15 helpful ways to get your dog to come back to you on off leash walks

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One of the most common questions dog trainers get asked is how do you get your dog to come back to you when you've let them off the leash? There are many possible reasons why your dog's recall isn't reliable, but being able to let your dog off their leash and feel secure they'll come back is so important. 

Recall is the process of being able to get your dog to return to you when asked whilst they’re off the leash. Whether you have a reliable recall or not can depend on a number of factors - from the breed of your dog, to their age or developmental stage, and, very importantly, how rewarding they find it to come back to you.

Young puppies may appear to have a very good recall as they are following you around for safety. They want to be close to you, as they trust that you will protect them from anything new or scary in the outside world. They’re also always hungry and looking out for their next serving of best dog treats! As our dogs grow up and move towards adolescence, they can get a new sense of confidence - so you are no longer their security blanket.

If you haven’t made the process of coming back to you a rewarding experience before adolescence hits, then you most likely will end up with a dog that ignores you when off the leash. Some breeds of dogs - such as Beagles and Huskies - are known to be more challenging to teach a reliable recall. However, when you understand their breed motivations and walk in the right environments, all dogs can be taught to come back to you when asked.

Want to know how you can get a more reliable recall? Read on for our top 15 tips for getting your dog back during off leash walks.

Caroline Wilkinson
Caroline Wilkinson

Caroline Wilkinson is a Certified Animal Behaviourist. She is a Full (assessed) Member of the APDT and INTODogs – as well as a Registered Training Instructor (ABTC). Caroline is also a Certified Real Dog Yoga Practitioner and an Applied Canine Zoopharmacognosist. 

1. Start your recall training at home

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Begin training in a quiet and familiar indoors environment with minimal distractions - your hallway is a great place to start! This allows your dog to focus on the training process without being overwhelmed. When your dog learns new games at home first, such as how to instantly respond to their name, they're more likely to be able to do this eventually outside.

2. Keep training sessions short

The most effective learning happens in short training sessions. Play your recall games for 3-5 minutes a couple of times a day to build up a solid foundation of focus from your dog. If your dog is finding an exercise difficult - either because they don’t know what is expected or they’re not getting their reward quickly enough - then you can end up with frustrated responses such as jumping up at you. Breaks during the learning process have been proven to be useful in many species, including our dogs.

3. Choose the right space to walk your dog!

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Distracted, over-excited, or scared dogs will not be able to take on any new information so learning won’t happen. Heading into the middle of a busy dog park will set you up for failure when it comes to teaching recall. Initially, choose training environments with minimal distractions. As your dog progresses, gradually introduce distractions such as other dogs or wildlife. If your dog finds certain distractions scary - such as traffic, dogs, or people - then seek out the help of a force-free behaviorist to support your progress.

4. Make sure the reward you’re using works for YOUR Dog

While one dog might love a bit of cooked turkey as a treat, another may find a squeaky ball the only thing that works as a reward. Offer tasty treats or use toys that your dog finds highly rewarding. This creates a positive association with coming when called and motivates your dog to respond. If you’re not sure what your dog loves the most, try offering different food or toy choices at the same time (laid on the floor or in sections of a muffin tray) and see which they choose to eat or play with first.

5. Always reward your dog

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You might be wondering how long you’ll need to keep on taking those treats or toys with you on walks. If you still are finding it difficult to get your dog back to you, then now is not the time to stop! Always reward your dog with treats or playtime, alongside lots of verbal praise, when they come to you after being called. This reinforces the desired behavior and encourages them to repeat it.

6. Use a clicker

A clicker is a tool used by dog trainers to mark the moment a dog performs the desired behavior. So, when we’re talking about recall - the ‘click’ would be heard when the dog starts to move towards you’ve asked them to. A clicker is a small, plastic box that either has a button on it or a metal tongue that you press to make the ‘click’ sound. This sound can be paired with food to tell your dog not only that you’re happy with them, but also the precise moment that earned them the reward.

It can be really useful as it sounds consistently rewarding to the dog no matter who is using it and what mood they are in! If you’re looking to use a clicker during your recall training, think of it as the shutter of a camera - you want to capture the moment your dog starts to recall towards you, pressing that button to take a virtual photo of the behavior.

