Recalls, Poisoned Cues and Distractions

What is one of the most important things that we need our dogs to do? Yep, come back when they are called. If they come when called, then they can have so much freedom, running free on the beach, in the woods, in parks etc. If they don’t come back when they are called, then they generally end up being stuck on a lead when being exercised (which does limit how much the dog can act as a dog) or they end up being one of those annoying dogs that run up to everyone and every dog.

Why have I chosen this particular subject for a blog post? Sadly, I have a dog that has ‘lost’ her recall. Is she being naughty? stubborn? defiant? dominant? stupid? No, she just doesn’t understand what I want of her. This is going to be a very honest post of a dog trainer’s mistakes (note I say my mistakes, not the dogs…it’s not her fault)

Why has this happened? She’s been very well socialised with dogs and people from a young age, and much as I hate to admit it, at the moment, other dogs and people are much more exciting that I am. I made the fatal mistake of not making her greeting of people and dogs a reward for doing good stuff. Add to this the fact that she has had health issues that have resulted in a long period of time being spent on restricted, on lead exercise. When freedom came, it was just so exciting, and her recall became sloppy. Lack of training and reinforcement is the biggest cause of her poor recall; I got sloppy and took her recall for granted. Big mistake. The problem is now, that when she does get off the lead by accident, she will not come back and makes a bee-line for everyone else. Apologies to all that she has annoyed recently. She is also an adolescent, a teenager, with all the joys that brings.

This lack of recall is now affecting her flyball training as, although she will generally come back to her tug in training; in competition she can’t cope and her recall to tuggy goes out of the window. In fact, her recall goes out of the window full stop! We’ve now also progressed (regressed?) to her not coming in from the garden when called. Bit of a wake up call when you have to go and fetch your dog out of the garden every time!

I have now ‘poisoned’ the recall cue, so that it doesn’t mean come back to me as quickly as you can as soon as I call you, but now means do as you please while I say this meaningless word several times with several variations. Sound familiar? Having trained numerous of my own dogs (and other people’s) to spin on a sixpence and head back at full speed; it’s a bit of a shock when your darling adolescent dog sits there looking at you with her tail wagging and won’t come to you, or she legs it across a field to say hello to everyone else and totally ignores you. Our recall cue now means just do as you please, I’ll come and fetch you.

I’m sure many of you can relate to this problem. It is definitely a very common problem and is usually proceeded by dogs owners shouting across to another dog owner ‘It’s OK, she/he is friendly’ The problem comes when the dog or person that your dog is approaching doesn’t like dogs for one reason or another and let’s face it, my dog is out of my control.

So what am I going to do about it?

  • Am I going to restrict her to being on lead for the rest of her life? No. She will be on  a lead or a long line until our recall is reliable, but that won’t be forever and she will be able to go off lead in secure areas where she cannot go and annoy anyone else.
  • Am I going to stick an electric collar on her and punish her for not coming when I call? No! That will totally confuse her, is likely to make her aggressive to whatever she was concentrating on when she was shocked (whether that is people, dogs or whatever) and it won’t actually teach her to come back when called, it will only punish her for being away from me but won’t teach her to come back to me.
  • Am I going to run after her and tell her off for not coming back? No! All that will do is make her frightened of me and make her more likely to run away from me. It may also turn into a great game of chase, leading to even more recall problems.
  • Am I going to get the treats out and bribe her to come to me? No! Yes I am going to use treats and other rewards, but I am going to use them to reward her for doing stuff that I want her to do rather than using them as a lure/bribe to keep her close.
  • Am I going to teach her a recall using rewards? Yes! I am going to go back to basics and re-train this recall. I may need to change the recall cue (remember that I said our  recall cue now means do as you please). I am going to teach her that coming back to me is fun and so rewarding.

Let’s be honest now; this recall isn’t going to get better if I ignore the problem, it is only going to get worse!

So how am I going to teach this recall?

This is a basic overview.

