In her latest post on helloBARK!, Claire Roulston (@scotlandwithfluffywolf) offers advice on how to positively train off leash recall.
I was one of those kids who went out the door and explored and climbed trees and fell into mud puddles. I always dreamed that one day I’d have a faithful dog to follow me everywhere and join in with everything.
Eventually I got my Samoyed puppy, but I was told by her breeder “you’ll probably want to keep her on the lead; northern breeds have notoriously bad recall”. Gulp. Where was my dream of an off leash adventure companion?
Fast forward four years and a few close shaves later and I have a dog who is *pretty* good off leash.
In this article, I’m going to share what worked for us, as I wish I’d been able to read this article four years ago. If you have any good recall tips please send an email to helloBARK! and tell us your story.
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Why Bother, My Dog Doesn’t Get Off the Leash?
From speaking with husky and Samoyed breeders and some of the breed rescues there seems to be a prevalent attitude of “these dogs can’t be trusted off leash so there’s no need to train recall, you don’t need it, just keep them on the lead!”.
I’m afraid I beg to differ. What about when your hour at the off leash dog park is up and you’re holding up the next group as it takes you 20 minutes to catch your dog? Or the day your friends visit and your dog bolts out the front door and is halfway down the street? Or when you get in a tangle and drop the leash and your dog heads off?
I can see plenty of scenarios where having a good off leash recall will make life simpler and safer for both you and your dog. So, my opinion is it’s best to train good recall even if you hope you never need to use it.
The next sentence my breeder uttered after “you’ll want to keep her on the leash” was “if you are going to let her off, do it early so she gets used to it”. This gave me hope that maybe we’d manage off leash after all. So, do as I did and start your training as soon as you get your pup or rescue dog home.
Start On leash
As soon as she was allowed out we went to the local park with a flexi lead. I let her explore and sniff and waited until she looked up and started to move in my direction before calling her. I gently pulled in the leash if she stopped halfway.
Once she was back she got lots of cuddles and snacks and praise. I repeated this exercise 2-3 times on every trip out until she got the idea. Your standard 1-3m walking leash would work just as well for this stage. It’s about getting your dog’s attention back onto you.
Find a long leash (not a flexi) that you don’t mind getting mucky. I used a 10m length of pensioned off climbing rope. I know people who’ve used horse lunging reins which are now starting to be sold for dog training too. Biothane wipe-clean leashes are also ideal.
Any line will do as long as it’s strong and there’s a clip to fasten it to your dog’s harness/collar. I learnt the hard way to attach to a carabiner and then attach that to the harness when my carefully tied knot came undone during a bout of rough puppy play (I told you I had some close shaves along the way).
Go to the park and do the same “come” exercises as you did before. Make it easy for your dog; only ask for “come” when they are headed in your direction.
Drop the Line
If you know you will be able to grab the line/stand on the line in time should your dog decide to leg it, then drop the line (why I said not to use a flexi) and let your dog explore.
Keep asking for “come” and start making it harder by asking when they are sniffing or looking away from you. If they don’t respond immediately then gently pull the line to get them headed your way. Reward every successful return with praise/treats/cuddles/their favourite toy (whatever motivates them).
Get a Friend
Rope in a friend or a fellow dog walker. Stand some distance apart and get your dog to come to you and then to your friend and then back to you. Get them to practice running between you (judge your distance so one of you could always grab that trailing line).
Make it into an exciting game by asking “come” and then running further away (most dogs love to chase). If your friend has a friendly dog with good recall then even better. Get them to call in their dog and yours should follow.
Try Off leash
Go to a secure place (fenced garden, park or dog field such as Runfree Dog Fields in the UK and practice the “chase and come” game some more. Take off the long line if it’s safe to do so. Take your friends and dog friends along. Keep practicing. Keep making it fun.
If you do happen to lose your dog during a recall training session or should they escape out of the yard, you can find services that allow you to send lost dog reports and send a free alert instantly. You can also send an update once they’re found.
Drop the leash
Once you have 80-90% certainty that your dog will come when called it’s time to move to the next stage. Find a short (1-3m) leash that doesn’t have any hardware (clips, buckles, etc) on the handle end (as it’s going to get dragged along the ground). Start walking your dog on this leash. I used my hardworking everyday Halti again.
