Reliable Recall, Part 2: Emergency Recall and Preventing Escapes

The whole point of teaching recall is so that we can have that perfect instant-stop-and-turn-on-a-dime recall in an emergency situation.


Yes. Sort of.

Some dogs will be awesome at this, and with training, can absolutely achieve it.

For the rest of us, our dogs aren’t always as willing to please. Sometimes they decide that the distraction is way more interesting than their panicked, screaming owner. And probably a whole lot less scary.

Before we get started, the prerequisite to this article is Reliable Recall, Part 1: The How and Why of Training Recall in Dogs. Make sure you read and understand the premise of recall training before you delve further into this next step.

So, in what types of situations is emergency recall beneficial?

The same situations where dogs get loose and go missing.

Here are the four most common:

  1. Open front door
  2. Open backyard gate
  3. Slipped collar
  4. Dropped leash

Here’s the secret: Emergency Recall is as much or more about taking steps to prevent the situation than it is about dealing with it when it arises. Worry about preventing the fire now so you don’t have to worry about putting it out later.

So what can we do, then?


Testing mock emergency situations leads to less scary real emergency situations. Think of when you were in school. There were drills for all sorts of situations. Tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, and plenty more. Evacuation routes are marked in coastal areas. Radio stations test their emergency alert system all the time. The one we all know well is the fire drill. My point? We need to have a plan, and everyone needs to be on the same page about executing that plan. We run these drills because these are situations that we can see coming. They may not ever happen, but it’s better to be prepared than unprepared when something does happen.

So practice mock emergency situations.

Let’s go over in more detail some of the big reasons dogs go missing, and the steps we can take to prevent and practice them. But before anything, train your dog to come when called. Since you’ve read my first article on teaching recall (you have, right?) you’re hopefully working your way through those phases, teaching and learning more as you go. This article is about recall, as titled, but due to the nature of emergencies, this article will focus mostly on preventative measures.

1) Slipped collar

The ones most likely to slip out of a collar are spooks and “high-prey” dogs.

Spooks can back out of most any collar when terrified and trying to get away. This is a scary situation because now you have a loose dog who is frightened and in flight mode. Spooks are the hardest ones to recover because they will not approach strangers. They usually have to be caught with a live trap and many never return home.

Dogs with high prey drives can back out of a collar in the same manner when they are on high alert and frustrated with being held still. Now you have a loose dog who is after something, probably with intentions to kill it, and not paying any attention to his surroundings. This is particularly terrifying if you are near traffic, and if the dog’s target it someone’s pet.

Consider using a martingale collar. Sighthound owners are very familiar with them, but they can work for any breed. They are made of cloth, wide, and they tighten when pulled. If you want to invest in a martingale, check out Collar Town. Maggie’s collars are top notch quality, and she has tons of different fabrics to pick from, so you’re bound to find the perfect one for your pup! Make sure to familiarize yourself with the proper way to use any collar.


Gizmo wearing his martingale collar

Determined dogs can still slip out of these, so what many have done is add a harness. Using the leash, connect the harness to the collar, and you will have a system that is much more secure. The only problem is that, if a dog is upset enough, he can still get out of this contraption. You can also temporarily turn your leash into a harness.


Photo credit: Jennifer Ng

The most secure tool I’ve found for preventing slipped collars is a Spook Harness by Majestic Collars. I highly recommend using one of these if you are at all concerned about your dog getting away from you. They wrap around the dog at three different points, rather than just two, making it impossible for the dog to wiggle out of one.  A spook harness is one of the safest ways to walk a dog. It adds a measure of safety, and when you feel secure, you’ll be more likely to take your dog out. And I’m all about getting outside and walking together, because it makes for happier, healthier dogs (and humans!).


Photo credit: Lisa Knight Unlu

2) Dropped Leash

As is the case with slipped collars, spooks and high-prey dogs are the main culprits here. Leashes get dropped most commonly when the dog lunges forward out of fear or excitement. Same scary story as above.

Soapbox time! Keep ID on your pet at all times. This should be non-negotiable. A microchip is great, but a collar with identification is a must. I just can’t stress this enough. Dogs without collars look like stray dogs. Stray dogs are seen as nuisances, and most people avoid them. If you want your dog returned to you, keep an ID and collar on the dog at all times. Consider adding “If Loose, I’m Lost” and a microchip number. If you want an ID tag that will never fail you, get one from Boomerang Tags.

