Do you struggle with recalling your dog reliably when they’re off leash in a new area full of smells, people, dogs, and noises? Here’s a guide to what I found was helpful with my girls!
1. Start Recall Right Away
2. Puppy Recall
3. The Goal
4. How to Be Fun
5. How to Be Strategic
6. Stay Safe!
7. Distance Duration Distraction
8. Preemptive Games
9. Recall off Wild Animals
10. Treats as Rewards
11. Other Reward Options
13. Socialization prevents Runaways
14. High Prey Drive
First off, here’s a reminder that I AM NOT A PROFFESIONAL TRAINER, but here’s what I do with my Vizslas in order for us to have them off leash in our area. I hope some of this would be helpful, but most importantly start early, be consistent about practicing, and be patient (with yourself and your dog). Find a support network and ask for help!
With both Bourbon and Whiskey we let them off leash from day one in safer low-distraction areas (they were 8 weeks old). In both cases we didn’t have access to a fenced yard or fenced area but they were still allowed to roam free and recalled as soon as they went about 6 feet away with lots of yummy treats, praise and attention. The main dangers and distractions to avoid were people, cars, dogs, and wildlife.
I found that when they were very young they didn’t “see” as far away as we did and so it was much easier to recall and leash up before a person or dog walked close enough to be a problem. Recalling and learning their names took about a week or so, so in the beginning high pitched sounds like “beep bep beep bep” to recall, along with their names and a continuous “YES!!” that got more excitable as they ran towards you worked well. Yes, you will sound like a crazy person but the more you are willing to be insane and do anything to get your puppy’s attention, the more successful you’ll be. Always follow up with yummy treats to hold their attention once they are close! Start offering the treats but then quickly move to only offering treats once you have eye contact. Ideally wait for eye contact before you even touch or move your hand towards the rewards.
Your goal with recall is that you must make yourself more interesting than everything else in the environment. Pair up the name+treat+fun as quickly as you can and practice in harder environments. You can be more patient with interesting distractions but if your puppy is totally ignoring you, grab your pup quickly instead of calling and calling, and if possible drop the leash and practice the recall when the distraction is a bit further away and you are closer to your pup. See every distraction as an opportunity to practice recall, you only need to learn what is within the edge of success and work within that. The more success you can get, even if they are easy successes the more confidence and predictability you’ll have. Recall 5-20 times on every walk, you’ll collect the wins so fast!
When your puppy just starts to turn their head towards you as you call, first acknowledging you, you must build on that attention. Call you YESS! and do what you can to be cooler than whatever the distraction was. Try different things and see what works with your dog. Squeal progressively louder, or higher pitched, run away in a weird zig zag catch-me-if-you-can, drop to the ground, hide behind a tree.
When your pup approaches, don’t just stand there and hand over a treat. Toss the treat one way and run the other so your dog needs to catch you for the next treat. Roll the treat between your legs so they need to find it, hold the treat and lure them around a little bit, dropping bits into their mouth as you go. Make it FUN! Keep your voice happy, keep your attitude light. Would you want to run as fast as you can to someone that’s angry, yanks you, puts you on a leash and screams at your face? You’d probably want to run towards someone that is smiling, giving you $100, telling you how beautiful you look, and that they missed you and would you like a bar of your favorite chocolate?
If you’re prone to scream or be super stressed when recalling in difficult situations (ie you’re scared your dog is going to run into traffic and you cannot control your voice), then train your dog to associate your load scary screaming with urgency but NOT punishment or fear. Finally, even though you’re working on being fun with your dog, you still want to stay in charge and hold a confident demeanor, it can be a little bit of a weird line to walk on while making weird noises and playing hide and seek, but when you praise or command, it needs to be with confidence.
What is the distraction? See if you can figure out what has your dog’s attention and reward them with the same thing but better. If your dog is busy sniffing out something exciting, then recall them and scatter some treats here and there and ask them to use their nose to find it. If your puppy is old enough, teach them to do a sit/stay and then search for treats in a larger area on command. If your dog is distracted by chasing another dog, let them chase you a little bit, put a tree between you and make it hard for them to catch you, when they do, squeal and play and give them a treat. If your dog is distracted by a toy, bring a toy with you and recall straight to a tug or a ball or stick. If your dog is off chasing things that move, recall and throw treats further, make them run back and forth, maybe getting them to catch them in the air. Certain breeds of dogs will have better drive to recall for different things. Puppies tend to take food easier but as they grow up, work on increasing a drive that you can control (a drive to tug, a drive to fetch, a drive to do tricks, a drive to sniff). This will build your value to your dog that you are the only thing in the world that can provide the magical ball and will help not only your recall but your ability to hold their concentration over distractions.
