Gradually practicing off-leash behavior

Practicing off-leash recall in the front yard

One of our September training goals is to improve Pyrrha’s off-leash recall ability.

This has been a tricky thing to teach safely. When we first had Pyrrha, we made the mistake once of thinking she was pretty good off leash… and almost lost her in the woods for a heart-stopping 10 minutes. She is very motivated to come to me, but she’s also highly distractible, anxious, and unmotivated to come to anyone who isn’t me. She’ll come to me in the backyard whenever I call her, but there are very few distractions back there.

So. Our solution to training this behavior has been our giant front yard.

Practicing off-leash recall in the front yard
Meandering back to the house; dragging the leash.

Our tiny house is set back quite far from the street, so this has been our practice routine:

Every night, when I go out to get the mail, Pyrrha comes with me and wears the slip lead. I hold it lightly in my hand as we walk to the mailbox, but then, when we turn back to the house, I drop the lead and she gets to wander, untethered, back to the house.

Practicing off-leash recall in the front yard
Sniff where the deer have been.

She’s been doing very well with this routine. As you can see, she is a big sniffer, and her nose tends to be her biggest distraction. I let her check things out for a few minutes, and then I call her to me. She comes to me 95% of the time on the first call.

Clearly, Pyrrha has learned the behavior for this particular routine. She runs straight to the front door, 9 times out of 10. She will occasionally stray to one side of the house, but always comes back to me at first call. I haven’t had to run after her — yet!

Practicing off-leash recall in the front yard
Check the pear tree for squirrels.

Other things I can do to improve:

  1. Have treats with me every time. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. She seems motivated enough to come to me, but I shouldn’t take that for granted, especially if we start to practice this in higher-stress environments.
  2. Practice this with Guion. Again, I’m the only person — probably in the world? — that Pyrrha will come to. I see this as a big behavioral hazard for her. The one time she got out at my parents’ house and was truly lost, this was my greatest concern; I knew she wouldn’t come to anyone else, not even my husband. So it was very lucky that I was the one who found her, but that is not something I can count on.
  3. Think of places where we can practice this behavior with her 30-ft line. There’s a usually vacant soccer field nearby that could work…
Practicing off-leash recall in the front yard
Patrol around the side of the shed.

How did you teach off-leash recall? Any tips for us?

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10 thoughts on “Gradually practicing off-leash behavior

  1. I’m working on this too 🙂 But you are lucky you have a backyard and front lawn. I have to pick odd timeslots when there is a 99% chance of no other neighbourhood dog around to practise with her in the tiny garden downstairs Illegally (since the dog needs to be leashed at all times according to our laws :P) and when it isn’t too hot/dark, we’ll go to this empty dog run about 20min away to practice in the fenced enclosure there. Not perfect in terms to getting a regular routine to stay consistent, but we do what we have to.

    I’m not too consistent with food rewards either when outside 😛

  2. Restrained recalls are my favorite for working with couples! One person holds the dog, one person calls the dog. Both have treats, so the dog must learn to leave treats in order to get more. As the dog improves, introduce distractions (even asking the dog to be recalled while she’s still eating from the other person’s hand), more distance, and staying with you after she’s come to you. I never had the problem of Elli only coming to me when I call… for a very long time, it’s been just me and her. And then the boyfriend walked into my life – Elli adores him, of course – and this became an interesting problem. I still don’t let him walk her off-leash on the mountain because I just don’t trust her to come to him like she does to me (at that wicked sprint I love), but she does pay quite a bit more attention to him, especially if we’re playing the restrained recall game.

  3. If you don’t have treats, try simply running AWAY from your dog. Chase is a favorite game for most dogs — and what better than to play it with you!

    We’re taking a reliable recalls class at the moment, and chase was our foundation for the entire class; it’s where we started. I’ve just recently built up to the level where i can now throw a toy and call her off of it *before she gets to the toy* — i get that great necksnapping turn around to come back as quickly as she can.

