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Training a Dog to Come When Called Off Leash

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.

Going, going, gone! How to teach a recall to off leash dogs?

Going, going, gone! How to teach a recall to off leash dogs?

Going, going, gone! How to teach a recall to off leash dogs?

Off-leash recalls: the biggest challenges

Training a dog to come when off leash is part of more advanced training. Often owners interested in this are those who occasionally take the leash off such as at the dog park or don't have a fence and keep their dogs outdoors for a good part of the day. Often the dog lives in a rural area where he can romp around freely without being endangered by cars. The challenges encountered though when training a dog to come when called off leash are many.

First and foremost, dogs who are off leash are often well aware of it. You know because when you snap off the leash your dog does a little "freedom dance" that depicts the celebration of doing as he pleases, which is an exhilarating sensation for dogs who are always on leash. So then later when you call him, he may hesitate as if he seems to be thinking "should I come to my owner or should I ignore and take off and continue going on my sniffing adventure?" If your dog is always off leash he most likely doesn't even have to be reminded about his freedom.

The dog who is off leash and left to wander therefore is aware that he can make a choice. I remember as a child, my parents used to call me for lunch from our balcony on the third floor. I knew I had the power to say no, since they were far away. I also knew it would take them about 5 minutes to get their shoes on and walk down three flights of stairs to come and get me. I therefore, often made the choice to ignore their calling, and when they did tell me they would come down to get me, I knew I had the time to play another round of games with my friends.

The same mindset may go on with some off leash dogs, who are well aware of the fact you are calling them, but feel they have the power to ignore you if they feel there is some other source of reinforcement that is more interesting than you. It's almost as if they were saying "I heard you, but I'm a bit busy, I'll be there in a minute or two." They may also be well aware (through experience) of the fact that you can't catch them when they are at a distance. Never chase a dog to get him! Doing so will only teach your dog that you are unable to get him and it may turn into a fun game-for your dog- that may get him in serious trouble!

In some cases though, the dog may not willingly choose to ignore your command, he simply may be too distracted to do so. Some dogs are so concentrated on sniffing they seem to almost shut off part of their brains. In other cases, they may just be overwhelmed by the abundance of stimuli, as if they are overcome by sensorial overload. On the other hand,it could be that the dog finds other stimuli more reinforcing than coming to you when called.

What sources of reinforcement are interesting to the off leash dog? There are many! First and foremost, the exhilarating sensation of freedom is a starting point. It must feel like a child who is free to wander in Disneyland. If your dog is always on leash and under-exercised, it will feel good to finally release pent-up energy. If, on the other hand, your dog is always free to wander, he will have many favorite sniffing spots to hang around, areas where prey animals hide and are ready to be chased, other doggy friends down the road and friendly neighbors who may feed your dog tasty treats. Even a pile of manure to roll in is a source of reinforcement for many dogs! As sad as it sounds, all these are sources of reinforcement that may be competing against you.

Yet, things may change drastically if you suddenly become more salient than anything else. When my parents used to call me from the balcony and I knew that ice-cream was going to follow after lunch, you could see me fly up those three flight of stairs as I left my friends behind without even saying a word. The ice- cream in this case was much more salient than the games I played with my friends. That was the biggest form of reinforcement for me!

Dogs are ultimately simple animals. They're often opportunists that make choices based on what brings them more reinforcement. However, as humans, we are often the same; indeed, we often choose higher paying jobs, speedier check-out lanes at the supermarket, the most appealing slices of cake on the buffet table and deals that bring more bang for the bucks. We live in a competing society where we are offered choices and we choose what we think is best for us.

So how do we train a dog to come to us when off leash and when there are so many competing elements? The solution may sound easy, but it requires some advanced proofing: we make ourselves more interesting than anything else, and we try to make other sources of reinforcement less salient. We also work on giving the illusion that we are the only choice. We will see how in the next paragraph.

Outdoors, you may be competing with many intriguing stimuli


Is There Such a Things as a 100% Recall?

So when our dogs are off leash, they are naturally lured towards stimuli that act like magnets pulling them away from you. The dogs often can't help it; they have powerful sniffers and many breeds were selectively bred to hunt so they will reflexively sniff, stalk and chase without second thoughts. If we think about it, some dogs in the past were encouraged to do this, so it somewhat goes against nature to call a hound when he sniffs and tracks a rabbit, whereas, in the past he was encouraged to go for it and praised for it too!

