The reason that many dogs don’t come when called is a simple one – the consequences are not rewarding for them. Remember our golden rule – “all behaviour that gets rewarded gets repeated.”
More often than not, we call our dogs to come either towards something they’ll find unpleasant; like giving them medication or bath time, or away from something fun; like when it’s time to go home from the park, or after they’ve escaped out the front door.
Smart dogs learn – coming when the humans call is no fun for me!
The method for teaching a dog a reliable recall is quite simple – we need to make it a rewarding choice for them most of the time.
Think of it like building up a positive bank balance – every time you call your dog to come and they enjoy the result of doing so, you’re putting money into the bank. Our goal is to save up enough that if we do occasionally have to make a withdrawal (by calling them away from something fun or towards something unpleasant) it won’t make much of a difference to our account balance overall.
If you've been working on improving your dogs recall, but not seeing the results you'd like, the problem can most often by determined by asking these three questions:
Repeating your recall cue teaches your dog that they can ignore the first few times you call. Over time you’ll have to call more and more, until your recall cue loses its effectiveness altogether.
Remember that for a recall to be reinforcing to a dog, the reward they receive after coming to you must be of equal or better value than what you were asking them to leave. If you ask your puppy to recall away from a possum, and try to reward them with a liver treat, your recall cue will begin to lose its effectiveness. Your rewards for recalls should be very high value, and you should try not to use the same thing every time to keep things exciting for your dog. You should definitely be using plenty of non-food rewards!
To build a successful recall it’s crucial to practise the cue when it doesn’t matter – otherwise the cue won’t work when it does matter. Remember to practise in locations where your dog is capable of succeeding, and then slowly increase the difficulty by adding distractions.