    In terms of distractions, one option is to take a bowl and use it to feed your dog a treat. Do this 2-3 times so she expects that the bowl has a treat. Then have someone else hold your dog while you walk 10 ft or so away and put the bowl down (empty this time) and then move several feet from the bowl so that you, the bowl and your dog form a triangle. Call your dog. IF they “choose” the bowl, they find there’s no reinforcer…. and learn to come to you for reinforcement instead of looking for it in other places/situations.

    And I second Ximena’s tip above — restrained recalls are GREAT fun. If playing alone, you can even do a “push” recall, where you put your hand on your dog’s chest and push them backward then take off running, while using your recall command. They’ll naturally chase you…. and get rewarded both by the running and by goodies when they catch up to you!

  4. I tend not to favor restrained recalls for anxious dogs, the reason being that restrained recalls typically create arousal (in the form of excitement). For an anxious dog, arousal can turn to frustration. Arousal in general activates the sympathetic nerve system in the dog, which is the same nerve system that is activated when a dog is reacting to a trigger. In a dog that has reaction issues, you want to use that part of the brain less, not more. Of course, every dog is different and some dogs do not get as worked up by restrained recalls as others, so you just have to judge. I do play the chase game with Shelby (which I’ve written about), but I am very careful not to let this game last very long, because I don’t want to build her arousal up, so it’s a delicate balance. For teaching recalls, we were fortunate enough to have a 60 acre fenced in paddock with sheep, lol, so I could recall Shelby using sheep as a distraction and a reward (Premack Principle in action). At home, I just use traditional classical conditioning with a jackpot reward at the end of every single recall. Shelby has an impressive recall due to this but it did take a lot of work! Good luck with Pyrrha!

  5. The single biggest factor limiting our off-leash recalls: ME! I get too nervous to practice anywhere other than places I’m 100% confident in, so we haven’t progressed, if that makes sense. I have complete confidence that Emmett will come when called. The other two? Not so much. Only once did all 3 get out at the same time. Cooper came as soon as I called him. As soon as I called Coop, Emmett came running, and I was able to grab Lucas as he tried to sprint past me. That (horrifying, heart-stopping, gray-hair-inducing) incident, really drove home the fact that this is something I NEED to work on, especially with Lucas. Yet, I still can’t overcome my fear that they’ll run off…

  6. I guess this is one of those things that one dog is easier to train in than others. we have practised walking off leash with Killian from when he was a puppy. The first part of our walks he had to really “work” and walk right beside us on the leash and if he did so successfully, the second part of our walk was off leash as some kind of reward. At first we used a long rope so we still had some control, but he actually never wanders off to far and comes back when you call him; so it didn’t need that much practise as we thought it might. Ophelia tends to copy her big brother when we’re out on walks, so she has learned from him what she has to do and what the boundaries are.

  7. I have taught my dogs to keep an eye on ME instead of me always watching to maintain their locations. We did this by simply walking away, and they followed, sniffing their sniffs along the way but they don’t want to be left behind, so they’ll keep tabs on us. Granted, we had the luxury of teaching them this skill on my in-laws farm- pretty safe environment where we didn’t have to worry about much.

  8. This is a touchy place for us, too. I absolutely cannot “sneak” and let Silas off leash anywhere, because his #1 issue is being surprised. If it turned out that we, say, weren’t the only people in the park, it would be a disaster. I have no problem with Silas being on his leash all the time. But, you also need to be prepared for the bad stuff–the leash gets pulled out of your hand or a harness breaks or whatever.

    One of our favorite games goes like this: I put Silas on his long line. My husband, who is a very fast runner, takes him and they walk/run away. When they’re a reasonable distance, I call Silas to come back. My husband stays neutral and lets Silas choose to come back, and then they SPRINT all the way back to me. (The long line is important, because even with Mr. Seven Minute Mile Silas gets more than six feet ahead.)

    With all things that I need Silas to do in the scary world, my MO is always to do it in the house, but we build up the difficulty A LOT. For example, we do things like off-leash heel work with a pile of cookies on the floor. In the park, I want him to heel for maybe three steps. I recall him away from chasing my husband upstairs, or from running squirrels on the patio, and then send him right back.

    It seems to be working for us–every few months we get to let Silas off leash in my in-laws’ huge field, and he will come right back when I call.

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