3. Come Back When Called

Exercise 3.1- Loading the Whistle

Coming back when called reliably is one of the most important behaviours you need to teach your pup!


I highly recommend you train recall three ways:

  • a clear hand signal (which can be seen from a distance),
  • a verbal cue, 
  • and a working dog whistle.

But why would my dog, who is a family pet need a whistle?  

  • Unlike you, whistles have no feelings. They sound the same to your dog, no matter how you are feeling – does this sound familiar, it should do as it applies to clickers too – Exercise 1.2!
  • Training a dog requires repetitive actions and whistle commands are easy for a dog to learn and recognise, as you can make a consistent tone on a whistle.
  • Whistles help to ensure your dog’s safety off the lead, whilst allowing them to let off some steam and explore.
  • It’s a simple tool that you and your family members can use time and time again with multiple dogs and future dogs.
  • Whistles can transmit sounds much further than we can shout and so there are no croaky throats from using a whistle too much.
  • On a more fun note, you can show off to your walking companions that your dog comes back each and every time!

As always we’re going to train this response in a step-by-step fashion.  Let’s look at loading the whistle first.


For the first week we just associate the sound of the whistle with an amazing new food your dog has never had before and that tastes absolutely amazing!  Pip the whistle and find that whiskery chops with the food that’s all there is to it.


Dogs that are fed mainly dry food will go bonkers for a premium brand wet dog food so that’s my top tip.  Do this at least once a day for a week.


While we’re doing this we can also start teaching the hand signal, there are a couple of important points to notice.


Make your arms outstretched very clear hand signal first then say your verbal cue, in my case “Jim, Here!” and then drop your hands down.  You dog is getting used to moving towards your hands with the other exercises in Week 1 so should readily come towards you, feed several treats with one hand while you hold your dogs collar with the other hand.  


Holding the collar like this is really important so your pup learns to accept restraint as part of the recall cue. 


Dogs often don't like feeling restrained but they need to be very comfortable being held by the collar, or the harness.  This is really important because you might need to grab your dog in a hurry and if they are nervous of being held or grabbed then they could shy away from you and get themselves into trouble.  So, we hold the collar nice and gently and feed the food and this gets the dog used to being restrained.


Recall is about keeping your dogs safe so you don’t want your pup to bounce back grab a treat and then run off again!

Exercise 3.2 Classical Conditioning

This is the last exercise for Week 2 and the good news is Exercise 3.2 is exactly the same as Exercise 3.1!  That’s right, I’d like you to do a second week loading the whistle!


With recall training in particular we’re not aiming for a rational, well thought out decision from your dog.  We don’t expect him to make a moral choice about coming back when he’s called - what we want from the dog is an unthinking reaction to a cue, in all manner of situations.


Getting that reaction takes some time and effort and the finished product is an automatic trained response and that’s why we’re going to condition the whistle for another week to really embed the sound of the whistle in our dog’s mind as being associated with the best food in town!


We’re making use of a type of learning known as classical conditioning or associative learning but by any name quite simply, it is learning by association.  Classical conditioning is not used to train a dog to consciously act or behave in a certain way, but rather conditions them to unconsciously react in a certain way.  


Classical conditioning happens everywhere all the time, without our help.  One of the most obvious examples of classical conditioning is the dog that goes crazy every time he hears the jingle of the car keys.  A set of keys by itself has no special meaning for dogs but when those keys are linked with going for a walk, they can trigger as much excitement as the walk itself. 


While classical conditioning occurs naturally, we can also consciously use it as part of training and it’s one of the most powerful training tools available. Classical Conditioning does not focus on what the dog does or how he behaves instead classical conditioning focuses on how the dog feels and that’s why it’s so powerful.


Exercise 3.3 - Come Back When Called - Tutorial 1

Pre-requisites: Exercise 3.1, 3.2 and please read through Exercise 1.6 as it is very relevant to recall in particular.



Overview of Recall Training


So, on the face of it, ‘come’ or ‘here’ is a pretty easy command to teach. 


If you’ve been following along with the exercises so far (3.1 and 3.2) you’ll already have got a great head start on ‘Come’ very easily by using the classical conditioning step for the whistle before you start practicing.


The key to this step is a massive pay-off in the form of a much larger than normal reward and a very novel high value food.  With some dogs this can almost buy you a recall with very little effort!


Hopefully you’ve also been practicing in your easy training place you arms out gesture and when he comes, you’ve been praising him, grabbing his collar and giving him a treat. 


So far so good…none of this of course is the part that people have trouble with though. What really frustrates everyone is

  • getting the dog to respond no matter what, and/or
  • maintaining the command over time.


Many people start out in their training with a beautiful response to the recall, only to have it deteriorate to the point where they’re lucky if the dog even flicks an ear :-(


When you’re just starting to teach your dog to come back when called there are some very important things to keep in mind:


The Golden Rules of Recall Training:

  • Create a strong recall by practicing often and ONLY when you can enforce it
  • Start with minimal distractions and work your way up
  • Don’t call your dog when you know he’s going to ignore you, only use your recall cue when you are 99% sure he will listen otherwise just go and get him.
  • Make sure nothing but good things happen when he comes to you and always be nice to come to.  


