Here is some great advice from a professional dog handler on how to manage a dog to avoid a theft using the recall technique, and variations on it. 

With the right training and control, your dog can go to a safe distance and only be recalled by you, when you want, and when it is safe.

Susan Gilbert has run Canine Connections in Northumberland for over ten years and trained hundreds of dogs and owners. In collaboration with DogHorn.UK we have presented this article as an open source of information to all dog owners who would like to create, or improve their dogs recall ability especially with the current rise in dog thefts.

Hi Everyone,

I’ve been seeing a lot of posts about people having their dog leads grabbed during attempted thefts, and owners not knowing how to deal with this, particularly if they are alone.

However, if you have a solid recall ability with your dog then this is a really useful tool that could help you get out of an awful situation. Okay, there are always going to be environments/circumstances that this won’t be possible, but being prepared with a recall is a big advantage. 

Training a dog to have a recall has many benefits

If you don’t have an immediate recall with your dog, then read on to find out how you can train your dog to do this.  It’s not as hard as you think!

If you have a good recall ability with your dog, and know that your dog won’t automatically run to a stranger, we believe that the safest thing to do is; 

  1. DROP YOUR LEAD (unclip if you have time, which is better)  

If your dog can’t be grabbed by a lead then you have the advantage; if they are free to run they are harder to catch, unless they are likely to run straight into the arms of a beckoning thief.  If your dog is loose and uncatchable, then great! If it is approaching strangers and is trained well it will come back to you (even if the other person has treats).  What you don’t want is being able to recall you dog and have it come back to you being chased by a thief (which we will deal with later). 

If your dog is loose and safe then you can still use your DogHorn whistle, Personal alarm etc at this point to raise attention and get help.  (Provided of course you haven’t trained your dog to the DogHorn Whistle or trained it to the DogHorn Code in which case your dog will return to you……OOPS!) 

So, when you head out on your walk have a plan and get yourself ahead of the game.  Think “what would I do if I was approached by a suspicious person…?” “How would my dog respond to my commands, if at all?”  “Is it worth spending a bit of time on the training routine again?” “Should I learn this GO PLAY” command?”

Now, if you do have a good recall with your dog and know it won’t approach strangers, then congratulate yourself and relax.  There is not much you need to do unless you want to share this with someone else (and we all have a friend with a dog that has zero recall ability!)  

If you want to find out the benefits of the “GO Play” command that will help in a potential theft situation then read on also. 

Note.  If you have a dog that could be classified as aggressive, and that would defend you in an attack, then you have a choice to follow or disregard the rules.  The rules state that a dog that if you are in public with a dog that might become aggressive and could hurt a poor defenceless thief intent on depriving you of your lifelong friend, you are deemed by the authorities as carrying a weapon with intent.  You’ve had the warning.  We have our own thoughts on the matter.  Enough said. 

The Recall Worksheet

This is my standard worksheet that I teach in my classroom, brought to you and free to share. 

Having a solid recall is one of the most important things you can teach your dog and this worksheet will help you start to build up a good recall with your dog. 

  1. The Basics

We usually find that puppies will follow you everywhere, but once their confidence increases, they are off!! 

Recall can be lost for many reasons, the main one being that once we have taught our new dog or puppy to come back, we then stop reinforcing this, and gradually it gets worse and worse over time. 

Through this worksheet we are going to look at the reasons for a poor recall and more importantly, how to get it back, and get your dog listening to you.

  • The Basics

Going from lead walking to no lead and free running is never going to promote a good recall as the dog has too many distractions and you have no control over it. 

If you can’t physically run after a dog and stop it then you need to use a long line. This allows the dog some freedom and gives you some control. The line will provide a safety net for you by preventing the dog from running off.  

You start by holding the end of the long line and progress to letting it trail as the dog’s recall improves. The long line should be lightweight and ideally attached to a harness to avoid tangling around your legs. 

We ask the dog to return and do not use the line to pull them back; we want the dog to make the decision to return on their own

If they do not come back, then you can pick up the line and guide them back in with lots of positive encouragement. 

Remember, if attached to a dog that is running loose, then no matter how long the line is your end will disappear very quickly, so make sure you keep your dog in a radius that will allow you to catch, or stamp on, the line if needed. This is also good for teaching your dog that it has a boundary and not to stray too far.

Treats must be high value/high interest to your dog.   The dry kibble or boring gravy bones they love in the house will not cut it outside when distraction calls. 

