. This doesn’t just mean let go of the leash/collar (though that’s a crucial part). Use whatever “release command” you use when you tell him he can get up from the sit/lie down, when you tell him he can go outside/go eat, etc. (For my pack it’s “OK!”) You’re basically teaching your dog that “Come!” means a win/win situation for him: if he comes running to you he’ll not only get praise/pet/treats, but also will be quickly allowed to go back exactly where he was, and can continue doing what he was having fun doing in the first place.

This last point inevitably causes the following question:

If I can never say “Come” without releasing my dog back to wherever he was, what should I say or do when I really need him to come (and not go back)?

First of all, we try to build up to the emergency situations. Before your dog is well-trained, try your best to avoid situations in which he’ll be at risk hurting himself or others without the “Come” command. For example: when you get anywhere near a busy street or other risks, put your dog on a long (e.g. 15-30′) leash that you can grab/tug/lead in case of emergency.

Second of all, most of the time people think they need the “Come” command, it can and should (at least during the training period) be replaced with a more dominant command (e.g. Sit, Stay, Lie down, Git!, Leave it, Drop it, Off/Down..) or with a different motivator (Let’s go! Let’s walk!, Get the ball!, Go home for food!… etc.) Experiment with different leadership rituals that will allow you to save “Come” as a purely positive win/win scenario.

Third of all, and most importantly, after your dog is good and trained to jump with joyful obedience at the “Come” command, he’s started to trust that he’ll be released immediately back to the fun after coming and enjoying whatever momentary rewards you hold for him. At that point, you can now start throwing in recall trials where you don’t immediately release, but instead delay the release… or even just leash up and leave. Yes, in these trials/situations, you will be “punishing” your dog. (No matter how many treats or rubs you give him, it’s still “negative” punishment.) However, by this time you’ve put in a solid 1000+ win/win trials, so the 1/1000 slight negative punishment (i.e., removing something fun), shouldn’t make a dent in the mindset you’ve conditioned.