7. Use a consistent recall cue

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Just as we need to be consistent in our use of rewards for our dog’s good behavior, we also need to be consistent with what we’re asking them to do. If you switch between ‘here’, ‘come’, or ‘get back’, how is your dog meant to understand what you're asking from them? Choose a specific recall cue, such as your dog's name followed by "come" or a unique whistle, and consistently use it during training. This helps your dog associate the cue with coming to you.

8. Use a happy tone!

When it comes to training your dog, it’s not just what you say but HOW you say it. Dog-directed speech (like that squeaky voice you’d speak to a baby with) has been shown through studies, to be the most effective way to respond to our dogs. Speaking in a happy voice, just like fake smiling, can also have an impact on our own mood state - so your dog will be coming back to a happier human. If we shout at our dogs or use a lower tone, they are less likely to want to come close to us - something we want to avoid if we’re trying to get a better recall!

9. Long-lines can support your training

Dog pulling on leash

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Recall training can take time - it may be weeks or months before you can start to trust your dog off the leash. This can make you feel like your dog isn’t getting the freedom or exercise they need to get the most of your walks. That’s where long-lines come in! A 15ft long training leash will give your dog the space to be able to sniff and explore the world around them, at the same time keeping them safe and unable to run away. They give you the chance to stay connected physically with your dog, while you get the recall practice hours in.

10. Start your walk with this simple game

Before you even step out of your home, start playing a simple game - the ‘Name Game’ to get your dog’s focus before your walk begins. Say your dog’s name, when they look at you say ‘yes’ or use your clicker, then throw a tasty treat to the floor. Once they’ve eaten the treat repeat this a few more times. This lets your dog know you’ve got yummy food with you and means their focus is on you before you’ve even left home. When you get to your off-leash area, play this game before and after un-clipping the leash.

11. Gradually increase distance

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Start training with short distances and gradually increase the distance between you and your dog. This allows them to build confidence and reinforces the recall behavior over longer distances. Working as a team with friends and family members allows you to build up distance more quickly, as you can take it in turns to call the dog - taking a step further away from one another each time you do.

12. Train in different spaces

Once you feel pretty secure in your dog’s recall at home, in your backyard, and in quiet parks, it’s time to change location! Practice your dog’s recall in different environments - you can use different parks, beaches, forests, or even just a friends' yard. This helps your dog generalize the recall cue out to different places so they can come back to you wherever and whenever they are off the leash.

13. Know the dog in front of you!

Dog running along forest trail

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When it comes to your dog’s breed or breed-mix, understanding what motivates them on an ancestral level can be game-changing when it comes to getting a better recall. Got a scent-hound? Stinky food and the chance to sniff is most likely to be their biggest rewards. Got a terrier? A squeaky ball might be a better fit. But it’s not just the reward that can be changed based on breed, but the games you play together. For example, for a herding breed - an effective recall game can be sending them around an object, such as a park bench, before they return to you. While you’re still getting them back, they’ve had the chance to do some physical movement that’s also rewarding. Win, win.

14. Play games

We don’t want to get too predictable when it comes to the ways we get our dogs back to us. Play any sort of games or ask for training exercises that encourage proximity. This could be playing hide and seek, asking for a hand target, or getting your dog to run through your legs. You can have all sorts of fun thinking of new ways to motivate your dog to want to hang out near you on walks.

15. Never recall for something bad

If you need to do something with your dog that they’re not going to enjoy, don’t use your recall cue before it. It might be you want your dog back in from the yard before you bathe them. Or you call them from another room to put eardrops in. It might even be the final recall on a walk before getting back into your car, if they don’t like to travel. In these situations, go and get your dog or just toss freebie-treats on the floor to get them close to you. Don’t poison your recall cue with a negative outcome. Keep it rewarding!

Remember, improving a dog's recall takes time and patience. Be persistent, celebrate small successes, and gradually build up to more challenging scenarios.

Caroline Wilkinson
Certified Animal Behaviourist

Caroline Wilkinson is a Certified Animal Behaviourist. She is a Full (assessed) Member of the APDT and INTODogs – as well as a Registered Training Instructor (ABTC). Caroline is also a Certified Real Dog Yoga Practitioner and an Applied Canine Zoopharmacognosist.