5 Fun Ways to Build Recall Behavior


Reading Time: 10 minutes

Debbie, my friend from the dog park, is waging two battles with her Beagle, Chuck. I told you about the battle of the bulge in Step Away From the Dish, Doggie, You Are Way Too Fat! and I’m happy to report that this one seems to be on a winning trend. Debbie and Chuck are working on losing weight together. Chuck is continuing to drop his excess poundage. Debbie, however, seems a bit stalled, but she knows that it’s normal to hit a plateau at some point, so she’s not giving up just yet.

The other battle, though, Debbie despairs of ever winning – it’s the struggle to get Chuck to come when called. Once Chuck gets it into his head that he wants to head off to parts unknown, he uses “selective deafness” to get his own way – he just doesn’t hear (or pretends he doesn’t hear) Debbie calling him back. “Chuck, come! Chuck, get back here! Come! I said come! Chuck, you turd, no Milk bones for you tonight! COME!”

Well, that’s Beagles for you.

I had a similar problem with my Janice. She’s an extremely smart dog, but also very strong-willed, so convincing her to come, without fail, when I called, wasn’t easy. It took a fair bit of time.

Leroy was much easier to train in this regard than Janice was. I know that often in my posts I’ve suggested that Leroy isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed (in fact, I’ve referred to him as a doofus more than once). But he’s more submissive than Janice, and more respectful of my position as Alpha. Just to be fair, too, he’s not a stupid dog. It’s just that he pales in comparison to Janice, who, if she were human, would probably be a rocket scientist.

So, how did I bring Janice around? I did it by using the two things she loves most – treats and play. I’ve suggested that Debbie try some of the following ideas with Chuck, and if you’re having trouble getting your dog to come when called, you should give them a try as well. Learning to come on command is one of the most important things your dog can learn, and can even save his life, if he should happen to run toward traffic, or in the direction of some other danger. So, grab some treats, and let’s get started teaching recall to your dog with these fun activities.

1. Come!

Any activity designed to reinforce the idea that your dog should come to you when called is, obviously, going to have to begin with a basic understanding of exactly what “Come” means. You can shout “Come” until the cows come home, the way Debbie did with Chuck, but if your dog doesn’t know what you’re asking him to do, you’re just wasting your time – kind of like those people who think that the louder they speak to someone who doesn’t know their language, the more likely that person is to understand what’s being said.

Most animal behaviorists believe that dogs are capable of developing a vocabulary of at least 200 words, so you want to make sure that the word “come” is part of your dog’s vocabulary. Here’s how you do it.

Put your dog on a 6-foot leash. I’m assuming that you’ve already taught him “Sit,” since that’s usually the first command most people teach their dogs. With the dog in a sit, and you facing him, back away a step. Then gently pull him toward you, and put him into the sit again.Gradually increase the number of steps you take before saying “Come,” encouraging the dog to move toward you, and having him sit. Make sure to praise him.

Most dogs are going to catch onto this very quickly, and will go into the sit without being told. Then, of course, it’s time to tell him what a wonderful, amazing boy he is, and give him a treat.

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2. Keep Away!

I know, that sounds a bit counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? But what you’re going to do here is reinforce the “Come” command by actually running away from your dog. Once you’ve mastered “Come,” and your dog is consistently adopting a sitting position in front of you, you’ll add in the “keep away” element. Call your dog to you, and once he’s sitting, turn to your left or right and walk quickly or run for a few steps, saying “Come.” You’ll still have the leash on the dog, so if he’s a little unsure of what you want from him, you’ll be able to guide him in front of you and into the sit.

Now here’s where it really gets to be fun – as your dog gets the idea, move the exercise outdoors if you’re not there already, and use a really long leash (you still want to be able to maintain control, but you also want to be able to really increase the distance between you and your dog). Go through the same motions as you did before, with the command to come and the dog going into a sit. This time, though, turn around 180 degrees and run! You don’t have to go very far the first time around – just enough so that the dog has to chase you a bit in order to get in front of you and into the sit. Again, follow this with a lot of praise, and a treat.

