Reliable Recall, Part 1: The How and Why of Training Recall in Dogs

Of all the dog-related topics one can discuss, this is the one I am far and away most passionate about.

I’ve been heavily involved with greyhound adoption for ten years. Because of a greyhound’s exceptional ability and strong instinct to chase, the off-leash topic is a volatile one in the greyhound community. Those of us who are “off leashers” are often vilified for the practice.

Regardless of how you feel about letting dogs off a leash, there’s no denying that a strong recall is the number one most important thing you can teach your dog.

Some dogs will recall perfectly without training, but this is rare. The rest of us have to work at it and keep working at it.

So if you’re like the rest of us and you need some pointers on teaching a reliable recall, read on!

Why It’s Important

If you’ve been in dog adoption as long as I have, you’ve met a lot of dog owners. Nearly every one that I’ve met has watched their dog get loose at some point. Front door, open gate, slipped collar, dropped leash. Accidents will happen. Unfortunately a lot of these dogs take off on their own adventures, blatantly ignoring their owner’s panicked calls of distress. Too many of these dogs meet preventable, tragic ends.

Teaching even a semi-reliable recall will very likely save your dog’s life.

Before I get into the details, let me make it clear that I’m not suggesting we all burn our leashes and let our dogs run free near the interstate. I’m saying that recall is the most important command to teach, period. Even if you practice in the yard and never unsnap the leash, you’re still a hundred steps ahead of anyone who doesn’t, and you’re that much more likely to be able to save your dog if something does happen.

How to Get Started

Don’t run out the door just yet! There are a few things you’ll need before you start.

If you haven’t yet, sign up to receive 39 Ways to Bond with Your Dog at the top of the page. Success in recall training is heavily dependent on the relationship you have with your dog. A stronger bond means stronger recall. Work to strengthen your relationship with your dog as you move through your recall training.

Time, patience, and consistency. This is not an overnight transformation. There are steps to the process that must be followed, and they must not be hurried through. Like any dog training, teaching a reliable recall depends heavily on timely and consistent rewards.

A Positive Attitude. If you’re in a negative mood, skip training today. You want to take steps forward, not backward. It’s better for you and for the dog if you just wait until you perk up. Dogs are keenly aware of your emotional state and will be discouraged easily if you push it.

A Distraction Free Zone (at first). It is important in the first stage of training recall that there is nothing to break your dog’s concentration. We want him to get on a roll with learning. Be sure to end training sessions on a good note.

A long leash. NOT a retractable leash, as they have a constant pull and make distracting clicking noises. They will interrupt training more than they will help. My personal favorite tool here is a check cord or a lunge line.

Treats. Not just any treat will do. They need to be big enough to make coming back worth the effort, but small enough so the dog doesn’t spend too much time eating them. For my big dogs, I’ve found that the perfect size is about a cubic centimeter. The treats need to be chewy, stinky, and enticing as possible. I make a point to specify chewy because when a dog has to take time to focus on crunching, even with small treats, it takes his focus off of you and the task at hand. We don’t want to interrupt training. There are many types of treats sold in pet stores and boutiques that fit this description. You can also make your own treats.

Come up with a command and stick to it. If your dog doesn’t take “here” or “come” seriously, pick a new one. You can re-train the jaded command, but it will take more work. I always start with the dog’s name, followed by “c’mere.” I want my dogs to book it to me as soon as they hear their names, so that’s why I start this way. And “c’mere” is more natural for me to say than “come.” Born and raised down south, ya know! 😉 I also don’t like to feel like I’m barking orders at my dogs. Pun intended. I like for training to feel like a conversation.

Those of you with dogs who are underwhelmed by food rewards may find that, as you get more excited about a positive response (and more generous with your praise), your dog will become more interested in the reward, and more motivated to do what you ask. Enthusiasm is contagious!

Lastly, remember that every dog is different. Tweak this guide to suit your style. Not every dog can be let off leash safely, and even if your dog does have perfect recall, not every environment suits practicing.

So, are you ready to get started?!

