Recall Remedies
by Mary Lynne Doleys

“Why does my dog come running when I rattle the cookie jar, but head for the hills when I call him?” I am asked this question frequently when I consult with families about their dogs’ behavior. Regardless of the issues I am called in to help with, many owners have limited success calling their dogs to them, and they typically don’t know why. Here are some tips to help you understand and correct poor recall.

A dog’s-eye view

Let’s look at things from a dog’s perspective: Imagine that Rover is out in your yard rolling in something unmentionable when you call him inside. He trots to the door, preceded only by the stench, and you take him straight to the tub for a bath, clearly displeased.

Next day, he’s outside joyously playing with a Frisbee when you call him. As he comes in, you take the toy from his mouth and toss it back outside; game over. His paws are muddy, so you wipe them with a towel, despite the fact he’s sensitive about having his feet touched. Later, when he’s managed to snatch something delectable out of the trash by upending the bin, you call him to you and when he arrives, you tell him off while wresting the last tasty morsel from his lips.

From the dog's perspective, it’s not surprising when, the next time you call Rover at the dog park, he hesitates, thinks it over, then heads in the opposite direction. One way to help ensure a reliable recall is to avoid calling your dog to you to do anything he finds unpleasant. Don’t call him over to reprimand him, cut his toenails, or prize open his jaws to extract one of your possessions. Think like a canine: What’s in it for him if he comes when you call – reward or punishment?

Practice makes perfect

When working on the recall, make it your practice to call the dog only once and walk away from him if he doesn’t oblige. I once worked with a trainer whose pet peeve was hearing owners repeat requests to no avail. “How many dogs have you got there?” she would frequently ask. In other words, if you are working with one dog, make only one request. It was one of the most useful tips I ever learned in a training class.

The best place to begin recall work is inside your home or a fenced yard, so your dog will not be in danger if he doesn’t come when called; never chase the dog or follow him around if he’s chosen to ignore you. Also, pay attention to the way you call your dog: do you use a friendly, inviting tone or do you sound like a drill sergeant?

When your dog does come at your request, be sure to reward him with a treat or a pleasant “good boy” and some affection. In my experience, some owners are so focused on fixing problem behavior that they forget to reward the dog when it behaves nicely. Make it easy for your dog to understand when he’s done the right thing by rewarding him instantly and generously.

Who’s in charge here?

Let’s imagine that you never call your dog to do anything distasteful, and you always reward him for coming on request. Why might his recall still be unreliable? This is likely due to the dog’s perception that he is the one in charge rather than you.

Many owners believe that because they provide their dog with food and a good home, the dog knows they are in charge. Trouble is, the dog may be under a very different impression, since canines don’t see things the way we do. Many people give their dogs confusing signals about leadership on a daily basis, without realizing it. Some owners admit, “He’s definitely the one in charge, not me!” But they typically don’t know the cause or the cure.

Again taking the canine’s perspective, if the dog is decision-maker and is taking care of business, why should it leave what it’s doing to go to someone it sees as lower ranking? In nature, the pack leader always has the option to come and go as s/he sees fit.

Here are just a few signs that a dog may believe it is in charge:

  • Pulling on the leash
  • Excessive barking
  • Fear of noise
  • Aggression
  • Food issues
  • Separation anxiety
  • Jumping up
  • Refusal to come when called.

If leadership is the issue, working on the recall alone won’t resolve the problem. The most effective way to proceed is to assume the role of leader in all daily interactions with your dog. For help with this, I recommend Jan Fennell’s book, The Dog Listener, which details a kind, effective method for providing your dog with leadership, thereby improving all kinds of behavioral issues–including the recall–that arise when a dog finds itself in the stressful role of pack leader in our human environment.


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