Janice loved this game! I’d take off to the far end of the yard, hollering “Come!” and she’d try to make it to the gate before I got there so she could sit in front of me and give me that big, slobbery Boxer grin of hers, wiggling her stubby little tail, sitting perfectly, and waiting for her treat and her cuddle. I’m pleased to say that this game worked so well, I’m now able to recall Janice all the time. We still play the game, though, just because it’s fun!

Now, this game might not work for Debbie, because she has asthma. But even though she can’t really run, or move all that quickly, she can still play this game with Chuck by tossing rewards in front of him, and then calling him back while tugging gently on the leash, and offering another treat – he’ll soon get the idea that if he wants another treat, he’s going to have to come back to her in order to play again. So, you can adapt this game to your individual level of ability. The main thing is to keep it fun, show lots of enthusiasm, and reward your dog when he gets it right.

3. Whiplash!

With the “Keep Away” game, you’re working on one of the most important parts of the recall – the part where the dog has returned to you and is sitting in front of you, waiting for further instructions. With this game, though, you’re actually going to work on what can happen in the beginning – that risky time when a dog might turn away from you in favor of something else that he finds more interesting.

So, what you’re going to do is begin by tossing a treat a few feet in front of you, so that the dog moves toward the treat. You can tell him “Go get it,” so he knows that it’s all right to move away. Then, just as he’s finishing the treat, say “Come,” and guide him back to you and into the sit. Give him another treat – ideally, something that he likes even better than the treat you threw out in front of him. Then praise him.

As you progress, you’ll throw the treats a little farther each time. With this game, timing is everything – as soon as the dog has the treat and is eating it, call him back, and give him a higher-value treat. What you’re trying to do is convey the message that coming when he’s called is going to result in something really good happening.

This game is a lot of fun for high-energy dogs – they love running to get a treat, and then doing the “whiplash” turn to get back to you for an even better treat! So do this often – back and forth, back and forth. Once your dog masters the “Whiplash” game, you’ll be more confident that he’ll return to you if he’s running toward danger.

4. Hide and Seek

Yes, really! This game that children love is also a lot of fun for dogs. You can play this game anytime, anywhere, and the goal of the game is to get your dog to come to you anytime, anywhere. It’s most effective if your dog knows to sit and wait in one place, but if he doesn’t, you can always enlist the help of a friend to restrain the dog while you go and hide. I used to play this game with Leroy out in the garden, and he just loved running to find me behind a tree or a shrub, or blending in with the pole beans!

Here’s how it works. Have your dog wait (or have your friend hold him) in one place. Then, find a place to hide. Call out “Come!” and when he finds you, tell him what a remarkable, outstanding dog he is, and give him a treat. You can start off by hiding in the same place a few times, and then switch it up by moving to another hiding place. Don’t make it too complicated, though – you don’t want your dog to get discouraged. If it looks like he’s really confused, jump out of your hiding place and call him again. He’ll still figure he’s done a really good job of finding you, and of course you will reinforce that belief with petting, happy words, and of course, a treat.

It’s a really good idea, too, to play the game when your dog doesn’t expect it. If he’s looking away from you in the house or yard, find a place to hide and call “Come!” Again, praise and offer a treat.

A word of warning, though – if you’re playing hide and seek in an unfamiliar location, it’s even more important that you don’t make the hiding place too hard to find. I made that mistake with Leroy once – we were wandering the beach, and he turned to investigate a tide pool. I chose that opportunity to duck into a small cave in the rocks, and then called him. Maybe it was the wind, or the salt water, or the rock barrier, or a combination, but he couldn’t seem to get my scent. He sat down next to the tide pool and proceeded to howl a lung up. I scrambled out of the cave and called him to me, feeling like the worst person who ever walked the planet – poor Leroy probably thought that I had abandoned him, didn’t know why I’d do such a thing, was heartbroken, and just wanted his human back! I still feel terrible thinking about it.

So, keep the game reasonably easy, but not so easy that it doesn’t challenge your dog. And never do anything that will cause him to think that you don’t want him anymore. Poor Leroy….

