How does a dog learn to have great recall?

OK, I have a question for all of you dog training pros out there:

If your dog has great recall, how did you train him/her?

Dublin's intense face

I’ve always thought about this, and one of the most puzzling things to me is that the dog I know with the BEST recall wasn’t that seriously trained (or trained with methods that I disagree with, or have been taught are flat-out wrong).

Dublin is the dog with the most outstanding recall that I know. She lives, as you may remember, next door to my parents and my dad considers her his surrogate dog; he spends a ton of time with her. Dublin will stop on a DIME when you call her name. Dad told me that this past week, she got out of the gate to chase a cat in the neighborhood, but she stopped immediately when he called her — in the middle of a cat chase! And ran right back to him. This astonishes me, and yet I’ve seen her do it. She comes right to you, every single time. Dublin responds to anyone who calls her name, too — even to her family’s little girls.

But this is what bugs me. When I asked my dad why Dublin has such great recall, he always tells me this story: “When Dublin was a puppy, she was about to wander into the street, so I grabbed her and smacked her pretty hard and told her not to do that again. She really learned, though! She’s come perfectly ever since.”


All of the reading and training I’ve done tells me that this can’t be true, that dogs don’t learn from physical punishment, that Dublin must be afraid of my father, etc. If you’ve seen them together, however, it is impossible to believe that she comes out of fear. This dog trusts my father utterly; she adores him. In fact, my dad might be the only person that Dublin truly loves; she’s more or less indifferent to everyone else. I’ve honestly never seen any anxiety or fear when she interacts with him. Furthermore, he doesn’t use physical punishments with her on a regular basis. He swears this was the only time he ever smacked her.

Dublin has not really received any formal training; I don’t think she even knows how to go “sit” or “down” on command, but she is an excellent Frisbee player, athlete, and all-around wonderful family dog.

So, what do you think? Why does Dublin have such great recall? Can it really be the smack from my dad when she was a puppy, as he claims?

How did you train YOUR dogs to have great recall?

19 thoughts on “How does a dog learn to have great recall?

  1. Susan teaches an online perfect recall class… I don’t have the link to hand but here is her article about teaching recall.

    Ultimately, I think the key is LOTS of practice. Our GSD is learning a pretty solid recall after about 9 months of work. The key is to start out low distraction, high reward — and while training at a new distraction level (off leash or outside for example) I try not to use our recall command unless I can enforce it (I can physically catch her and bring her to me if she ignores me).

    My girl is pretty toy motivated so outside we practice sit-stay THEN do a recall and then I throw the toy for her to fetch. It really makes her WANT to come, which has worked beautifully. We’re still not 100% at all distraction levels but we’re getting pretty good.

    1. Thanks, Melissa! Great tips (particularly your routine of sit/come/fetch). And nice to have found a fellow SGSR adopter! Riley is beautiful, and you’ve clearly done so much great work with her!

  2. I’m pretty lucky in that my dog is so “eager to please” that he tries so hard to do the right thing. He comes on command every time, and this is true with a lot of retriever types. Although, I don’t want to generalize. Every dog is different, of course.

    I say find that one thing your dog is nuts about. A tennis ball? Real meatballs? Hot dogs? Have that on you every time you call your dog for a few weeks and your dog won’t forget it.

  3. Also, about the “punishment” training, this also works for my dog. If I get in his face and yell “NO!” it gets the point across and it’s unlikely he’ll try it again. Like I said, he’s very eager to please. For example, I caught him on the couch one time without permission. Literally once. I yelled “No!” not even very harshly, and he moved to the floor, never to try again. Actually, it sounds pretty sad and mean, but we have a no dogs on the furniture rule.

  4. Both punishment and positive reinforcement work in their own respective ways. With some dogs/breeds being more stubborn, punishment really does help. What gives punishment a bad name is improper use of it (people forget that positive reinforcement is still very important, and they also get carried away with a smack on the butt). Dogs who are only punished when they do something wrong but never praised aren’t going to respond to the technique as well as a dog that’s being presented two opposite ends of the spectrum. Also, dogs should never be abused and people use punishment as a replacement for patience.

    Training dogs successfully is a simple behavior modification practice: when they do something right you give them a positive experience to associate with it and when they do something wrong you make sure they have a negative experience associated with it. This is simply shaping what actions/activities they find attractive and unattractive. Some dogs are just more sensitive to their owners’ feelings than others and are therefore easier to train. Dublin seems to be one of those dogs that someone is just lucky to have 🙂

    Considering how impressed you and others seem to be with Dublin always responding when called, it’s safe to assume she gets a lot of praise for it or at least has gotten heavily praised for it in the past when it was new. She now feels good when her name is called and she responds, because that’s what she has been made to feel.

  5. I don’t believe that smacking a dog when he’s about to run into the road teaches him recall (but it possibly teaches him not to run into the street if your dad’s timing was perfect).

    More likely Dublin values people more than anything else, even cats. And an excellent recall is part of his nature.

    While I think every dog can improve his recall, I don’t believe every dog is capable of a turn-on-a-dime recall like Dublin. Just like no matter how often I ride my bike, I still don’t have good enough balance to ride without using the handlebars.

    Honey is motivated to to stick close. But I reinforced her recall by playing games on walks. I let her get a few feet ahead of me and I hide behind a tree. When she finds me and comes running back, she gets a yummy treat or a game of tug. We do this on almost every walk.