Use a variety of different treats;  chicken, liver, hot dogs, cheese or liver paste are always popular. 

If your dog isn’t food orientated, then you need to find a toy or a game that they love. Some dogs love a rope toy and a tug of war and for others a ball or something squeaky drives them crazy.   Once you have found a toy that makes them tick then you need to keep it for outside training only. The toy will have more value if the dog hasn’t had constant access to it.

Start at home and don’t set yourself up for failure by heading straight to the park and unclipping the lead. Start in the house or garden where distraction is minimal.

Most people fall into the trap of going on predictable walks, usually in the same places. The dog gets clipped off the lead at the start of the walk and runs wild until it is home time and the lead goes back on. 

It doesn’t take the dog long to work out that being called back means they are going home, and the fun is over, so make sure your walks are fun and use this time to play and engage with your dog. 

Call them back randomly just to give them some attention or a treat. Put them on and off the lead at different points so they don’t pre-empt home time.

Don’t nag! If you have called your dog 20 times and they haven’t reacted, then they are just learning to ignore you!  It’s time to try another tactic.  

  • Don’t Punish

The golden rule of recall is DO NOT TELL YOUR DOG OFF

It may have been the most frustrating 15 minutes of your life, and you may have been made a fool of on the beach. Worse still you might have had real concerns for your dog’s safety.  It only makes things worse if you scold them though. 

Imagine your dog running back to you, blissfully unaware that what they did was wrong and you start shouting at them!

From the dog’s point of view IF they have come to you and you are telling them off, is this going to encourage them to come quickly next time? Of course not.

  • Be Happy

Your body language should always be friendly.

Big open arms, kneel on the floor etc. Your voice should always be light and happy, use silly noises, wave your arms, be inviting! 

Your dog will not want to come back to you if you are shouting and bawling in a deep harsh voice. Always keep it happy, fun and positive.

  • Avoid Disneyland

For your dog the outside world is full of wonderful distractions such as other dogs to play with, rabbits or birds to chase, people, footballs, things to roll in and smells everywhere. 

Trying to teach your dog to ignore these things and come back to you is like trying to teach children new things whilst standing in the middle of Disneyland.  There is just too much distraction.

  • Where to start?

Firstly  – does your dog know his/her name? 

It sounds silly but you would be surprised how many dogs don’t respond to their name in a lot of situations. 

The dog’s name should only ever be used to capture their attention. 

We should never use their name to scold them. We should only ever use it in a positive way. 

Firstly we need to practise getting the dogs attention; if you can get them to turn and look at you then you’re halfway there! 

Start in the house with no distractions, call the dog’s name and say ‘watch me’ while holding a treat up by your eyes. 

When the dog looks at you give them the treat. 

Practice this a few times until the dog is reacting quickly and understands the ‘watch me’ command. 

Once we are sure the dog knows their name and is responding to it, we can then move on to more recall games.

  • Use Games- Make it Fun!

The biggest part of a successful recall is having the dog work out that you are more exciting and rewarding than other distractions. This can be tricky!

Again you need to start games with no distractions to make it easy for the dog to learn to focus on you.

The Game of “Find it”:

This is a really simple game to get the dog returning to you and focusing their attention on a game with you. 

To start with, we simply take a treat, call the dog’s name to get their attention and throw the treat to your side.

When the dog goes to get it speak the ‘find it’ command. 

Continue this, throwing the treats in different directions (you can use a toy if the dog prefers this). 

Once they have learnt the command you can start throwing a treat out when the dog isn’t looking and encourage them to find it. 

If they get really good at this, then you can start hiding things or dropping items as you walk, sending the dog back to find them. 

If you are using treats then the reward is food, if you are using toys then the reward is a treat or to play with the toy once they have brought it back to you. 

The Game of “Touch”:

This is a really handy game especially for the dog that comes back and stops three steps away from you! 

Hold your hand out flat, palm facing the dog and hold a treat in the other hand. 

Ask the dog to ‘touch’ and present your flat empty hand to the dog. 

When the dog nudges or touches your hand immediately give it a treat. 

If they nudge the hand with the treat ignore this and continue to ask for a ‘touch’ until they get it right.

The key is timing; make sure your reward is instant. Some dogs get confused with new tricks and may bark or sit down.  If this is the case then move away. Then start again and call them to you, but keep ignoring the wrong behaviour.  Continue offering the flat, empty hand whilst using the “Touch” command.