  • In fact, make sure that really great things happen when he comes to you!
  • Recall is so important, you want your dog to run back to you as fast as he can and to be excited for it. You have to think from his point of view, sitting is good and he gets a nice treat, but running back to he gets that amazing food ‘Oh my goodness the best treat ever!’  So that really high value food ONLY comes out for recall.  Over time you’ll eventually switch to the more boring treats in a few months time when your recall is cracked.  For now though that super duper food is just for recall, so to your dog it’s a really special treat.


Note: If your dog tends to be not too food motivated and likes toys then think about rewarding your recall with a toy and an energetic game instead.  My dogs will do anything for a tasty treat but for some dogs food is a low arousal option and they appreciate a good game with a toy much more.  Only you know what works best and is most rewarding for your dog.



The other Golden Rules of Recall Training:

  • Don’t call your dog if you are, for any reason, about to do something unpleasant. If he hates taking a bath, don’t call him when it’s time to wash him. This will make him wary about coming to you in the future.  In situations like these, you’ll have to just go and grab him yourself.
  • Never, ever, under any circumstances, call your dog to you and be angry with him.  Calling a dog to shout at him or angrily put him in the car is the quickest way to ruin your recall. He won’t know what you’re shouting at him for and he’ll most likely associate your anger with him coming to you.


Assuming you have completed exercise 3.1 and 3.2 let’s crack on – if not, do these first!  Please don’t skip the whistle conditioning!  I think some folks are doubtful about the need for a whistle with a pet dog but it makes such a huge difference.  



Exercise 3.3 - Beginner Recall 

  1. With your dog on a short lead and walking along, toot on your whistle anywhere between 3 and 8 pips while backing quickly away. 
  2. Hold your dog’s collar and mark and reward generously when your dog catches up with you and
  3. Then play the Up & Down game (Exercise 1.1) for a few times before giving your verbal release cue ‘Okay’ at the end.  This gets your dog used to coming back and staying around you for a few minutes until released to go play again – an important association.


The rationale for several pips on the whistle once we begin recall practice and not just one (as in the conditioning exercise 3.1) is that it’s often handy to train a ‘stop & sit’ to a single blast of the whistle.  We’ll cover training an emergency stop on Week 6.


When your dog is responding well which they should do immediately, practice the same way using an easy distraction placed on the floor in front.


Coming away from an easy distraction (as shown in the video and in Exercise 1.6 which describes distraction training in more detail) is important to start early as often that’s when we use our recall cue (to call the dog away from a distraction) and we need to be practicing in context.


As always, first you practice at home with minimal distractions and keep a lead on.

After he’s responding 100% of the time, progress to off-lead practice around the home.


Now we put the dog in more challenging situations and work for success every time. Indoors there aren’t many distractions, but as you’ve perfected it and your dog can do it every time you can move outside with the lead back on.  Go into the garden, it’s a place the dog is familiar with and sees multiple times a day, however there are more sounds and scents to distract him. 


Then you practice out and about near the house / garden – there are more distractions here so again put the lead on.  Don’t underestimate the benefits of doing loads and loads of short recalls on a normal lead as shown in the video in the home and out and about.  


Once he’s responding 100% of the time out and about, take the short lead off and put on a long line (a long training lead or clothesline).  Let him trail the line all the time so that eventually he doesn’t even realise it’s attached.  It’s your safety net for ensuring that you can give him some freedom and develop your recall without the risks of him failing when a high level distraction like another dog proves too much for his current state of training.


Important safety note: a long line should only ever be attached to a harness, never direct to the dog’s collar.


Try to do a couple of sessions per day where you work in 10 – 15 recalls each.


Then (and this is equally important), let him go back to whatever it was he was doing before you called him.  You don’t want him to learn that coming to you means the fun is over. So call him, praise/treat him then encourage him to go back to whatever he was doing.


With most dogs and working progressively it’s possible to establish the foundation of a good recall in 4-6 weeks.   It’s important to take into account your dog’s breed tendencies and natural instincts in the process.  Some dogs, particularly sight hounds and their crosses, can have a very high prey drive which may mean it will never be possible to trust your dog off lead in the countryside.  My greyhound Mia is an example, she has an extremely high prey drive and can only be let off lead in a safe and secure paddock. 


For the dog with ‘average’ drives you shouldn’t have any problem and it’s wonderful to be able to walk without the worry of your dog running off and getting into trouble and also so much more enriching for your dog as he can run off lead, have fun and burn off loads of energy.


Note for puppy owners: when pups are tiny and dependent on us for everything their natural instinct is to want to stay close and not wander too far.  It’s easy to get lured into a false sense of security with this and feel that you don’t need to bother with recall training.  All this is very likely to change however when your dog hits adolescence, a time when natural hunting and scenting instincts fully emerge and he will start to feel much more independent and confident in himself – you have been warned! 


Following this training process will give you a good recall but with a young dog be constantly on your guard and don’t hesitate to go back to training on a long line at the first sign of trouble!