Recall practice looks so different depending on where you live. If you’re in a rural area with loads of forest, but dangerous animals, or if you’re in the city with cars everywhere and only tiny busy parks, you can find a way to practice recall safely. A long line is a super long leash (20+ feet) that you can let your dog drag along (or you can hold it and unravel as needed) and just step on the line if your dog isn’t recalling. You can also use natural and man made barriers that control and slow down your dog. Baseball diamonds in the offseason, islands, mountains, or streams will keep most puppies in line (it really depends on breeds but my dogs will never cross water so I use that frequently as a natural barrier). Learn your dog and predict what their range will be in open land, or crowded forest. You can just do recall in the city with a 6 foot leash, walking around downtown and recalling off discarded food on the ground, other dogs, or interesting events. We used to find geese in the city parks and practice heeling and recall with our regular leash.
See if you can put these distractions in order for your dogs (from least to most distracting) and proactively find these distractions to recall from. Start from the furthest distance you can and work your way up to your dog interacting with the distraction and calling them back (ie mid squirrel stalk). Work on longer durations that you expect their concentration, and adjust depending on their moods, the environment and other factors.
- Discarded wrappers
- Pizza on the ground
- Dog treats on the ground
- Smelly dead animal
- Horse poop
- Remote control car toy/Drones
Hide and seek- in a quiet safe area worked really well for us when they were young (not so effective with a teenager!). Vizslas and puppies especially want to be with their human so we would take just Bourbon or Whiskey out for a walk around a forest with big trees but no people. We would then hide as soon as she wandered far enough away and wait for her to notice we were missing. As soon as we could see her looking for us, we would call out and let her find us. It would become a game for her to make sure we were always close so we couldn’t go hide on her. We would also give her lots of treats and love when she did find us! You can also play this game with two people, one hiding, and when ready, ask your puppy to “find mommy”. Not only will your dog learn your “name”, but they’ll be learning to sniff you out to receive a big welcome, treat and love.
If you are going for a walk off leash and your dog or puppy checks in with you, always give praise and treats.
Fear of On-leashing-
Practice holding onto your dog’s collar and leashing and unleashing with treats. Some dogs understand that a recall means they must lose their freedom and go on leash and will play keep-away. Try walking on and off leash periodically and leash up calmly with a treat before and after touching or tugging the collar. It’s better if your dog does not shy away from you quickly grabbing and tugging on their collar incase of emergency so practice this without warning and give praises and treats . Always notice if your dog is tense or anxious and work within their boundaries. I like to tell my girls “leash up” so they know what’s happening and expect them to stand and wait for me to struggle for 30seconds.
If possible, find out the gamut of animals you may encounter and see if you can figure out which ones capture your dog’s attention the most to least. Find and work with the animal that is least interesting (ie crows are less interesting than pigeons, than ducks, than grouse). Practice calm sits, paw, lie downs around a crow from a distance.
Find out what is the closest distance you can practice training your dog and keep their attention with the animal around. It’s ok for them to notice the animal, just not run towards it. You want to practice a sit/stay/down before you practice recall. Recall with a long line or leash drag once you gain your own confidence. Slowly work your way closer to the animal, then work on a harder animal. Sometimes you may just need to have your dog beside you on leash, feeding them treats for half an hour until they are ready to train. Be patient, it’s worth it! Repeat daily and you’ll see improvement quickly!
Train “leave it” and increase self control which will help with everything involving recall, especially wild animals. Start “leave it” with low value treats or food, and slowly increase the duration, the food value, and the distance you are from your dog and treat. Depending on your dog and your goals, you can either release your dog to eat the food/meal/treat or you can provide a higher value reward and take away the treat. This can be practiced with leaving food found on the ground in a city, a pigeon on the sidewalk, or even good smelling coffee cup.
