Getting out and about walking with your four-legged friend is one of the greatest pleasures of being a dog owner. Far from being a chore, many people find that having to walk their dog is a reason to get out and enjoy some fresh air and exercise, whatever the weather. While the weather’s warm I’ve been advising dog owners to stick to early morning and late evening walks, or explore areas under trees or near streams where there are opportunities for your dog to cool off (and you, too, if the mood takes you!) but still, having a reason to go out for a walk when otherwise you’d probably find a myriad reasons why not to is certainly a good thing. It benefits your physical and mental health as well as your dog’s!
However, walking with your dog can be stressful if their recall training’s not up to scratch. Most dogs will love having a run or a mooch around off the lead but, before you let them off, you really want to be sure that it’s not the last time you’re going to see them! You absolutely don’t want them to take off into the unknown with no intention of coming back until they’ve explored every last smell in the local countryside. Once they’re off the lead there are a whole host of exciting options open to them – from running around with other dogs to chasing after squirrels. Ideally, you need your voice to trump all of those things! If you’re going to let your pooch off the lead when you’re on a walk, then knowing that they’ll come back when called is really a matter of safety as well as peace of mind.
If you’ve got a dog with excellent recall, then bravo! Well done! If you haven’t … well, don’t panic. It’s never too late to start improving their responsiveness so that walks can become an altogether more relaxing and enjoyable affair for everyone.
When should you start recall training your dog?
Ideally, as with any training, the best time to start is when your dog’s a puppy. They’re often more responsive and enthusiastic at a younger age (aren’t we all!) and you’re starting afresh – you’re not having to out-train negative behaviours before you begin.
Recall training can begin as soon as you get your puppy – but that’s not to say you immediately take them out to a field and let them off their lead! The first step is getting them to know and respond to their name. Start off in a quiet, enclosed environment at home, with as few distractions as possible. When you’re confident that your pup knows their name, start adding the recall command – make it something simple like ‘come’ or ‘here’, and always use the same word. At first, use the command when they’re already approaching you and then, when they get to you, give them a treat or a very OTT fuss, plenty of praise and maybe a play with their favourite toy. Make coming back to you worth their while; they need to know that returning when they’re called is better than the alternative … whatever that may be. You can add in a hand signal as well, or a clap, whistle or click, to make sure the command’s clear and distinctive.
Once they’re responding to their name and their recall command indoors, you can graduate to the garden or another safe, enclosed outdoor space. Gradually, as they progress, add in some other distractions (maybe ask the kids or a friend or family member to make some noise or play nearby). Always make sure they’re rewarded for coming back and don’t keep repeating the command over and over – ensure they do return to you after one or two calls, otherwise they’ll learn that you don’t really mean it. If they’re very distracted you can get their attention by calling in an overly enthusiastic way, slowly approaching them with a treat (but make sure they come to you rather than the other way round) or setting off moving or running in the opposite direction as you excitedly call them – they’ll come to see what you’re up to! Even if they don’t return to you immediately or they’ve made you wait and call a couple of times, make sure they’re praised for coming back, not chastised. If they associate coming back to you with getting in trouble, they won’t be inclined to do it. And, remember, dogs only understand what’s happened immediately. They won’t understand that they’re being told off for not coming straight away or for anything they may have got up to while they were away on their adventures … they can only compute ‘I’ve come back and I’ve been told off’, rather than ‘Whoops, I’m in trouble for ignoring the first call.’
Once you’ve got this down to a tee at home or in the garden, it’s time to try it in the real world … but there are even more distractions out there, so it’s advisable to start on a long line before working your way up to fully ‘off the lead’. If your dog doesn’t respond to their name and the recall command when on the long line, just give the line a gentle twitch to attract their attention. Don’t use it to haul them in like they’re a fish on a line though! Act as though there’s no lead there at all and give them the same praise/treat when they come back to you.
One of the key things to remember when you’re recall training is to be consistent. Always use the same command and give the same level of reward. Dogs like and understand routine so in their minds it has to be as simple ‘I hear this, do this and get this.’
When you’re confident that their recall’s up to scratch with the long line, then you can go for no lead at all.
We’ve talked here about recall training a pup but the same process applies at any age … and it’s never too late to recall train a dog. If you’ve adopted an older dog or if you’ve just never quite got Fido’s recall training sorted, then you can still work on it. It may take a little longer and you might have to combat some bad habits first, but with time, patience, perseverance and consistency you can get there. No matter how long it takes, try not to get frustrated or cross with your dog as they’ll pick up on this and associate their recall word with stress and anger rather than praise and reward. Remember, dogs are quite simple creatures really. They like and understand routine and consistency. They’re usually pretty easily bought with praise, affection and treats. They really do want your praise and approval so will do anything to gain that; just ensure that coming back to you is more appealing than continuing whatever it was they were doing before you called them! For more tips on recall training, check out this advice from the RSPCA or the Dogs Trust. If you’re really struggling with recall training, my advice is to persevere! Even the most difficult dogs are trainable with time, consistency and the right approach. Having said that, it’s not always easy especially depending on your dog’s breed, personality or background. It can often be really hard to do it by yourself so try some dog training classes (either one-on-one or group sessions) for support and expert advice, or contact a dog behaviourist if your dog has been ill-treated or has had particularly difficult past experiences which may be causing stress or anxiety.