  • The first step is to reward her for responding to the cue in a familiar (smallish) environment. I will be using the living room and kitchen, both very familiar and hence not very distracting. She will be rewarded to turning towards quickly when I give the cue. I want a whiplash like orientation towards me when I give the cue.
  • Next step will be to work on this outside in the garden on our own and then with one or more of the other dogs present; starting with the dogs that she is least likely to want to play with.
  • We’ll then progress to novel environments (starting with those have have no people or dogs present, then areas/times with few dogs/people about and then places with lots of people/dogs). She will be on  a lead to begin with and then a harness and long line as we build towards keeping that fast response to the recall cue.
  • As her recall develops, we’ll gradually increase the distraction levels until she is reliable in all situations.

How will I know whether the distraction level is too high for her and how will I adapt the training to lower these distractions to a workable level?

Distractions can be anything, from people stood still, walking, running, playing football, sitting, eating etc, to dogs on lead sitting still, on lead and walking, off lead walking, off lead running, off lead running, off lead fetching a ball, multiple dogs playing, to horses, sheep, squirrels, rabbits, ducks swans etc. Basically anything that is going to take your dog’s focus and attention away from you.

To gauge whether the distraction level is too high (i.e. you are too close or the activity is too intense), ask your dog to carry out a very well known behaviour (for most dogs, sit is ideal). If your dog cannot carry out that behaviour, then the distraction is too much. Move away from the distraction (2 or 3 meters) and try again. If the dog can sit, then you can practice your recalls (on a lead or line remember) and then gradually move closer to the distraction. If the dog still can’t carry out that well known behaviour, then you will need to move even further away.

It is essential that the dog is trained around distractions otherwise you end up with a dog that is fine when there is nothing else about, but won’t recall once there are dogs or people or wildlife about.

The line or lead is just there to stop the dog making errors (i.e. learning to run off). Every successful recall needs rewarding, although what the reward is can be random. So it could be high value food, low value food, verbal praise, a scrtitch, a game with a favorite toy, being allowed to go and say hello to a friendly person or dog, being allowed to go and sniff, or swim….basically anything that the dog likes.

With a bit of effort from me, Wish should soon have her recall back. This lesson will teach me not to be complacent about my recall again. We’ll incorporate a lot of games and fun into our recall training (like I’ve done with the other dogs) and that reliable recall will soon be ours.

Happy and successful training. I’ve written a step by step plan for me and Wish. If you’d like a copy, drop me and email on


Author: caninetutor

Fully qualified dog trainer and educator, delivering workshops around the UK.

5 thoughts on “Recalls, Poisoned Cues and Distractions”

  1. Thanks for this post. I’m in pretty much exactly the same situation, a professional dog trainer with an adolescent male dog that finds other dogs much more rewarding than me at the moment. Like you he’s on a long line unless we’re somewhere I’m absolutely sure he can’t be a nuisance to anyone else and we’re working our recall games. You’re not alone 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Brilliant blog and just what I needed to read after my dog did a runner after a runner with a dog, and got kicked by the runner.
    I’d be very interested in your step by step plan as ‘here NOW’ isn’t working. I need to think of an appropriate recall word and practice practice practice! Thanks

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A great post Pauline, I am having similar problems with Max (2 and a half) He has a good recall in the park, and can be off lead, and is good in the house. At Flyball he is over aroused and cannot think, so his recall is virtually non existent, I can get him back to me if I drop a ball in front of him as he comes off the run. But if I didn’t do that I have no chance!! Have Ben working on this for over 6 months and not getting anywhere!! Very frustrating for me (he is having a good time)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. may be you need to work on this at a greater distance to the flyball ring, just to give your dog more chance of success and on a long line?
      With Leon (who wouldn’t come back when he had a ball), I worked on recalls in tournament car parks, then a little closer to the ring, then near the ring when there was no activity, then ringside during warm up, progressing to ringside during racing.
      I did all this before he ever went in the ring to race. When he did race, he always came back to his toy (well, I think twice he jumped out of the ring, did a lap of honour and then came back to me).

      Lower the distraction levels and try again. Keep me posted Jo 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: