Teaching a Recall

By Sally Bradbury

Recall is less about coming when called and more about having a dog that wants to be with you.

There are lots of things you can do. Hand feeding, clicker training, playing tug or fetch, teaching collar touches and hand targeting, encouraging the dog to check in and reinforcing any desirable behaviours heavily can all contribute to building a solid recall.

Most important, though, is to prevent the behaviour you do not want, especially something that is very self-rewarding. such as running off to play with another dog.

Long Line

Have your dog on a long line attached to a harness. In a safe, fenced area the line can trail. When you want her back, you either wait for her to finish running or you stand on the line when the opportunity arises and walk along it to her.

In an area where you need to keep hold of the line, you will need to keep it relatively short. Let it out longer when appropriate and shorten it again if necessary. This is an art form, which you should practise in a safe area so that if you are worried she will pull you over, you can just let go.

Hand Feeding

Feeding her from your hand outdoors is an effective way of getting focus on you. Start in the garden. Every mealtime, put her food in your pocket or a food pouch, go to the garden, and feed a handful at a time when she is in front of you, wanting the food. Step back, say her name excitedly, feed. Repeat. She doesn’t have to do anything except step towards you and want to eat.

Two or three weeks of this and you should be able to go to the field or park and do this at mealtimes. No running about if she has a full tummy, just go there to eat, and come home again. Then when you are there for exercise, treats can be used to reinforce her for being there with you.

Clicker Training

If she is clicker trained, then you can click and treat any behaviour that you like. For recall, I would click & treat just a glance back at you or looking at you as she walks past. You can throw her the treat and not even need her to come right back to you for the first stages. Gradually, you would shape the behaviour into the complete recall. You add the cue once she’s doing it reliably and, of course, she usually gets dismissed to go again.


Toys can be devalued if she has them all the time. Let her have a chew toy or two and keep the favourites for playing with together. Tug of war is a great bonding game. For the most part, play outdoors rather than indoors, because this can make a lot of difference to the attention your dog gives you when out.

Collar Touch

Teaching a collar touch just means that every time you want to give her a treat, a fuss, her dinner, let her in the garden, or anything else of value, you take hold of her collar prior to giving her the thing she wants. This is actually a very powerful exercise, and the result is that the dog will eventually move her neck towards your hand any time she wants one of the rewards.

Hand Target

Teaching a hand target is similar. It’s easy to clicker train a dog to touch your hand with their nose and can be paired with the collar touch for maximum effect.

Trigger stacking | Meadow Family Rescue

Check In

Teaching a check in and reinforcing desirable behaviours starts indoors. Set yourself a challenge. Put twenty treats aside in a pot in the kitchen and every time she looks at you (not when you ask her to), give her a treat. Count the treats left at the end of the day. Next day, try and beat your record. Then take it to the garden. Lower your expectations for this. And then, eventually, out and about.


One of the biggest reasons for a dog not recalling is because there is something better on offer if they don’t come back. Premack is all about using the rewards the dog wants. Play with the dog, chase the squirrel, or pee on the tree – what the dog wants, the dog can have (if appropriate) for checking in with you first or coming when called. It’s a good solution for the problem of what to do when she sees another dog.

Enlist the help of some willing friends with dogs. Arrange to meet someone with a dog, who will appear at a strategic point. Have your dog on her long trailing line. When she sees the dog, stand on her line and the other dog will stop approaching as pre-arranged. Call her back to you. She can choose to stay where she is and look at the dog in the distance or come back to you and be released to go and play. It will take a few repetitions for her to learn how to earn the reward that she wants. You will need several sessions with several different dogs, and you will also need to vary the rewards. She doesn’t always get to go and play because it won’t always be appropriate; sometimes she gets food, sometimes a game with you.

Your aim is for her to eventually see a dog and return to you when off lead. This gives you time to ascertain whether it would be appropriate to allow her to go and see the dog.

Be Fun to Be With

Once you have added value to your attention, toys, and treats, I’d suggest that when you get to the field/park, you start tossing treats for your puppy to catch, get a tug toy from your pocket and have a game for ten to twenty seconds, then run about and have her chase you. Do some collar touches, hand targets, whatever else she likes to do with you, all still on lead and with the line attached (to a harness), as well. More treats, more play, drop the lead, pick up the lead, unclip the lead, put the lead back on – all while feeding and playing. Do this for a minute or two and finish with lead off, putting toy and treats back in your pocket, and tell her, ‘Off you go’.

Whichever way she goes, you go the other way. Give her some sniff time, then start cheering and whooping and running again, get the toy and treats out again, and repeat ad infinitum.

The one thing you shouldn’t do when letting your dog off lead is ask her to sit and wait and then take the lead off and let her go. She’ll spend that waiting time scanning the horizon and anticipating the release.

When you get to the field or park with your dog, you want her thinking, ‘Is she going to feed me, is she going to play with me, or is she going to tell me to go?’ When you let her off the lead, you want her thinking, ‘Is she going to feed me, is she going to play with me, or is she going to tell me to go?’