These are independent breeds who were bred to NOT come back to their humans when they saw prey as this went against their breeding purpose. It often somewhat goes against instinct at times to ask a dog to ignore certain stimuli that are associated with selective breeding and even survival.

Yet, we have decided to bring our dogs into our homes and change several behaviors which in the past were much cherished. The scent hounds were encouraged to track at a distance, the sight hounds were encouraged to take off and chase animals several feet away, the terriers were encouraged to kill small animals. We are abhorred today when our dogs catch and kill a bird, we are annoyed when they chase the neighbor's cat and we are deeply disgusted when they roll in a pile of cow pies.

We have introduced leashes, harnesses, crates and fences and expect our dogs to accept them. We have transformed hunting mates and working pals into couch potatoes and expect them to be happy in our homes with little exercise. We also expect them to be well behaved in front of distractions despite their past history. So can we really get a dog to reliably come when called every single time we call him? Is this a realistic expectation?

Some dog trainers are bold enough to claim they can really train a 100% guaranteed recall. Many who claim this use shock collars. Yet, it's unethical to make guarantees in dog training. Dogs are not robots and they don't come with guarantees or your money back as many items you purchase in stores. They have emotions and feelings.

We can't expect a child to have always good grades at school so why should we expect a dog to always do well? Stanley Coren claims that dogs' mental abilities are close to a human child aged 2 to 2.5 years, so that could explain the short attention spans and difficulty in exerting impulse control. It's a bit like asking a child to ignore an ice cream truck.

Yet, once you have a foundation of trust and know what your dog finds reinforcing, training can be easy, you just have to hold realistic expectations and patience. So you may be aiming a bit high if you want a 100 percent recall, but if you work a lot on it, there are big chances you can get a decent 80 to 90 percent. These are many dogs that come when called most of the time. Mine are one of them. Yet, I would never claim they would come 100 percent of the time, just as I wouldn't expect my husband to always wash the dishes on Saturdays for the rest of his life!

Yet, there are certain dog breeds that may be more challenging to train than others. These are often independent, free-willed breeds who were selectively bred to work at a distance and to chase animals. So expectations should be realistic on these breeds. Many rescue organizations for instance, have restrictions to ensure safety and encourage common sense.

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For instance, the Beagle Rescue League, warns that all adopted beagles " must be leashed at all times when in an uncontained area because beagles are known to roam. We simply cannot make an exception to this rule because it is an endangerment to their safety." They also require safe fencing to anybody interested in adopting and claim "We require this because beagles can be very stubborn and their noses often take them places that we would prefer they not go (i.e. the street, where danger awaits)".

A long line is essential for hound-like breeds

A long line is essential for hound-like breeds

Using a Long Line for a Reliable Recall

So how do you train a dog to have a strong recall? I have written many hubs on this, but I always promise myself that new hubs need to always be better than the previous ones. Safety comes always first, so to play it safe, when you practice recalls with your dog, your dog must be in any one of these situations:

  • Contained in your home
  • Contained in your safely fenced yard
  • On a leash
  • On a long line
  • In a large, safe contained area

You should never practice recalls in places your dog can just take off. That's like playing Russian roulette with your dog's life. Also, this risks making your recall irrelevant as your dog enjoys that exhilarating sensation of freedom which is often exacerbated by your desperate attempts into getting him back.

The main issue with a recall is that it's hard for a dog to focus when there are distractions and the dog is at a distance. For more on how to proof a dog's commands read my hub on distance, distractions and duration in dog training. So how do you proof a recall? As with other commands, you start little and build from there taking baby steps.

So you would start in a low distraction area and with little distance. One of the best places is a hallway because it's long, not much going on and it allows you to easily play round-robin if you place yourself at one end and a helper on the other and call your dog rewarding lavishly with high-value treats. The same can then be done in the yard, then outdoors on a long line etc.

If you want to train your dog a strong recall off leash, your dog should already have a pretty good recall in low distraction areas. This is an advanced form of training that requires lots of proofing, and how do you proof if you have a dog that when off leash decides to come only when he thinks it's worth it? How do you train a recall if Rover thinks he has option A) come to my owner....and option B) ignore the owner and continue sniffing.... and option C) aknowledge the owner and tell him "I'll be there in a second or two"? The answer is you invest in a long line

With a long line, Rover has option A) come to my owner and option B) come to my owner and option C) Come to my owner. Why is that? Because the long line will prevent your dog from deciding to take off and ignore you because he simply can't. When you take that option to take off away, he will automatically become more focused, and on top of that, you play it safe because you no longer need to worry about your dog taking off in a road full of traffic. You can relax, and finally find a compromise with Rover, allowing him a taste of exhilarating freedom and yourself the comforting relief of safety.