Sometimes leashes will just come unclipped on their own when they twist a certain way. This has happened to me several times with two different style leash clasps, and I’m not the only one. Luckily in each case I noticed it before the dog did and I quickly put the leash back on the collar. Many dog owners use a carabiner to attach the collar and leash together as a backup safety measure.

The major thing here is to pay attention to your dog and your surroundings. If you see something that your dog may lunge toward or bolt away from, make sure you have a tight grip on the leash. Better yet, if your dog is prone to bolting, a waist leash may be a smart investment.

If you do any walking at dusk or dark, adding some high-vis gear to your arsenal would be wise. Mine wear orange, reflective vests during deer season. I’ve recently added small lights that clip to the collar so I can see exactly where they are at all times in the dark. A friend of mine keeps jingly tags on her dogs so she can always hear them.

3) Front door work.

This training exercise should rank as priority numero uno, especially if you live on or near a busy street. I have worked on this with my dogs everywhere I’ve lived. Teach your dog that he is not allowed to cross the threshold without your permission, ever. Be consistent about this rule.


My old crew, respecting the front door boundary.


Follow my tips on teaching recall here, and practice walking in and out of the door, asking your dog to wait each time before he walks through it. Please let me be clear that if you are near any amount of traffic, I do not advise working off leash here. Use a on a long, loose leash, but don’t unclip it. Spend a lot of time in the front yard. The more familiar it is, the less interesting it becomes to your dog, and the less he will want to run off and explore.

4) Open gate

The same principals that apply to front door work apply to the gate as well. Teach your dog that he is only allowed through the gate with your permission.


Photo credit: Tiffany Harden

Take measures to prevent escape. Always check the gate before opening the door to the yard. Use a padlock to make sure the gate isn’t accidentally opened. Discuss with all visitors that doors and gates are to remain shut. Put a sign on the outside of the gate. I’ve known several people who have built a second gate behind their original gate. This “airlock” system is the same one used at dog parks. It is highly effective at preventing accidental escapes, so it’s great for households that see a lot of foot traffic.

Don’t forget that fences can be blown down and trees can fall on them in storms. If you’ve had high winds, be sure to check the whole fence to make sure it hasn’t been compromised anywhere.

In General

Make home a happy place! You want your dog to look forward to coming home. Take your dog out on walks regularly to explore the neighborhood so he knows his way around and knows how to get back home. Home should mean family (pack), food, comfy bed, and an escape from the elements. The more you take your dog out, the more he will understand this. The more you keep him cooped up at home, the more he’ll want to go on a walkabout, and the less likely he’ll be to come back when you call. Explore more and your dog is less likely to bolt when he finds himself suddenly free.

Recall and Timing

When it comes to timing of the recall command, there’s a point of no return, where calling your dog back to you is fruitless. You want to call him to you before he is overly interested in anything. This is where paying attention to your surroundings is important; you’ll be able to call your dog to you before he even sees the upcoming distraction. Be proactive, not reactive. Most dogs can be corrected and called back as soon as the ears perk up. If forward motion starts, it’s game over. Some dogs will stop dead in their tracks and turn around, but most dogs won’t do this reliably. Watch for signs early on. Don’t wait until your dog is too distracted to listen to you.

Remember that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Play down prey drive. If your dog has a high prey drive, there are some things you can do to calm this and make sure you don’t reinforce it. This will be the topic of a post in the future!

Edit: Here’s the post on calming down a high prey drive. Check it out!

Emergency Recall is about teaching the dog to come back, regardless of whether you call him back to you or not. You want him to naturally want to come back to you. When I am out with my dogs, I encourage them to go off and explore. They never go far. Sometimes they will take off after something and run just out of my sight, only to return seconds later, looking for their treats. This is the kind of response to strive for.

Remember that your attitude is a huge factor in your dog’s recall. Be calm. Practicing recall as much as you can will give you familiarity that will result in calmness. If you are anxious, scared, or mad, your dog will be hesitant about coming to you when you call. Not good.

Obviously you can’t be prepared for every emergency situation that you may encounter, but think about the most likely things that could happen and prepare as best you can. Training the Emergency Recall encompasses the same exact methods that I talked about in Part 1 of this article. The more you practice, the better you’ll both get. But if you don’t cover your bases and make an effort on prevention and test runs, there will be a slim chance at success when it really matters.

Have you lost a dog before? Did your emergency recall work, or do you have some refining to do? I hope you’ll share your knowledge and experience in the discussion below!