Monday, February 6, 2012

How To Teach A Reliable Recall

I published this post almost a year ago about teaching dogs a solid off leash recall.  If you follow my blog, you'll know that Parker and Skye are off leash whenever possible.  They have recently learned how to ignore distractions off leash for National Train Your Dog Month.  We have so much fun going to the beach or the park because they can run and be free but I know how to get them back to me.

At the time I had just started a board and train with Chica, and just finishing one with Gracie and Gunner.  The irony?  Gracie and Gunner just arrived today for their annual 3 week stay, and tomorrow I'll start their training!

I do training good?  Squirrel!!

Anyway, on to the post:

Chica is a 1 year old German Shepherd, whose owners just want to be able to bring her to the beach and not have her run away.  Simple enough to say, but not an easy task for me.  I had never met Chica before and only had a week to get her well on her way to having a reliable recall.  I tried to get a thorough background from her owner, but humans tend to leave out important details when they're halfway out the door for their vacation.  My assessment of Chica was this: very typical nervous shepherd, slightly possessive of toys and food, liked to be where the action was, but didn't interact a whole lot with the other dogs.  When new dogs entered or left the play yard, she would practically climb my body in the "I'm excited and nervous and I have no idea what I'm doing" kind of way.  When I had her out alone in the yard, she wanted my treats sooo badly, but refused to be within arms reach.  When it came time to go inside, she put on a merry chase game that I refused to participate in.  Eventually I tricked her into a corner and got a leash on her.  Again, with only 5 training sessions ahead of us, I had a lot of work to do.

Step one involves choosing the word or noise that means "come over to me ASAP," as well as a hand signal that your dog can spot from far away.  I almost always use a cheap plastic whistle from Walmart, and hold my arm out at a 90 degree angle- very referee looking image, I know.  The whistle is my noise of choice because you can blow it loud or soft, with a pulse or as one long sound.  I typically do 3-4 short bursts of noise, because it breaks a dog's focus and brings them around to you faster.  I also avoid using my own voice, because many dogs find it much easier to ignore the sound of their human, who insists on talking to them all the time for no good reason.  When Parker and Skye hear the whistle on our walks, they race each other back to me because whoever gets there first gets a really good treat, and whoever is second gets a boring dry treat.

*Note: I switched from a whistle to 'here' with Parker and Skye once their recall was solid.  And because I kept forgetting the stupid whistle in the car.

Skye wins!

Step two is to pair the whistle with the treat.  I blow it softly, then drop a treat.  I'll do it a few times, then walk away and blow the whistle.  Dogs have a natural inclination to walk in the same direction as you, so the dog is usually already heading your way.  After a few of these, most dogs are hooked, and make a point to come running when they hear the whistle.

This is all done in a very boring environment, so that in the next few steps (let's call them steps 3-5ish) you add in distractions.  Gracie and Gunner loved this game, so we were able to quickly move outside, and add in toys.  I'd blow the whistle while they were wrestling or chasing each other, and they'd make a beeline to me.


Once I move outside of a fenced-in area (Step 6 or so) I put the dog on a long line and play the same game.  In each new environment I'll make things a little easier for the dog by crouching down, then walking away while whistling.  It is also a good idea to give the dog 5-10 minutes of exploring the new environment before attempting a recall.  Dogs are naturally curious, and I like to just get that initial period out of the way rather than expecting a miracle on round one.

Step 7.5 occurs once you have an immediate recall on the long line.  At this stage I drop my end of the line, but keep moving with the dog.  I whistle them back before they get too far away, and change directions every once in a while.  If you see a major distraction ahead, you need to be close enough to easily reach the line again.  Reward the dog with more than treats when they turn away from a distraction- let them go check it out!  Coming to you shouldn't signal that the fun is over, it is just part of the process of doing what they want.  Let them say hi to that friendly dog, or sniff that dead fish, so that the next time you drop the line they aren't hell bent on investigating that odd smell from a ways back.  Got it?

Steps whatever to who knows involve making things harder a little at a time.  If your dog has a relapse, take a few steps back until they have mastered each level.  Ideally you want dogs that see something worth checking out...

In this case a lady with 2 dogs.
Then look to you for what they should do next...

Can we greet them in a rude and overly friendly manner?

Many times, they won't get to do what they want, and that's okay.  As long as you still make it worth while with food, a toy/game, and lots of praise, they'll come back next time as well.

So where does this leave Chica?  In the end, I brought Parker and Skye out with us, and rewarded them for coming over.  Chica is not the type of dog to be left out when there is food being passed around, and it got us past the initial problem of dancing away at the last second.  After that, she just liked having a job to do. 

Think your dog could never do it?  Thank again!  Skye was not a natural at this by any stretch of the imagination.  We had to take it really slow and add in a consequence for ignoring me (back on leash for a minute) but in the end, it was completely worth it!


It can't go without mention that this week we lost an incredible dog, Knox.  He fought with everything he had, but in the end his humans knew it was his time.  Their grief is beyond imagining, so if you have a moment to stop by Pittieful Love, I'm sure they could use your kind words.  Goodbye Knox, foster brother extraordinaire.


  1. I keep reading about Knox - my heart breaks for his family. Thanks for another nod to him. I've been thinking about them all day.

    I love the whistle idea! Do people seem annoyed when you use it in public spaces, or do they not really care? Our dogs are pretty good with just a "here" but I do talk to them a *lot* and I'm wondering if brushing up on it with the whistle would be effective. Thanks!

    1. Right now you’re probably reading this message because you’re desperate to finally learn how to not only train your dog quickly and effectively, but you also don’t want to have to spend a huge chunk of cash on professional dog trainers or read yet another dog training book that doesn’t get you results.

      Don’t worry, you’re NOT alone in your frustration!

      Find out here: How To Teach A Dog?

      Best rgs

  2. Oh its so good you're blogging about this. I'm going to really work on it, really I am! So tired of Fozzie breaking out of the yard and then making a run for the neighborhood cats and evading me--maybe the whistle will help!

  3. we are glad this worksfor you guys. Mom won't take us off theleash for asecond. Nutty
    Benny & Lily

  4. Oh help! My dogs just always seem to know when I have noms on my person and when I don't.

  5. I'm gonna try this out with Zeus, he ignores my attempts to recall until he feels like bounding over grrrr. Time to go find a whistle.. any ideas on doggy pitch whistle vs human whistle?

  6. I think I love you. I am going to try this with my recall challenged Felix and see if we can't make some headway. He responds well to clicker training, but that darn clicker is just to quiet to call him back at the beach or the park. This whistle thing feels promising. Fabulous idea. THANK YOU

  7. My thoughts go out to Knox's owners.... Hmmm.... I know from recent experience how helpless and heartbreaking it feels to lose a beloved canine.... I went through that very painful decision of putting down my Shadow Sunshine on June 15th, 2010.... Even though I did not want to do it.... Knox--and Shadow--will be remembered.... Eternally....

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