Teaching Dogs Reliable Recall

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Mr. N goes off-leash hiking on a regular basis and we’ve been working a lot on his recall the past year. I would say he’s about 97-98 percent reliable at this point. I’m of the they are dogs and things happen and there is no 100 percent reliability school of thought. He never doesn’t come back but from time to time, his terrier brain takes over and it takes him an extra minute or two to focus.

Mr. N checking to make sure I’m still following him

I was very proud of him recently when he was in full throttle and chasing a squirrel and came running back to me when I called him.

  1. I don’t “poison” his recall cue. I don’t use it to call him for baths,  or anything else he might find unpleasant. Mr. N usually don’t want off-leash hiking time to end so I’ll usually tell him to wait so I can clip his leash rather than calling him to me. 
  2. Only use your recall cue if you’re at least 90 percent positive your dog will come to you. If you call them repeatedly when you’re not sure they’re going to come back, you’re just decreasing the effectiveness of the cue and teaching them that they can blow you off. 
  3. Recall means the really high value rewards come out. Steak. Cheese. Liver. Fur tugs. Life rewards (going to say hi to another dog, being given permission to chase the squirrel). It’s an easy decision between chasing a squirrel and kibble. 
  4. Recall games. I’ll hide from Mr. N so he can’t find me which reminds him that he needs to keep an eye on me at all times. You can all practice with a friend/group of people and take turns calling your dog and rewarding your dog. Mr. N will respond to Sage’s recall cue too because he usually gets rewarded by Sage’s human. 
  5. Practice in low distraction environments first and build it up. Start first at home in a quiet environment and then gradually add distractions and different environments. Use a long line if necessary. 
  6. We’re always practicing recall. We work on it several times a week in a mixture of different settings. Home/public space/outdoors. I also reward Mr. N for checking in with me periodically. He does it naturally but I make sure to reinforce that behavior. 
  7. Dogs are dogs and you never know if they’re going to have a bad day or it’s the one day they can’t resist saying hi to that dog across the street. Pick your off-leash environments carefully both for the sake of your dog and the other dogs and humans around. Playing ball off-leash next to a truck route is a horrible idea no matter how well-trained your dog may be! I don’t let Mr. N off-leash around busy roads, horses (if I know they’re there) or places where there’s a lot of foot traffic. 
What do you do to teach reliable recall? 
Mr. N with the hiking with dogs group

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22 Responses

  1. Emma

    April 27, 2015 10:40 am

    We don't. We are scent hounds. It is possible, but it takes a lot of work, so it is simply easier to keep us on leash, less stress for Mom. We do come most of the time when called and we often get rewarded, but we are not reliable if there is a critter. Good for you Mr. N. Mom's last dog was always off leash and always came, but our minds are different.

    Reply
  2. Beth

    April 27, 2015 4:04 pm

    We only practice reliable recall on leash (indoors we do off-leash, but Barley prefers to stay beside me inside anyway, so our recall practice is more sit-stay practice that just happens to end in a little recall work). Barley's prey drive is just too high that if she saw a dog or a kid, she'd choose them every time–no matter how good my rewards were–and that's not a risk I'll ever be willing to take. We use the long lead in the backyard to practice with more distractions. Sometimes we'll go to a fenced football field and practice coming to heel/side. The most important thing for us, though, is having realistic expectations because our outdoor recall practice also often incorporates sit-stay practice; since Barley's not wandering on a trail on her own, we have to practice something else, too, so I can get far enough away to be able to call her to me 🙂 She doesn't like for me to get far away and if I go too far, she'll get up and come to me regardless of whether I've called her or not, so I have to be aware of how far she'll let me go and gradually add distance so we can practice longer recalls.

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  3. K9s OverCoffee

    April 27, 2015 6:10 pm

    Great post on such an important command! Our boy Buzz's recall is excellent, even around distractions. I make sure to always have one of his favorite balls on me when we practice our recall outdoors. We practice having him come along to our mailbox to check the mail in the afternoon, off-leash, and then reward with ball playtime. Works like a charm 😉

    His sister Missy's recall has become much better than it used to be, and while we also practice the mailbox route with her, we still need to keep her on an extra long leash, because her prey drive is pretty strong. If a cat or bunny were to cross her path, she'd chase after them!!

    We prefer not letting the pups hike off leash because we're a bit too scared of what critter they could potentially run into or after 😉

    Reply
    • Tenacious Little Terrier

      April 27, 2015 9:13 pm

      I have rules for off-leash hiking. We go with other people/dogs so Mr. N has a bigger dog around for "protection" from hawks and things. I don't let him off-leash if the trail is super steep and we don't go at dusk/dawn when the creatures are stirring.

      Reply
  4. Susan Willett

    April 27, 2015 6:37 pm

    So smart. I've been working on recall — always with high-value treats as well. It's hard to find places to do it that are a step up from a yard, but we've been working on a somewhat empty dog park, and that's been working. I haven't had the courage to go off leash in the woods behind my house because deer and fox and chipmunks are way too exciting. And there's poison ivy and Lyme Disease, so I like to keep my pups close.

    –Wags (and purrs) from Life with Dogs and Cats

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  5. MyDog Likes

    April 28, 2015 12:34 am

    These are excellent tips! Harley has always been a selective listener when it comes to recall. Charlie is so obsessed with his frisbee that his recall is near 99% off leash! Sharing this now!

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  6. Jackie Bouchard

    April 28, 2015 1:23 am

    Great list of tips. Around here there are too many things to worry about hiking (coyotes, snakes, etc.) so she never hikes off leash. So, I must confess, we never kept up her recall training. Guess we should practice every once in a while, just in case, but she's not a runner (our previous dogs would try to bolt every time we opened the door!) and she's never off leash when we're out and about, so it hasn't been at the top of our training list.

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  7. Kari Neumeyer

    April 28, 2015 3:07 am

    We learned our lesson a few weeks ago when I let Mia out of the car off leash without knowing there was a deer nearby. We lost her for about an hour. She's our reliable dog… but it's hard to deer-proof any dog!

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  8. Chasing Dog Tales

    April 28, 2015 3:39 pm

    Fantastic tips! I especially like the last one. Haley has really good recall, but I never tempt fate in situations where her instincts could take over or there's an element of danger. Great job, Mr. N to be at 97-98 percent reliable! 🙂

    Reply
  9. Who Rescued Who

    April 28, 2015 8:19 pm

    Mr. N is so cuuute! With my deaf dogs, what I do is I dance around like an idiot until I hope they see me with their peripheral vision, it takes a lot out of a girl, then I act like I am super excited to go in the house (they are never off leash outside of the yard due to their deafness and the fact that my only recourse is interpretive dance to get them to pay attention to me), as if the couch is suddenly covered in bacon. Sometimes they come. Sometimes they just dig a hole. Still adore those little monkeys. Tenacious Little Terrier, I am jealous!

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  10. Janet Keefe

    April 28, 2015 8:43 pm

    These are such great tips. We're still working with Luke on this, though he'll probably never be purposely off leash since he's fearful. Our golden Sheba is pretty reliable, but I keep her on leash mostly (because I'm paranoid…LOL). When we're hiking though she pulls so much it's easier to let her off at times. The beagle never comes off…don't trust that nose because when the nose goes into gear the ears shut off!
    Jan, Wag 'n Woof Pets

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