Phase 1: In the House

Start in the house in a quiet, distraction-free area. Call your dog to you, and reward promptly with a small treat and physical praise. When he walks away, call him back, and treat. To move this stage along, you can toss a treat on the other side of the room for him to go get. Every time he comes back to you, use your cue and call him as he’s on the way. Treat immediately and praise, praise, praise.

Tip: Set the dog up for success. Make it easy for him to do the right thing. Dogs learn better when they are rewarded, not punished.

When you have reliable recalls in a distraction-free area in the house, it’s time to move to the next phase.

Phase 2: Leashed, Structured Walk

The next step is to go on an on-leash, structured walk. Avoid distractions if possible. When your dog is walking calmly forward, use your command. As soon as your dog turns his head, offer a treat and say “good boy/girl” and then say “okay” to release him and let him go back to moving forward.

The release is important and often understated. Dogs want to explore and sniff and move around. Make sure your dog knows that he is always free to go back to what he was doing after he checks in with you. Obviously there will be situations where you will need him to stay by your side, as this is the whole point of teaching recall. But when training, always release him.

Any time your dog checks in with you without being prompted, offer a treat immediately and praise. Let the dog figure out that coming back to you is rewarding, whether you call him to you or not. This will encourage him to pay more attention to where you are and what you are doing even when he is really interested in something.

Tip: Don’t do this too frequently or your dog will never leave your side. We want him to focus on walking forward so that you can practice diverting that attention back to you.

Tip: If your dog doesn’t get that excited about coming back, make it a game by running backwards. Dogs love games! When you run away from them, they’re more likely to chase you.

When the dog does come back, it’s your job to praise, praise, praise. This is especially true for dogs who don’t show much motivation. As the dog’s trainer, you need to make it clear to the dog that he did what you wanted. Make a big deal out of it! Use a high pitched voice, clap, pet vigorously, and jump around. Get excited about it!

Tip: Jennifer at Never Say Never Greyhounds recommends touching the collar every time you treat. I don’t do this because my non-treating hand isn’t always free, making it a bit impractical. If your dog starts to develop a habit of bolting as soon as he takes the treat, start touching the collar. All this time spent on training recall would be for naught if you can’t get your dog to stay long enough to grab the collar and keep him safe.

Phase 3: Long Leash Walks

When he’s reliably coming back to his name on a short leash, give him more leash and let him get farther away from you. Repeat the process. Treat immediately and consistently. Remember it is just as important to reward when the dog comes back on his own accord, without being called.

Tip: Make sure the leash doesn’t get tangled up around the dog during the release. This is an aversive stimulus you’ll want to avoid.

Take gradual steps and go slowly with training. If you don’t, the whole process will fail. There’s an old adage in the dog business: “rush them and they’ll make you wait.” This is especially true with recall training. If you move forward before the dog is ready, there will be a miscommunication, and your training will either go backwards or fail entirely. Take things slowly and you will both benefit from it.

Tip: Vary the amount and type of treats you use. Loss of interest is the quickest killer of snappy recalls. Give one treat one recall, three the next, two of a different type the time after that, and so on. It should be like a lottery with 100% win chance, just different value rewards. Make it interesting.

Phase 4: Add Distractions

Once you have reliable on-leash recalls, it’s time to add mild distractions. Local parks are perfect for this, but you can also invite a friend or a neighbor over to help. These distractions should only be mild at first: nothing that would evoke a prey drive response. Just small distractions. To reiterate, we are still using a leash at this stage.

First, you want to just wait with the dog and reward for checking in with you. Stand still at first, and any time he looks at you, offer a treat and praise. Once he’s more focused on you than the distractions, you can move forward by giving him more leash. The timing of recall at this stage is important. You’ll want to say your command right after the dog notices the distraction, but before he has tuned everything else out. It can take some practice to find this threshold.

This is the beginning of the Emergency Recall. It’s extremely difficult to call a dog off something they want to chase after, and some will never be fully reliable, but this is the way to lay that foundation.

Tip: Is this starting to sound like a lot of work? That’s because it is. Remember that the freedom and peace of mind you gain from this training is more than worth it in the end.

When you are able to redirect your dog’s attention at a standstill with distractions, move to a structured walk, and after that to a longer leash. And once you’ve mastered those exercises…

Dewty coming when called and looking forward to his treats!