So how do you train your dog with a long line? You first off get different lengths so you can start with the shorter length ones first so you can gradually build on distance. I personally prefer a drag line versus a long line because it is lighter and thinner. You would also first start this training in an area with little distractions. Last but not least, you would invest in the tastiest treats your dog knows, those that literally make your dog drool buckets of saliva. Roast beef, string cheese, roasted chicken, liver anyone?

Steps to Train a Recall with a Long Line

  1. Make it easy for your dog. Start with not much distance and in low distractions.
  2. Call your dog in an excited tone of voice as you bend down on your knees and encourage every step he takes in your direction.
  3. When he reaches you, get a hold of his collar and give him several bite-sized treats in a row. This mean like 10 small treats in a row.
  4. Repeat at least three to four times a day and set your dog for success by gradually adding distractions..

What if your dog ignores you when you call him to come? You may feel tempted to correct him with the leash by giving a strong tug, but don't! You don't want to startle your dog and make coming to you unpleasant. Instead just turn around and entice your dog to chase you. You can make noises, clap your hands, make acute vocalizations that mimic prey,but don't call him again! When he then reaches you, throw a party and give him several small treats in a row. This method works because your dog gets 2 sources of reinforcement: relief from a tense leash and treats. He also gets a form of slight punishment for ignoring you the first time. Let's take a look at what really happens.

1) Negative reinforcement. Now, I am not a big fan of negative reinforcement, but in this case it's very, very mild. The leash as you turn away to leave may put a bit of pressure on Rover's collar which will cause him to follow you to relieve that pressure. This is the same type of pressure your dog feels when he is on the leash and you change direction and he gives in to that pressure by following you now in the new direction.This relief of pressure is reinforcing to the dog especially if you teach him how to get relief from it...see note below. Behaviors that are rewarded tend to repeat.

*Note: should your dog resist the pressure, don't just drag him! see the note at the bottom of this section to teach your dog how to relieve pressure. The purpose is not dragging the dog, just teaching him how to respond on how to get relief from tight tension on the leash.

2) Positive reinforcement. When your dog reaches you, you will reward him, which will cause your dog's coming to you to become reinforcing. Behaviors that are rewarded tend to repeat.

3) Negative punishment. Since you are turning around and leaving when he doesn't come to you, your dog will hopefully come to realize over time, that by not listening to your recall, he's lost his chance to get his treat. This will cause the behavior of not listening to you to extinguish over time. Luckily, you will give him a second chance by rewarding him when he decides to follow you and catch up, so he'll learn next time to come the first time around.For more on learning theory read my article : the quadrants of dog training.

* So what to do if your dog is reluctant to relieve the pressure from the long line ? You teach him how to! Don't let your dog get dragged and experience a negative training session! Teaching your dog how to get relief from pressure on the collar is also helpful when you train a dog to walk nicely on a loose leash. Here is how to train this:

Use you regular leash. Walk your dog normally as you do every day. When you notice the leash is tense during the walk as your dog pulls or you suddenly change direction, stop and call your dog to you (I like yo use a conditioned smacking noise or a handtarget) so he can feel the removal of tension and reward him with a treat. Do this several times. With time, your dog will soon learn that a tight leash becomes a cue to come to you and remove that tension. Then you can practice this with the long line.

As your dog gets reliable on coming to you on the long line, you can find a large fenced area, and use the longest long line you can find so he can romp back and forth and work his jollies off. Then, you can practice a few recalls when he hits the end of the line at different distances. With loads of practice, you can then work your way to calling him off leash in a securely fenced area. Initially, you may keep a short drag line hanging to just give him a reminder of his connection with you.

Other Important Tips for Off Leash Recalls

If you want your dog to reliably come when called you will have to follow some important tips that will protect your recall and prevent it from becoming a "poisoned cue".