5. Round Robin

This game is going to require the assistance of friends. It builds on “Keep Away” and “Whiplash.” With this game, your dog is going to learn that coming when you call is always better than anything else that is going on.

If you’re working with just one helper, stand facing each other, about 10 feet apart. If you’re working with two or more helpers (which is actually better), form up in such a way that the dog is standing with the person in the center of the grouping (you will not be in the center). Everyone will have treats, but you will have the best treats. Now, one helper will call your dog, and give him a treat when he comes and sits.Then, you will call, and give the dog a better treat. As you progress, your helpers will randomly call your dog, and give him treats when he responds.

As the game progresses, you will call the dog before he reaches the other person who has called him. It’s pretty much a given that he will turn and go to you, since your treats are so much more desirable than what anyone else has to offer. Then, take it to another level – have your helpers make a huge fuss over the dog when calling him (but they’re not allowed to use the dog’s name – that would give them an unfair advantage). The dog will probably be a bit confused to start with, but ultimately will still go to you for the better treat.

With this game, your dog learns that turning and running toward you is always the better option. When you think you’ve got it nailed, do one more thing – give all your helpers the same treats you’ve been using. If he decides that anyone else with the same treat is just as good as you, go back to having your helpers use the less desirable treats, or have them offer no treat at all. When you get to the point that your dog comes to you every time, no matter what’s on offer, then he’s recall trained

This is another game that’s great for high-energy dogs, but if the dog seems to be getting tired, stop. Much progress can be undone due to the dog becoming overtired and confused.

These games are all fairly time-intensive, but there are also a few “quick and dirty” approaches that you can take just to reinforce what your dog has learned in the previous exercises. They take mere minutes, if that, and can go a long way toward keeping the idea of coming when called at the forefront of your dog’s mind.

1. Come and Get Your Dinner!

Unless you free feed your dogs, as I do, you’ll have certain times of the day when you prepare meals. So, while you’re getting dinner ready, have your dog sit and wait. Then, once everything is suitably prepared and in the dish, move a few feet away from your dog, and say “Come!” Then, when he’s sitting in front of you, put the bowl down and let him have his meal. You can switch this up a bit by having him sit and wait in the kitchen while you take his bowl somewhere else in the house. Then, call him. Dinner is his reward for coming when called.

2. Get Your Ball!

Get two balls. Call your dog. When he sits in front of you, throw a ball. Once he has it and he’s looking at you, say “Come,” even if he’s already moving in your direction. Then, throw the other ball, and say “Come.” If your dogs love balls as much as mine do, you can play this game over and over with just the two balls.

3. You Are So Perfect!

This is simply based on praise and reward. Call your dog, and then when he comes to you, get down to his level and tell him what a wonderful boy he is – he’s the best dog in the whole world! Then play with him, or rub his tummy, for at least 3 minutes. He’ll love it, feel motivated to come to you, and you’ll benefit as well from quality time spent with your dog.

Related Content:

An Essential Guide to Dog Commands and Dog Training (Video)
Dealing with Needy Dog Behavior
When Your Dog’s Behavior is Good and When It is a Sign of a Problem (Video)


So, I’m thinking that Debbie is going to have a bit of an uphill road with Chuck – Beagles are notoriously difficult when it comes to recall. But I also think that these games will help – maybe Chuck will never get to the point where he comes every single time Debbie calls, but hey, even if he doesn’t learn everything, learning a little is better than learning nothing.

As is the case with anything you teach your dog, though, don’t expect overnight results. You’ll have to play these games repeatedly, and some of them may work better than others for your dog. Find out which games he likes best, and keep them exciting – change the rules, add new challenges, and build on what he learns by creating new distractions. And if at some point the game doesn’t seem to be fun anymore, stop, or try another game. The more fun your dog is having, the more he’s going to learn.

I need to close off for now. Leroy is out in the garden, and it looks like a squirrel is harassing him, or he’s harassing a squirrel – I’m not sure which. “Leroy, come!”

Good boy, Leroy!