Dogs love to be outside. More than that, they love to run free outside. But while off-leash may be your dog’s natural and preferred state, that doesn’t mean they’re naturally good at being off-leash. Giving your dog the freedom to frolic comes with some inherent risk - think other dogs, wildlife, and distracted drivers. Poor off-leash behavior can pack some pretty heavy consequences. That’s where perfect recall comes in: If you’re going to let your dog roam free - in a safe area! - you need to trust that your dog will be right back at your side when you recall them.
“Perfect recall to me is [a dog] recalling to their owner and staying by the owner in the presence of all types of distractions,” says Lydia Hancock, owner of K9 Group Walks & Training in Sacramento, California.
Lydia originally took up dog training to help her own pup, Leo, through some trauma, fear, and reactivity. To work on Leo’s socialization, Lydia took him on regular evening walks with friends and their dogs. Lydia noticed the positive impact that these walks had on Leo and founded K9 Group Walks, which offers on-leash pack walks in the Sacramento area. The concept was met with overwhelming community support: Each K9 Group Walk now averages around 18 dogs (and their humans). Lydia also helps dog parents with “all things obedience,” including recall and on-leash manners.
“There are benefits [to off-leash exploring], but it is super important that pups have reliable recall before being let off-leash to explore,” Lydia says. “Unfortunately, I work with a lot of pet owners who have pups that have been attacked by off-leash dogs, so I try to spread the word about not letting your pup off-leash unless you are confident in their recall. If they don’t have a solid recall, then a long line is the next best thing.”
It’s not just encounters with other dogs that pose a threat to off-leash dogs who bolt. Moving vehicles and vast expanses of wilderness can be deadly for these pups, too, so it really is in your dog’s best interest to ensure that their recall is flawless before setting them loose.
Lydia says that perfect recall is a realistic goal for most dogs, but the only way to achieve it is “lots and LOTS of practice.” And really, it’s not just practice, but successful practice. “Stop testing your dog’s recall and start practicing their recall in a way where they cannot fail,” Lydia says. “Perfect recall cannot be taught in a week; patience is key and we always want to keep these training sessions short, fun, and really rewarding for our dogs, so that they want to keep training and learning with their humans.”
Here are the basic steps to teaching your dog recall:
- Choose your recall command. (Usually “come,” but you can get creative as long as you’re consistent.)
- Start with a quiet space, lots of treats, and a long line - this way, your dog has minimal distractions, plenty of motivation, and just the right amount of leeway.
- Say your dog’s name and “come.” Be their cheerleader! (This gets them excited to come to you.) Every time you say the word “come” and your dog recalls to you, give them a super yummy (small) treat and praise.
- Repeat. (A lot.)
- Once they’ve mastered “come” indoors with limited distractions, move outside, but stay on that long lead. Practice a bunch more.
- Once they’ve mastered recall outside on a long lead, remove the lead.
- Practice, practice, practice!
“There are a couple of rules I follow for all obedience, really, but especially recall:
- If your recall word is “come,” do your best not to ask your dog to “come” unless they are on-leash [when first training] and you have a reward to give them when they do.
- We want to keep our recall command as close to 100% successful in practice as possible. That’s why we use the long line so that we can gently reel our dogs in if needed.
- Reward heavily when your dog recalls to you.
- Before you let your dog off leash for recall practice, get a ton of recall reps in with your dog when they are distracted and on-leash. Too many people practice by putting them in a sit and recalling them when they are staring right at you instead of practicing recalls when the dog is distracted.”
If you’re doing a lot of off-leash adventures, Lydia recommends learning about e-collar training to decide if that is right for you - it may help you communicate with your pup at greater distances. A GPS collar may also be handy for tracking your dog. And don’t forget to pay extra close attention so that you can find any deuces that your dog drops while off-leash.Remember, practice makes perfect, so, grab your long line (a couple of our 10’ leashes or simple rope will do) and a Utility Pack full of your dog’s favorite treats (we’re talking hot dogs and bacon, people!) and get to practicing.