  6. I unfortunately can’t comment on the training of my own dog as she has far too much of the basenji/sighthound element in her that if something spooks her or she sees something she wants to chase there is no way she will listen even if she has perfect recall inside the flat – hence in Hanoi she never goes off lead sadly (well other than in a tennis court with its doors firmly shut!).

    But I wanted to tell you about the Vietnamese who completely follow the ‘give them a smack training if they run away’ which I know is frowned upon and I know they do because they are a very behind nation in terms of dog ownership/pet welfare but crazy as it sounds it somehow works! I am pretty much the only person who doesn’t let my dog off lead in the little city parks and yet all the Vietnamese have their dogs off lead and they mostly return promptly when call – a necessity with very busy roads in every direction. Maybe it’s all because the dogs secretly love riding on motorcycles so much so that the end of play time doesn’t actually mean the end of a fun outing…. see the below link with some surprisingly happy looking malamutes!

  7. A couple of things with regard to aversives in training (a smack and a telling-off) …

    First, we humans LOVE making connections, to the extent that we make them where they don’t exist. Lucky shirts, increased crime rates during a full moon, etc. Just because your dad thinks that the aversive incident is the cause of the dog’s great recall doesn’t mean that the DOG thinks that is the reason ;-).

    Second, aversives do work. Of course they do. They’ve been used in training for eons, for all sorts of companion and domestic animals. There are reasons not to use them, but there has never been any contention that aversives can’t be made effective. What IS proven is that reward-based training makes learning faster and easier on the animal, doesn’t cause stress, build relationships, and is easier to use. If one trains with aversives, one had better have damned good timing. With reward based training, the trainer can screw up without consequences.

    I never stop training my dog’s recall. At least once (and sometimes 50 times!) on a walk, I’ll do recall practice. Easy recalls, hard recalls, recalls when my dog is already heading back to me, recall games, etc.

    I use a few good recall games; there are some really good videos on Youtube for ideas.

  8. Ah, this is the one thing that I really dislike about punishment. It is so insanely reinforcing for the human who doles it out… because it works when you need it to. It’s very easy, then, for us to go right back to it without thinking about it as much or as hard as before when we need to.

    Elli’s turned into quite a huntress in Montana and her recall is still 95% reliable – it’s just those times when gophers or deer or bunnies come around that it drops right back to 0%. And if she’s off-leash, I do have to break her prey drive by screaming at her in a mean voice or I will absolutely lose her. She runs too damn fast for me not to. Luckily, these situations are very few and far between. 🙂 And I’m well aware of the fact that my screaming is reinforcing to me because it works…

  9. I agree about the punishment. I’ve always gone off the rule that when you want your dog to come and whether it takes half an hour or you just catch them somehow, you never get mad or they’ll have a negative association with returning to you.

    Kaya has awesome recall and I think a huge part of it is her fetch drive. I guess it’s put me in the position of “that awesome person who throws the ball over and over” rather than “that boring person who controls me.” Even when her ball is not around, she has great recall.

    Norman is still a work in progress. He’s not really toy motivated so I use lots of treats and praise but he’ll still tune me out sometimes, though he’ll never run off which I think is where the real danger is. I think I’m going to figure out some practice games to play in the yard to make it fun for him.

  10. Never yell at a dog, unless you think that will stop him from running infront of a truck! I work my dog on recall everyday. Sydney loves it and we also play, “Wait.” Both are LIFE SAVING for dogs. Some dogs, like mine are food motivated, so Sydney loves snap peas and we play that at breakfast and dinner and in between.

  11. I kind of doubt it was the smack that worked, but until dogs develop vocal chords, we’ll probably never know for certain. Recall is so tough and some dogs are just naturally better than others. I work with Jack all the time, but still can’t compete with a whiff of coyote.

  12. I try to use positive reinforcement as much as possible. But there have been very few instances where I gave a smack on the behind for bad behavior. A long time ago, my dad and stepmom had a Cocker Spaniel named Grady. They wanted to get rid of Grady because they couldn’t potty train him. So they gave him to me. That night, his first night at my house, Grady decided he had to go pee. Me, being a light sleeper, heard him. I jumped out of bed yelling, smacked him on the back end, and put him outside for the night. This happened again on Grady’s third night at my house. That was the last time he ever went to the bathroom in the house. I suspect he already knew he wasn’t supposed to. But since he’d never been punished before, he didn’t care. Can physical punishment work? Probably. But if there’s a better way, why not do it that way instead?

  13. Well, my dad smacked our farm dogs as puppies to keep them out of the road and all of them grew up to be great at recalls, too. I guess my point is that one thing like that is probably not going to scar most dogs for life. Would I do it that way? No. But I don’t think it meant that my dogs as a kid lived in fear of my dad.

    I think for training purposes, you have to find a really high value currency. I know Jen over at Never Say Never Greyhounds has fantastic training and recalls on her Greyhounds (and even a section on her blog where she talks about the training) and she grills steak or chicken to use to train her dogs.

    In our house, Kuster has a pretty good recall, because he wants to play with toys with us interactively. The boy lives to play tug, and we use that to our advantage. Morgan, on the other hand, would totally flip us the bird if we asked her to come back for a toy. No way would I trust her off a leash, for a lot of reasons!

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