Games to Level Up Your Recall!

It’s pretty difficult to get first-person video of recall games with your dog that don’t look like you’re playing chase games with the Cloverfield monster.

A couple of weeks ago, I published a post that was a philosophy and methodology statement and a brag concealed behind a pile of prose about a thorny tree: Nala has a terrific recall, even off of prey, built and proofed with positive reinforcement alone.

Nala’s recall is something that I’ve poured hours of thought, training, and research into, and with good reason[s].  Hiking through the wilderness with my off-leash dog is the stuff of my happiest daydreams, for starters. But more importantly, I have a big, intimidating looking dog who loves toddlers and chasing furry things, who loses her head while following her nose, who used to panic and attempt to run away–dragging me along behind her on her leash–whenever she thought moving cars were nearby, who loves other dogs and is pretty sure that she can turn even the grouchiest dog into her best friend if she looks little and unintimidating while they greet (which is sweet, but could get her into serious trouble). Recall is an important skill for any dog, but it is non-negotiable for Nala.

We started with Leslie Nelson’s Really Reliable Recall. It’s a great program, and based on the posts that have already gone up in this hop, I think most of you already know how Nelson’s program works: Condition a whiplash head-turn in response to your dog’s name, don’t poison your dog’s name or her cue by using it all the time and calling her to unpleasant things or calling her when you know she won’t come, and throw a fifteen to thirty second party celebrating her perfect, unique genius every single time that she response correctly to her Super Special Recall Word.

What Nelson doesn’t cover is how to proof that recall against the really challenging situations–how to expand the situations in which we think we can call our dogs and get a response. In fact, I remember being really frustrated when first presented with a list of times that I could call my dog: who are these people whose dogs aren’t glued, staring, to the ground a few feet away while they prepare their dinners? Where are these dogs that don’t shadow your every move around the house whenever they aren’t asleep? Nala is such a velcro dog that she will often request that I come and keep her company while she naps. Practicing recalls in the house requires set-ups and trickery, and I have a hard time trusting that they’ll hold up if Nala takes it into her head to chase a deer. Good training requires proofing, especially for a dog like Nala, who is  very literal, environmentally sensitive, and gets sticky in certain predatory situations.

At some point, I began to realize that what I really needed to do, just as much as I needed to practice recalls on hikes with a long line and my fingers crossed, is break down exactly what situations I want Nala’s recall for and proof for them. I want Nala to turn on a dime and bolt to me at top speed, close enough for me to grab her collar, and to not leave until she’s dismissed to do so, in all of the following situations:

  • When we’re training and she’s already focused on me, or knows that we’re playing recall games
  • When she’s chasing prey–moving very quickly away from me; focused on something else; very high arousal
  • When she’s in hunting/sniffing/seeking mode–almost still or wandering slowly away from me; intensely focused on smells; much lower arousal than when actively stalking or chasing prey
  • When she’s staring or stalking–moderate to high arousal, but not moving; intensely visually focused. Like many herding dogs, Nala does this when looking at prey and when anticipating playing with another dog or chasing water sprayed from the hose.

Nerd that I am, this is the stuff that I get really excited about–this is where training gets really interesting! Because we can find and make up games that split out these little problems and work on them individually, ultimately allowing us to build a recall that is better, stronger, and faster than before–a recall that works when your dog is intent on going after a possum lurking in the backyard bushes in the middle of the night and you were too lazy to bring treats with you on that last potty break before bed, or gets your dog back when she’s licking the soda-smeared garbage bags lining the trail after a weekend cleanup that apparently ended before the trash was actually disposed of (true story, the past few days. Not the most scenic hikes we’ve ever been on).

Here are some of the games we’ve been playing lately that have made Nala’s already good recall really, really great. A lot of these games require a buddy or a bit of legwork up-front, but I’ll try to suggest adaptations.

1. Restrained Recalls

Why? So that your dog can practice coming to you when she’s really, really hyped up and excited–just like she would be if she were chasing something furry out into the woods, or had cornered an animal that could do some serious damage to her, like a cat or a possum. If your dog pulls on leash, I think you definitely should play this game, since you may actually need to call her while she is pulling if she’s about to chase a cat or lunge into the street!

Many recall challenges come from needing to call your dog when she is both very distracted and very aroused; this game splits out and works individually the challenge of coming to you when she is super high and excited. As a bonus, practicing recalls in a highly aroused, fast way will build speed and arousal into the recall itself, making all of your dog’s recalls faster and snappier.

Pre-requisites? A dog that is comfortable being restrained by the chest, collar, or harness. You might want to skip this game if your dog really hates being restrained–you don’t want to teach her to avoid your hands! Instead,  you can try holding your dog by the top of her harness or a leash attached to the back clip of her harness. And while this game works best with a buddy, you can also make use of a tree or a sign pole to act as a brief restraint while you take off running.


Step one: have your buddy restrain your dog. Take a look at Nala: her weight is forward, her ears are forward, her mouth is open and relaxed, and her tail is sweeping widely back and forth at a mid-level wag. She seems excited and cheerful about being restrained in this way.

Have your buddy restrain your dog.

Start walking away–try to get at least ten feet head-start on your dog. If it’s just you and the dog, step on the end of the leash–that’s maybe a four foot start, if you’re using a six foot leash.

Crouch or play-bow and look back at your dog. Look excited about what’s going to happen!

Call her, and RUN AWAY!

When your dog catches up, you’ll want to keep her from shooting past you. If your dog is really into tugging, drag a tug toy behind you for your dog to jump, bite, and play with for her reward. If, like Nala, your dog is a little bit hit or miss with the tugging, hold out a hand target for her to hit, then throw your reward-party.