I use a variety of treats and I pay attention to which ones my dog values more. I use lower value treats for easier recalls, and give them a handful if they do something amazing. When I’m first introducing something new I use only high value treats. I always have a mix so my pup doesn’t get bored and so that I can reach in and try something different if needed. Because my training can use up a bag of treats quickly I like to use freeze dried raw food as a meal replacement. Sometimes people use kibble but I really think these are more highly valued (it only takes a quick test to find out!).
Notice what your dog likes as praise, not what you think your dog “should” like. Some dogs don’t like to be petted on their heads, or hugged. Vizslas tend to love attention and vocal praise as well as butt scratches but your dog might love a chin scratch and hate eye contact. Over time, if you can train your dog to like something more than treats (like a tug toy or a ball) you’ll have an easier time of training and a much cheaper time too! (also see the “Be Strategic” section.
Working dogs tend to have a drive for some type of “work”, you’ll just need to try different things along with treats and praises to see what may stick. Whiskey LOVES sticks and balls even more than treats as she loves to “work” and fetch is her work. The more options you have, the better when recalling. It’s likely your dog will not want to recall from chasing a goose unless she thinks you may have something even better for her like a squeaky bouncy ball that she can play with over and over. Lastly, sometimes “COME!” may not have been trained enough and have enough of a reward than another command like “FETCH” or “SIT”, if that’s the case, you can either recall with whatever command is working, and then work your recall command to be stronger, or include another command with your recall (ie sometimes it will help if I recall Whiskey and go immediately into a trick or two to get her mind fully off the distraction and onto me so my recall is stronger if I use a COME paired with a STUMP or PAW).
Once inawhile, pack something AMAZING like an entire beef patty or bacon, or roasted chicken in an airtight container and pull it out for a really good recall. This gets your dog just hoping to hit jackpot and addicted to the recall. You can also teach an emergency recall to a different command on top of your regular recall and train for extremely snappy returns that are always paired with jackpots.
Some dogs can run because they see or hear something frightening and they are essentially deaf to your voice at this point. It’s so important that you socialize your dog to all sorts of sounds, animals, people, and events all with positive reinforcements. Introduce new things well within your dog’s anxiety limits and be conservative with their reactions. If it doesn’t feel right, or you feel you are pushing it, then just take it slower. Some dogs will be totally fine with a busy city center, noises, cars backfiring, and motorcycles right next to them, but some other dogs may need a very very slow introduction to a bus beep. All the work you do when they are young will pay off, you just may not see it, because it won’t become a problem.
There are lots of dogs that may become deaf/blind to your calls when they start chasing prey and there may be very little you can do once your dog starts the chase. Start as early as you can to work on recall but there may be limits to recall from voice with certain dogs. There are many options and tools out there but please do research and train with a professional. If you can recognize the signals before your dog does run and can interrupt the sequence, that’s always great, but it may not be reasonable to expect perfect recall, ever with just your voice.
Lastly, having a puppy or dog that has many outlets for exercise, chase, play, and mental simulation will reduce their need and drive to run off. Changing up your park, meeting other dogs for playtime, and training sessions that mentally tire out your dog will reduce the amount of times they may not want to recall.
Recall like any training is not easy, nor is it a linear progression. There might be setbacks, and breakthroughs and ruts in the road. If you start when your dog is a puppy and continually reinforce throughout their lifetime, you’ll probably have an easier time than starting later and doing a big 6 months and then relaxing.
So much depends on the dog’s personality and breed. Herding dogs stay closer to the herd (you!), whereas hunting dogs are bred to find a scent and chase it for as long as it takes. Sled dogs are bred to survive and be independent, and protection dogs will naturally stay close. Unneutered males and females in heat will range, and teenager dogs 7months-1 year or so will challenge your status and commands. Keep all this in mind and remember that even if your dog is perfectly well trained, you will need to reinforce recall over their lifetimes and keep practicing what works for both of you.
There are loads of resources online for recall, specific issues, and for so many things I just touched upon. Work with a trainer, or read, listen, and watch what you can to learn. Here are a couple quick resources I threw together. Most of my learning comes from talking to friends, trainers, watching videos I don’t keep track of, and loads of trial and error. Don’t just follow one trainer or blog, read lots and make up your own mind what makes sense to you and your dog.