  • Train your dog an every day recall, and then an emergency recall. These need to be two different commands.
  • If you call your dog and he tells you "I hear you, but I'll be there in a minute" don't call him again or try to chase him in a nervous, irritated way; rather, go and get him calmly or entice him to chase you.
  • A good recall requires a strong foundation of trust and cooperation.
  • Make sure your dog's exercise needs have been met before training recalls!
  • Play games that encourage your dog to come back to you such as retrieving, round-robin sessions and hide-n-seek.
  • Train your dog to come when called from an early age so you can take advantage of that innate desire to cling by your side and build from there.
  • Make several knots in your drag line so you can step on it as needed and it won't slide under your shoe.
  • Never call your dog to you when something unpleasant is about to take place such as a bath, nail clipping or leaving from the dog park. Protect your recall by using it only for pleasant things.
  • If you must call your dog at the dog park, don't call him and then just leave! Rather, reward him and send him back to play several times. Then when you must really leave, call him, get his collar and deliver treats and then play a game, with him, take a fun walk or let him play on leash with another buddy for a bit. Anything to fade the association between calling him and leaving.
  • Call your dog, get the collar and feed treats. Get your dog used to you getting his collar to prevent collar sensitivity.
  • Never call your dog to you when you are angry. Your dog can read your body language and sense your tension.
  • Reward your dog for voluntary check-ins. As you walk in a fenced area and your dog is off leash, make sure you always promptly reward those moments when your dog comes close to you.
  • Reinforce every step your dog takes in your direction by rewarding it with praise and entice him to reach you by clapping your hands and acting silly.
  • Use high-value rewards such as left-over steak or roasted chicken, a hamburger in pieces.
  • If your dog is toy oriented, use the toy as well as a reward.
  • Don't completely deprive your dog of freedom, if you do so, he'll take off the moment he is off leash to celebrate. Find a compromise by using a long drag line or a large fenced area where your dog can safely explore and where you can practice recalls.
  • Purchase the video "Really Reliable Recall" by Leslie Nelson (see preview below)

Alexadry© Al rights reserved, do not copy

Leslie Nelson: How to Train a Really Reliable Recall

© 2013 Adrienne Farricelli


Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 13, 2013:

Aquinby, we all would love that, don't we?

aquinby on July 12, 2013:

Thanks for the article! I want to think that I'll always be more important than anything else my dog is interested in, but that's just wishful thinking :)

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 10, 2013:

Hello EricDockett! sounds like you are doing a splendid job! Great idea to start early as puppies tend to be clingy towards humans for some time, at least until they hit the flight stage, and then later, doggy adolescence. Keep up the good work!

Eric Dockett from USA on July 10, 2013:

Wonderful Hub! I'm currently working with our puppy to get him to learn to come when he's called, using very similar methods as you outlined here. He responds almost all the time since he knows he's getting a treat for his effort. We've worked on the long line outside, off-leash indoors and off-leash on our enclosed deck. I never anticipate him intentionally being off-leash in the main yard because of where we live. He has lots of room to run around in enclosed areas, but if he does accidentally get free I want to stand a good chance of getting him to come back when I call him. He's doing really well, and I hope he's just as responsive if he somehow escapes. Him getting squashed by a car is my #1 fear and I figure this training will go a long way toward keeping him safe.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 10, 2013:

Hiedithorne, yes, it's really tough, but the effort pays off in the long run! thanks for stopping by!

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 10, 2013:

Ladydeonne, it's tough! The dog park is one of the toughest places for recalls, I would say it's the final place to proof a recall, once it's reliable enough. Have you tried obedience classes? this would be a good place to practice recalls but in a structured manner and with dogs under control. Another option may be to practice recalls on a long line with other dogs around but on leash.

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on July 10, 2013:

Good advice! This is definitely THE hardest thing you'll ever train your dog for. We're still working on it years later. It must be reinforced continuously since changes in their health, age, etc. can affect their attention. Thanks for the tips!

Deonne Anderson from Florence, SC on July 10, 2013:

Great hub with valuable information all dog owners can use. I have problems with my youngest dog, Gypsie ( 2) who will not come when off leash as she finds everything so stimulating. She has a huge fenced back yard, so there is no danger of her running away. When called in the backyard, she always comes. However, when we go to the dog park, she often runs away and offering her a treat is no longer effective. When her older brother, Yogi (9) goes after her, she usually returns with him but on one occasion she ended up in doggie jail as she refused to return with Yogi who came back to the park without her. Yogi never runs away. I have stopped taking her to the park because of her disobedience.

Thanks for sharing. Voted up, useful and sharing.

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