How to get your dog to come back (the dreaded recall)

If your dog ignores you when it’s time to go back on the lead, you might be standing there without a dog, but you are most definitely not alone!  It’s one of the most common problems in the dog-human relationship.

Why does it matter?  Not returning when called can be frustrating for the owner (not great for the relationship), it leads to dogs not getting as much off-lead time as they otherwise might (not great for fitness) and has some serious safety implications.

Let’s take a look at the recall and what can be done to make you both the recall champions of planet earth.

Imagine you’re in the park. You call the dog, ‘Here Boris, come boy, come here‘ but Boris doesn’t come running back to you!

Why didn’t he come running back?

He doesn’t know that ‘Here Boris, come boy, come here‘ means that it’s a very good idea to get back to you as quickly as possible.  ‘But he does it at home‘ I hear you say.  He might well return when called at home, but in a different environment, different rules apply.  Is it such a good idea at the park to come running back when called?  Or does returning mean that the freedom and fun come to an end? Does it mean that the lead is going back on? Does it mean you are going home where you might wait another 23 hours for your next off-lead fun? Does it mean you get yelled at or yanked about by a frustrated human?  Returning is not seeming like a such a great idea anymore, is it?

I see it almost weekly. People struggle to get their dog back and then proceed to chastise him.  This will not encourage him to return quickly in the future. It will only teach him that when you call, you might get angry and are best avoided.

Whilst I do understand human frustrations (there’s nothing special about me, I get frustrated too), we really do need to show our dogs that we are a safe haven if we expect them to trust us.


My general procedure for ensuring dogs learn that returning is an excellent thing to do is as follows (I’m calling your dog Boris so that I don’t have to keep saying, ‘the dog’):

Boris may have learned to ignore the sound of your voice when you recall him outdoors. I suggest teaching him to come to the sound of a whistle; I use a gun-dog whistle (Acme Dog 211.5) because it’s a nice sound and a good tone for dogs.  Where the following instructions call for a treat to be given, use a small piece of chicken, a slice of hotdog or something else which Boris really enjoys.  Food treats should be approximately the size of a fingernail to allow for lots of training without the dog overeating or getting bored with the food. Food treats could also be replaced by a favourite toy for some dogs (common with Border Collies).

When should you move from one step to another?

If Boris is responding well at least 4 out of 5 times you may proceed to the next step.

If Boris is responding well 3 out of 5 times, repeat the step.

If Boris is responding well less than 3 out of 5 times, go back to the previous step.

Step 1: With Boris nearby (indoors), blow the whistle and give a treat. Repeat 15 times per day for three days.

Step 2: Within the home and with Boris further away from you, perhaps the other side of the room, blow the whistle and give a treat as soon as Boris reaches you. Repeat 10 times per day for three days.

Step 3: Within the home and with Boris in another room from you, blow the whistle and give a treat as soon as Boris reaches you. Repeat 10 times per day for three days.

Step 4: Within the garden, blow the whistle and give a treat as soon as Boris reaches you. Repeat 10 times per day for three days.

Step 5: In a safe area outside of the home, and with  Boris still on the leash, blow the whistle and give a treat. Repeat five times.

Step 6: Within the safe area, remove the leash and allow Boris to have a run-around for five minutes before you begin training. Continue with Boris running free (as long as it is safe to do so) but each time he comes within five paces blow the whistle and give a treat. Immediately allow Boris to continue running free. Repeat 10 to 15 times for three days. This step may be completed with a long line attached if you do not have a very safe area.

Step 7: Over the next 10 (approximately) training sessions repeat the instructions for step six but gradually increase Boris’ distance from you when you blow the whistle. So you may increase the distance by five paces per training session.

Step 8: Repeat steps six and seven with added distractions (this will be easier to do with the help of a friend and their dog). Maybe a dog on the other side of the field which is too far away to distract him too much.

Step 9: Repeat steps six and seven but increase the distractions slightly. Perhaps a little nearer to the distraction.

Step 10: Continue to add distractions in small increments. Perhaps getting closer to them or even playing with another dog if appropriate.  If you advance to the level of recalling when playing, then it’s best to wait for a pause in the play, otherwise, he may not even notice the whistle if he is in full flow.

Step 11: Continue to practice in other safe areas where you may want to let Boris off leash. New areas should first be practised without the added distractions.

Note: The reason Boris comes to you when you blow the whistle is that he gets a treat and is also permitted to continue to play. This behaviour should be maintained by regularly blowing the whistle during off lead time, giving a treat and allowing Boris to go and play again.  On any occasion when you need to put Boris back on the lead, give him a few treats after attaching the leash. This will help to ensure that he is always happy to go back on the lead.

The advantage to using a whistle is that it is very distinctive.

The disadvantage is that you may leave home without it.  I always keep one on my keyring. However, the very same process can be done using a distinctive word or sound. I often use a WUB sound, just because it’s distinctive and can cut across other noises.

Shay Kelly is the author of Dog training and behavior: a guide for everyone and Canine Enrichment: the book your dog needs you to read




6 thoughts on “How to get your dog to come back (the dreaded recall)

  1. Hi thanks for all of the above, good advice that I have followed more or less. I now have a 10month old spaniel who is pretty much 100% in ‘easy’ situations and who will come back almost immediately usually when I blow the whistle- unless he is in the midst of a run or following a scent. In those cases nothing, and I mean no thing I can provide, can tempt him back when he’s having such fun. I grit my teeth, wait for an appropriate break in his activity, blow and reward on (eventual) return, then let him off to play again. Anything I can do to make him 100% instead of 75%?

    1. Generally, in those situation where you know he will ignore you, don’t call him. Wait till there is a better opportunity, like when he looks up or breaks off his strong focus. Then increase the challenge only very very slowly. Find something extra special to reward with, maybe a great chase the ball game, or some other favourite toy

  2. I love this. It explains everything so clearly and perfectly.
    I love your explanation of things, I’ll have to use them on my clients and recommend them here! Thankyou!

  3. Not sure if you’re still monitoring this, but for step 7, does that mean it’s for 10 days? And then step 8 and step 9 are for another 10 days each as well?

    1. Not necessarily days but training sessions. The idea is that we make adding new criteria as easy as possible and then build up again.

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