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.

Right?

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?

Practice.

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.

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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.

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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!).

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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.

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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.

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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!

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!