Every so often, when there are no distractions you can see, and you are ready to grab/stand on the leash if your dog tries to run, just drop the leash. This is to let your dog get used to the feeling of walking with no pressure on the leash.
When the leash is dropped keep your dog’s attention by asking for “sit” or “paw” or any behaviour you are currently training. After a few seconds pick up the leash and continue your walk.
Don’t make a fuss over dropping or retrieving the leash. You want your dog to think it’s perfectly normal that you aren’t on the other end. Don’t take unnecessary risks so please don’t do this next to roads or livestock fields!
Once your dog is used to the leash being dropped and retrieved, drop the leash and start bribing them with their favourite toy/ball/snacks to walk beside you for longer periods. Stop before they get bored of the bribe and go back to holding the leash. It will get muddy so you might want to invest in a pair of gloves and/or some hand sanitiser for yourself! Keep practicing their “come” on the longline too.
More Help from Your Friends
That friendly dog with good recall that you’ve made friends with, now’s the time to borrow them again! Ask if you can go a walk together. If you can, try to pick a park or a dog field that’s completely enclosed. Let the dogs offleash to explore together. Hopefully your dog will follow their friend and come back when called!
Look for dog walking groups in your area. Your local vet, local pet shop and Facebook and Instagram are all good places to hear about doggie meet-ups. So too are local dog trainers. Some run regular pack walks. Ask around and see what you can find. Most dogs seem to have better recall as part of a pack, so use this to your advantage and go out in groups.
Never do more than you feel comfortable doing. If you feel stressed about letting your dog off the leash then keep them on leash. If you let them off in these conditions they will sense your worry and will be more likely to react to any new stimuli.
Give them whatever level of freedom that you feel is safe. For me this means on leash near roads and livestock, trailing a 2m line when hiking in areas I don’t know well (so I can grab her if she runs), and off leash on the local beaches and woodland where I know she knows the terrain and even if she chases squirrels or deer she will come back once she’s lost them.
Take notice of the time of day. Dogs are naturally crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk) and especially for dogs with high prey drive, these times of day are when they are the most engaged with their environment and the least likely to listen to you.
When It All Goes Wrong
Because it will: remember “Fenton” anyone?
I’ve had my share of Fenton moments too, watching my dog hightailing it into the distance in full voice after a deer/bunny/pigeon.
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever been given was “you can’t train a dog’s bum”. Meaning when you see that fluffy rear disappearing at speed there’s nothing you can do at that moment. No amount of yelling will break their focus when they are fixated on catching that squirrel/rabbit/jogger/cyclist etc. Stay calm. It’s very unlikely that they actually catch the prey (if they do that’s another blog for another day, message me if you want to talk strategies for getting dead rabbits off your wolf). Wait until you think the chase would have become less interesting to them and then start calling them. Hopefully by now they’ll be hot, tired and thirsty and the idea of coming back to their human for a drink and some snacks seems appealing.
Don’t set yourself up for failures. If they are having a fun time off leash then periodically call them back, reward them and then let them go play again. You want them to never associate being recalled with ‘fun’s over, I’m being put on leash now’. Otherwise you’ll have difficulty getting them to obey when you do want them back on leash.
If they ever stop listening to the “come” command then it’s time to go back to basics. Get back into the park with the long line and a new command. I used “on me” – our look at me prompt. Go back through the training process with this new command. Once they have recall down again, then run the commands together “on me, come” and then you can go back to using your old recall command. I’ve twice had to go back through recall training with “on me” and then her name.
The TLDR sum up
• Start on a leash asking for “come’ and rewarding
• Move to a longline
• Drop the line and rope in your friends
• Pack walks are fun
• Trail a short lead
• Off leash only where it’s safe
My final thoughts
I hope you found this article useful. If you’ve got any off-leash walking training tips, then get in touch. Have fun; hug your pups and happy walkies!
If you’d like some on leash walking tips too check out my previous article.
Any comments or questions? Send a message to helloBARK! ([email protected]) or come say hello on my dog’s Instagram @scotlandwithfluffywolf. I’ll be delighted to chat with you about any dog or photography related topics !