How to train your dog to have a good recall (FAQ)

Photo of sheepdog Ezra demonstrating a good recall

QUESTION: How to train my dog to have a good recall? He won’t come back when I call him.

ANSWER: To get a good recall on your dog isn’t difficult, but it sometimes takes patience, determination and leadership. Learn how to improve your dog’s recall.

Information on this page is for training the dog to have a good recall when well AWAY from livestock. For training sheep and cattle dogs to work around livestock, refer to our training articles or online training tutorials.

In an emergency

What should you do if you’re out with your dog and it won’t come back?

You should not release a dog that you can’t trust to come back. But let’s imagine you thought the dog’s recall was OK. (After all, it comes to you quickly at home in the garden – doesn’t it?).

Only do this if it’s safe to do so. You MUST make the safety of yourself, your dog, and of others, your top priority!

If the dog won’t come back when you call it – simply walk away – and keep walking. The dog might ignore you at first, but it will soon realise you’ve gone, and come looking for you. It seems unlikely, but it works. There’s an underlying problem though – read on.

What if that doesn’t work?

OK – OK every dog’s an individual and there’s always the exception to every rule, so let’s say the disappearing act above didn’t work. The chances are, you gave-in too early, but just supposing you didn’t – you spent what seemed like hours trying to catch the dog, and missed your favourite TV programme!

What can we do now? Well (assuming you have your dog safely home) we need to go back to basics in the garden or somewhere secure, that the dog can’t escape from. Our aim is to train the dog to have a good recall every time you use the command.

The dog’s recall should be 100%

The dog must respond to your recall immediately – not just when it feels like it.

Basically, if the dog isn’t coming back to you, it’s not bonded properly with you. It may well wag its tail when you pat it. It may come running to you in the garden when it feels like it. But if it was properly bonded with you, there’d be no question of wanting to come back or not. When you called, it would come. (FULL STOP).

Bonding with you means the dog’s accepted you as its leader. If it’s not coming back to you, it doesn’t fully accept your authority. It hasn’t fully bonded with you.

Pulling on the lead, by any chance?

I’d bet if your dog doesn’t have a good recall, it pulls on the lead when you take it for a walk! As I said above, the dog should see you as its leader. If you’re out walking and the dog pulls on the lead to either side, it obviously thinks the way IT wants to go, is more important than the way YOU want to go. It isn’t accepting your judgement as leader.

If the dog pulls in the direction you’re going, it wants to go faster than you do (or can). That doesn’t suggest it respects you as its leader, does it?

You need to spend time with the dog – not just take it out into the garden or the park to play. Of course you need to spend time playing, but you also need to calmly make it clear to the dog what the rules are. When you want the play session to end, you tell the dog, and it should accept your decision. Don’t be harsh – just firm, fair and consistent.

When you open a door or a gate, the dog should wait until you either go through first, or you tell the dog to go through. It should NOT barge through ahead of you! You don’t barge past a leader you respect!

Don’t mistake pulling on the lead with the dog stopping to relieve itself though!

Perfect the lead etiquette

A great way to get the dog’s respect as leader, is lead training. Most dogs will walk on a lead (after a fashion) but I mean teaching the dog to walk properly on a lead.

The lead should be slack for around ninety-five percent (95%) of the time. This is quite easily achieved with calm patience, and determination.

The favourite trick is reward. When the dog’s walking nicely, we’ll go somewhere the dog loves to go (reward). If it’s pulling on the lead we’ll verbally correct the dog (we use a firm “NO”) then carry on walking. If it continues to pull, we’ll correct it again, and turn around and go in the opposite direction to the one the dog wants to go (no reward).

When the dog’s been walking with the lead slack for a few moments, we’ll gently praise it, and continue in our original direction – calmly and without shouting (proper leaders don’t get excited or shout).

I should add that when you praise the dog, it’s likely to speed-up again. You must correct this in the same way. It’s important to be able to praise the dog without it interpreting praise as “the task is finished, carry on as before” (very common in all dog training).

If the dog’s responding to firm but calm corrections, we keep walking in the direction it wants to go, but if it’s ignoring verbal corrections, we turn around and go the other way again – and so on.

If you do this properly, the dog will quickly learn to walk with the lead slack most of the time.

Now for the great recall!

Teaching sheepdog puppy Pru to have a good recall
It’s easier to teach a dog to have a good recall when it’s young

Once your dog will walk properly on a lead, and respects you fully, you’re in a far better position to train your dog to have a good recall.

We put the dog on a long leash or cord and take it to the enclosed space we talked about. Remember, for this to work properly, the dog must walk well on the lead without you having to remind it. It won’t work so well (if at all) if the dog pulls on the lead – it must RESPECT the lead.

You arrive at your enclosed space, and walk around freely before extending the lead by a fair amount. Then you allow the dog to mooch around for a moment, before you crouch down and call the dog (in a friendly, welcoming voice).

If the dog comes back immediately, you praise it and even play with it if you wish, before allowing the dog to drift away again (still with some lead in reserve). Then call the dog back again.

Still coming back 100%? . . . Lengthen the leash.

Repeat this several times, but don’t keep on so long that the dog gets bored. If it gets bored with coming back, that would be counter-productive. Think of things the dog likes to do (on the lead) to make it fun for the dog. Perhaps throw a ball a little way, and encourage the dog to bring it back – it all helps.

If the dog’s losing interest and you can’t find a way to re-kindle its attention, take the dog home and try again in a day or two.

New leash of life…

Assuming the dog isn’t bored, if it’s coming back to you immediately every time, you could try letting go of your end of the long lead…


The dog will feel the long leash pulling on its collar as it drags along the ground, and to the dog it’ll feel as though you still hold the other end (and therefore, have “absolute power”). The dog respects the lead.

Let the dog mooch around nearby for a minute, then crouch down and call it back. Again, it should come back immediately. If it doesn’t, simply take it home and try again tomorrow (or within a couple of days).

Crouching down makes us appear smaller to the dog – and less daunting.

If the dog’s still coming back immediately, put it back on a normal length leash, but release your end so the pull on the collar is reduced. If the defaults, go back to the previous stage or even the one before that – and so on – I’m sure you get the idea!

Soon, you will be able to let the dog run free as long as it’s within the law.

Lead training is dealt with in our sheepdog training tutorials – “Sheepdog selection and preparation“.