Phase 5: Off Leash, Fenced Area

When your dog is reliably coming back to you from 15-20 ft away with moderate distractions, it’s time to move to off leash within a distraction-free fenced area.

By this point, your dog understands the command and what you expect of him. Take your time transitioning to this phase, because this will be the most freedom the dog has had so far during the training. Again, it is essential to set the dog up for success.

On leash recall should be rock solid before you unsnap the leash. If you call and the dog doesn’t come back, he’ll learn that there are no consequences for ignoring you, which leads to less reliable recall. At least with a leash you can reel him in. So, don’t call the dog to you unless you are sure you he will listen.

You exit this phase when you have a snappy recall even when the dog is distracted.

Take Note: Many dogs, despite excellent training, will never get to this point. There is nothing wrong with that. If you make it this far in the training, congratulations! You are now leaps and bounds ahead of those who didn’t take the time to train, and you are that much more likely to be able to save your dog’s life if he does accidentally get loose.

This is Trigger’s expression literally every time we work on recall.


Phase 6: Off Leash, No Fence

This is the final phase, and fairly self explanatory. Before you dive in, There are a few precautions to take:

  • Make sure the area is safe. Ideally distractions will be minimal and there will be no traffic nearby.
  • Check and obey leash laws. If dogs are required by law to be leashed, there is probably a good reason for it.
  • Know that any new area is distracting. Make sure you explore it thoroughly ON a leash before letting the dog off leash.
  • Be considerate of others. There is a certain etiquette that you should practice with an off leash dog. Don’t let your dog run up on other dogs (especially if they are leashed and yours is not) and be considerate of other people in the area who might be afraid of dogs.

That’s it! Have fun, and be safe and smart about it.

Additional Tips and Tricks

Practice, practice, practice. When you teach commands like “sit” and “stay,” it’s expected that you’ll wean the dog off of treats and he’ll perform the command without a food incentive. Recall is not that way. It must be reinforced generously throughout the life of the dog, as enthusiastically as if you were just starting to train for it.

You can use your recall command when your dog comes inside from the backyard, accompanied with treats, of course. Another great time to practice your command is at breakfast or dinner. Put your dog in a sit stay on the other side of the room and then call him to you. A whole bowl of food is a pretty good reward!

Only use your recall command if you know that you can reward immediately and generously. Don’t ever call your dog to you if you are going to do something to the dog that is unpleasant. This might be the fastest way to undo all of your training. If it happens too often, it will prevent moving forward altogether.

Play Hide and Seek. While the dog is off leash, hide behind a tree or other obstacle. You can call your dog to you, but waiting until the dog turns around to seek you out is the goal here. Reward generously either way.

Stash treats along your route in advance. I remember hearing one account of a girl who would hide an entire hamburger along the trail ahead of time for a major jackpot reward. I haven’t gone this far myself, but I can see how it would be encouraging!

If you’ve tried all of the above and your dog still won’t give you a good recall, it is possible to try a shock collar. They have been used with great success, but if you doubt your precision in timing with regard to either reward or punishment, don’t go this route. Shock collars are too easy to abuse and, if used improperly, can undo training and harm the dog, both mentally and physically.

Some Afterthoughts

“How do you teach them not to run away?”

I hear this question often, and my answer usually goes against what most people want to hear: I don’t.

Using all the techniques I’ve presented in this article, I condition and teach and prove to my dogs that walking with me is much more rewarding than going off and doing their own thing.

No dog has perfect recall. Many dogs can get good at it, but even the best ones will slip up from time to time. Expect mistakes, but make it as safe as possible for your dog to make those mistakes.

Ready for part 2? Read it here!

Further Reading
The Secret to Motivating an Unmotivated Dog
How To Train Your Dog: “Come Here!”
Introduction to Recalls
Teaching a Reliable Recall
Dog behavior solutions: Not coming when called
13 Simple Steps to Improve Your Dogs Recall

Have you been successful in teaching a solid recall? What tips do you have to add? I want to hear from you, so get to posting in the comments below! If this article helped you, please share!

The freedom and fun that recall work provides!