How do I get my dog to come back to me?

Tim with his dog Huxley being commanded to stay Picture: Lucie Jordanna Cohen

Tim with his dog Huxley being commanded to stay Picture: Lucie Jordanna Cohen - Credit: Archant

Tim James of Blackstar Dog Training gives his expert advice on recall.

If there is one question I get asked more than any other it is 'how do I get my dog to come back?' Recall, it seems, is the area of training a dog owners struggle with most. The reason, I believe, is that it is the one command too often viewed as optional.

I see lots of dogs that have been taught to sit on command, to wait to be fed, to lie down, roll over or perhaps to sit up and beg or even to play dead. They were socialised well as puppies and so are good natured and comfortable around other dogs.

When it comes to returning to their owner on command, however, things get a little hit and miss. The dog is allowed to adopt more of a take-it-or-leave-it approach. It will choose to come back on its terms, rather than returning every time because it has been told to and – more importantly – because it wants to.

As a dog owner, that should be unacceptable. Your dog's life may depend on insisting on reliable recall. If she is so distracted she begins to run from the park to the nearest exit and, most dangerously of all, toward the busy road beyond, your ability to get her to come back may be the only way to avert a tragedy.

Total recall begins with forming a lasting bond. A young puppy that learns that being with you is the very best place to be will take that lesson forward into adulthood. Call her to you for every meal, for playtime and when it's time for a walk. Then, as the dog grows and learns, success lies in clear communication and positive reinforcement.

Be consistent with your command. Unlike 'sit' or 'stay', the recall command itself is too often seen as a moveable feast – the dog's name perhaps, its name and 'here', or desperate repeated pleas of 'Fido, come here now, you naughty hound!'. Instead, choose a simple instruction and stick to it. The recall command should also be accompanied every time with a clear visual cue; I use outstretched arms.

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While we insist on a dog that will go to its bed or into its crate when told to, recall is too frequently allowed to drift. The dog comes back from a few feet away when there is a tasty treat on offer, but not when there are other puppies to play with. The dog will return to its owner when there are few other distractions, but it elects to ignore any command when it sees a squirrel or smells the ham sandwiches being enjoyed by picnickers at the other end of the park.

The reality is that recall is the most important of all commands and not one where close is good enough. That means you need to give the dog no choice; the decision whether to return to you or not needs to be a no-brainer. It should always be the dog's best option.

I see many dog owners sternly command their dog to come as if inviting them to the world's most boring event. Not a tempting proposition when there is already quite a puppy party kicking off in the park. Instead, what's called for is lots of enthusiasm in the command and lots of praise when she returns. The idea should be to make the decision easy for the dog to make.

So, begin by practicing over short distances and slowly build up control of your dog by insisting on proper recall in a variety of situations and when she is facing myriad temptations. If you praise and generously reward every time, she will quickly learn that nothing is better than being at your side.

Tim James is the founder of Norwich-based Blackstar Dog Training. For further information, visit or call 01603 442431

My top tips for recall

The keys to getting your dog to come back to you every time lie in consistency, enthusiasm and teaching recall slowly and steadily…

1. Dogs learn more in their first 16 weeks than at any other stage in the lives. Start teaching your dog informal recall as early as possible. Call your young puppy's name frequently – such as at feeding times – and lavish praise and attention on her whenever she comes to you. Play fetch with your puppy and always make it clear she has done a great thing when she brings the toy back to you.

2. It may seem counterintuitive, but strong recall begins with a solid sit and stay. As your puppy grows, get her to sit and then command her to stay. Remember, without any release command, stay means stay until you say otherwise. Slowly – very slowly – build up the duration of her stays and the distance between you and then command her to come. Then, when she is reliable, introduce the third D: distraction. Get her to stay while you throw a ball or her favourite toy a short distance from you and she makes the decision to ignore it. Again, build things up steadily – you want her to succeed, not fail, at every stage.

3. Try your very best to command your dog to return to you only once. This isn't easy when she's ignoring you or racing toward the family with a tempting picnic laid out. If, like the owner of the famous Fenton, you resort to repeated and desperate shouts of 'come!' all you will achieve is a dog that learns it can safely ignore your first command and every command that follows.

4. A more effective approach is to carefully watch your dog and its behaviour and to catch early any temptation to succumb to distractions. In other words, command your dog to return to you before she realises there is something distracting somewhere else.

5. Pick your moment to issue the recall command because, as in every other aspect of training your dog, you want her to succeed as often as possible. A young dog running around with other puppies without a care in the world is unlikely voluntarily to end the fun and games to return to you on command. Instead, let her enjoy the opportunity to socialise and then command her to come to you as you see her tire or lose interest.

6. If it's vital your dog does come back, there is something you can try before resorting to going to her to gain some control. Command her to come and then (assuming it is safe to do so), try walking away from her while clapping your hands or whistling. If you have established a bond, she should feel uncomfortable with a greater distance between you and choose to come back.

7. In getting your dog to come back, your body language plays an important role. Early on, get down to your puppy's level and encourage her to come to you with lots of enthusiasm and your arms outstretched. If she comes back, reward her and use those same hands to give her a big cuddle. This will help her associate this signal with bags of praise and lots of attention. As training progresses, continue to use this visual cue alongside your verbal command.

8. An effective way to undermine recall and encourage your dog not to come back is to allow her to play with other dogs on her terms. In her head, this teaches her that you are less interesting than the pack of puppies running around. Instead, when you arrive at the park make her sit and stay until you release her to play or, better still, come up with lots of fun games you can play together.

9. Never scold your dog for not coming back to you. Despite my advice above, you may end up screaming repeatedly as your dog steadfastly ignores you. This is when frustration levels rise and the risk of mixed messages comes into play. If, when she eventually does return, you turn your back, immediately (and grumpily) put her on the lead, leave the park or chastise her in any way, you will simply be teaching her that if she does come back bad things happen. Why, then, would she want to?

10. There are many reasons why incorporating a whistle into your recall command works very effectively. The tone from a dog whistle is consistent in tone and reliable in its delivery. A whistle is devoid of any human emotion – such as insistence, impatience, frustration or annoyance – and the pips from a whistle are effective over long distances. Still, though, you must be consistent in your commands. I use one short pip to stop and sit, two pips to change direction, a sustained single tone to command a dog to lie down, and multiple pips for recall.