The Game of “Runaway”:

Unless it is unsafe to do so, then running in the opposite direction to the dog is a better option than going after the dog. 

If you run after them you are joining the chase, if you are running away they are more likely to come after you than be left. 

Start to make running away a game (when there are no distractions around for the dog) run away and as your dog comes after you throw a treat onto the ground in front of it.  Run away again and repeat as they follow.

The Game of “Piggy in the Middle”:

Using two or more people throw a toy back and forwards.  Allow the dog to have a play with the toy after a few throws or they will quickly tire of the game. 

You can also use treats and call the dog one at a time and offer a treat if they come to you.

The Game of “Hide and seek”:

With two people, one person holds the dog and the other goes and hides (keep it easy to start with). 

Once you are hidden the first person releases the dog and is encouraged to find you with the “Go Find!” command.

When it finds you, reward it with treats, toys or attention.

  • Moving on:

Once the recall is solid at home or in quiet areas you can move on to more distractions and busier areas, but still use your long line until you are sure you have control. 

Don’t allow your dog to play with every dog they meet. We want them to stay socialised and have fun, but constant play encourages them to run up to every dog they see and not all of them will be friendly, nor will people always be friendly or be trusted! 

It does them no harm to miss free play for a day or so, or only to meet a few dogs and ignore the rest. It’s a technique called irregular positive conditioning and has a better result than allowing a dog freedom every time. 

Only move outside when you are both ready

After all this training your dog should now start to be more interested in having fun with you than the other dogs. 

Teach your dog a ‘stay and release’ command. This can again be practised at home and then used in busier places once learnt.  Ask the dog to sit and wait while you take the lead off, they must continue to wait until you give them your release command. 

If the dog doesn’t have a good ‘wait’ or ‘stay’ then you may need to hold their collar to maintain the wait. 

Your release command can be anything such as ‘go play’ or ‘finished’. This teaches the dog to wait until you decide if it’s safe for them to go and play and teaches them that, if they wait, you will allow them to play as their reward. 

This ‘stay and release’ command can be used for playing with toys, fetching a ball or control at feeding time also.

  • Teaching the all-important “Go Play” and “Thief” Commands

These are probably the most difficult to train, because they rely on training your dog to run AWAY from you at your command.  

The “Go Play” is a command that will instruct your dog to run free, but still be under your control from a distance. 

A well trained “Thief” is a more advanced command will have a dog runaway to a safe distance, not approach any people and bark, but return to you when you command it. 

  1.  Using Dog Whistles:

Some people like to use a dog whistle for recall, this is particularly useful if it’s noisy or windy or if you don’t have a loud voice. 

A whistle is a more constant noise for the dog to react to.   No matter how nice you are trying to sound if you are angry or upset while calling your dog they will hear that in your voice.

(Try not to use the DogHorn whistle for training – its sound, frequency and warble is for calling help in emergencies. It’s better to use a higher pitched Dog Whistle.) 

To start with, decide how many ‘peeps’ on the whistle you are going to use. 2 or 3 sharp toots are the best. 

Start in the house by blowing the whistle near the dog and rewarding instantly with a treat. 

The dog will quickly associate the whistle with food. 

Then move outside, with no distractions, and recall the dog as you usually would, eg “Ruby, COME!’

As soon as the dog turns to come to you, blow the whistle and treat on its return.

  1.  Use Training Aids:

Long lines and high value treats are pretty much all you need to buy. 

Clickers and whistles can be useful but the most important thing is you! 

Teaching your dog to see you as fun and learning to play games with you around distractions is the key. 

Training your dog is an ongoing thing and if you stop the training and games then their behaviour will soon slide again. 

Make sure you keep the bond with your dog and make training fun. 

The key to success is timing and consistency. Ensure anyone who walks the dog is using the same commands as you and that they are clear and the dog fully understands them. 

Most of the time if the dog isn’t doing what you ask, it’s due to them not understanding what is being asked of them rather than mischievousness. 

Reward good behaviour instantly so the dog learns quickly what you want from them.

I recommend Biothane longlines as they are brightly coloured and easy to clean.

I love Tug-e-nuff dog toys for recall and keep them only for playtime & recall games outside. 

Check them out here and use the code CANINECONNECTIONS  at checkout to get  10% off and free delivery over £25.

If you are looking to buy any training aids let me know as I can offer discounts for most products.

Canine Connections



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