Many people struggle with getting their dog to come back to them. It can be difficult to first get your dog’s attention and then make the choice to return to you. Recall must be a positive experience for your dog one hundred percent of the time. Dogs are reinforced in the environment with great smells, the thrill of a chase, the joy of digging, and just the freedom to run around in the backyard. Each dog is very much an individual, so it is important to find what reward is exciting to your dog. Most people would not choose to come inside to sit in a boring meeting if they were sipping a cool drink out by the pool in the warm sunshine. We all come inside for the boring meeting because the promise of a paycheck keeps us motivated. Maybe there are donuts, our boss is funny, or we enjoy feeling connected to other people at work. Chances are it is a combination of factors, just as it is for our dogs.
When I adopted my Great Pyrenees mix dog, he did not seem to respond to any cues or even his name. Saying his name while near to him and giving him a tasty snack was the beginning of his training. He could always count on his name bringing good things and started to trust that coming over to me would be rewarding. I did not expect to get his attention from a long distance at first. I always kept him on a leash outside and practiced his name and rewarding him for looking in my direction. I became a reliable source of good treats and gentle attention. (Here are some of the best dog treats for teaching an awesome recall.) Building that trust and knowing what to expect when he approached me, made him interested in spending time by my side. When I had tried playing with a ball or toys, he acted like he did not know what to do with them. When I raised my energy too high, it caused him to look away and show signs of avoidance. We continued with food as his primary reinforcer, and he stayed motivated to work with me.
Choose times to work on recall when you can call your dog and then let them go back to what they were enjoying. Dogs will notice if they only get called to come inside and lose their chance to do something interesting. Or if they get called and then are uncomfortable when they get to you. Many dogs do not want to be called over for a hug or experience body language that is overwhelming to them. This varies with each dog, so learning how your dog wants to be pet or possibly not pet too much can impact the reliability of your recall. If someone called me over to pat the top of my head, I would not be as likely to return to them again even for chocolate. Get to know your dog and what is comfortable for them so when they do come to you, it is a positive experience.
No matter what skill you are teaching, how often you practice will determine how likely your dog is to perform the skill. Practicing recall can be fun to teach with games. You can have several people sit in a circle and call your dog back and forth to each person. There are many videos online of recall games. Here is one by Kikopup. And as always, consider your dog’s safety. When practicing outside, keep them in an enclosed area or on a leash. Have fun, be consistent and know that you can teach your dog to return to you.