Other information? Lots of people use opposition reflex to build drive for activities and do restrained recalls, but I first learned about this game from the free Recallers preview that Susan Garrett offered last year.

And, again, please don’t play this game if your dog hates being restrained! If you aren’t sure whether your dog likes being restrained, practice it and video your session, then look at her body language in the video. And if you’d like to see a post on conditioning opposition reflex, let me know.

Nala thinks launching herself in the air to hit a high hand target is just the best thing in the world, as evidenced by her open, gleeful dinosaur mouth in this strange picture.

2. Zen Games: Furniture and Other Obstacles

Why? If you’ve taught your dog to “leave it” using a positive-reinforcement based training method, then you’ve definitely played some kind of Zen game with him. It probably involved having a treat in your closed fist, letting your dog lick it, and clicking and treating when she backed off. Then you probably slowly moved the food toward the floor, ready to cover it up when you needed to with a hand or a foot.

This game will help your dog practice the same principle–that thing is not available, so come back to me for something better–but at a distance from you, without you hovering over the treat. In other words, it helps your dog come back in the face of distractions–always a good thing!


First, practice with a Zen game that is familiar to you and your dog. (If you and your dog are rusty on Zen games, try Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels. Each level will build on basic versions of the game, and Sue is a brilliant, funny writer, so read past the first page!)

After a minute or two, switch gears to something fun and exciting that gives your dog lots of chances to win. I like to practice hand targets, and switch between rewarding from my hand and rewarding with a tossed treat.

Now, toss a treat under the couch.

Your dog will probably do exactly the same thing she used to do with Hand Zen–she will probably stick her nose under the couch, paw, try to shove her face in and lick toward the treat and do everything in her power to defy physics and get that treat. Just wait.

Eventually she will quit. The second she starts to move away, click! and treat her with something better than what was under the couch–maybe several treats, maybe one treat of higher value. Then release her. She might go back to trying to get the kibble from under the couch. That’s okay! Just wait for her to quit again. If she goes back several times, you can help her get the kibble back, then resume your training games.

When your dog has become a pro at this game, you can add the recall to it. Hold up the treat, toss it under the couch, then call your dog as she’s going for it. Reward handsomely when she comes back, then release her and resume your training games.

Don’t abuse this game–too much impulse control stuff can be demoralizing, especially for soft or sensitive dogs. Your dog should always feel like she can win.

Other information: I am sorry to say that Nala gets to practice this game a lot, because I like tossing treats to reward her but have truly wretched aim.

In my example, I used a couch–but you could use any obstacle that actually prevents your dog from getting the treat after chasing it. Once you’re ready to take this outside, you can even use a storm drain or a sewer grate (that’s Sue Ailsby’s idea, not mine).

If you want to play this game with a toy, read Kathy Sdao’s explanation of how to teach a dog a reliable recall despite distractions.

3. Recall Party Tune-Up: Movement and Reward Delivery 

Why? Putting some thought into your dog’s recall party can make sure that your dog comes in close enough to be grabbed and stays until you dismiss her. And, of course, a better party means more fun for your dog, which means a more reliable recall!


First, if your dog doesn’t like coming close to you at all, check out my previous post on helping dogs who are very sensitive to body pressure learn to think of coming into your space as part of a series of fun games.

Now, think about how you reward your dog for coming when called: how close is she when you reward her? Do you reach out, or even move toward her, to put that treat in her mouth? Do you stay in one place, or do you move around?

Don’t butler to your dog! Feed her right up against you to reinforce returning to a position where you can grab her if you have to.

As we’ve discussed before, where you deliver a reward can make or break a behavior, especially if your dog’s location relative to you is a crucial part of what you’re trying to teach (as is the case with loose leash walking or recall).

For Nala, I usually reward recalls in one of two places–either on the ground between my feet, or right up against my stomach (she’s a tall dog and I am a short lady)–and I move backwards while I deliver treats, in a pattern something like–treat-stepstep-treat-stepstep-treat. Then I pause for a millisecond while she looks expectantly at me before releasing her.

Sometimes, I deliver a treat, then run away, cue a high hand target, and give another treat before releasing. Other times, I call Nala and then run away (this is one of the best ways I’ve found to un-stick her when she’s laying down in wait for a dog she would like to greet). But I always, always, always reward her right up next to me to counter her natural tendency to dodge-and-dash around me.

Practice pays off…but be thoughtful about when and how you practice. 

As I’ve mentioned here before, when we go on hikes, Nala walks on a long line attached to the back clip of her harness. This setup works well for us: she gets the opportunity to move around and explore however she needs to, and we have insurance against anything that might cause her recall to fail.

After months and months of practice, earlier this week, we went on a hike with Nala on her long line–but dragging it, instead of having it attached to a human, for much of our walk.

Nala was awesome. We learned that she won’t go more than about 30 feet from us without stopping, looking back, and running back to us. We already knew that she kept track of me whenever I threatened to leave the radius of her awareness; it was great to learn that she keeps track of herself, too, and doesn’t want to leave us behind. She also came back speedily and cheerfully every single time I called her, even when she stiffened and alerted to the sounds of squirrels playing in the woods.

I tried to be awesome, too. I didn’t call her constantly when she was sniffing–I let her notice and keep track of us herself, trusting that she would catch up when she was ready, and she always did. I chose a time when the park–where it is legal for her to be off-leash–would not be busy, and only let her drag her line in low-trafficked sections of the trails that were too difficult for bikers. I also chose a time of day when the deer aren’t active, since I still think Nala might run off to become a deer herself if she saw one and wasn’t attached to a human anchor. We also practiced fun recall games, including restrained recalls, in the wide, open fields that punctuate the greenbelt’s wooded trails.

What games do you play to keep your recall practice fun and challenging? 

This post has been part of the Postive Pet Training Blog Hop, hosted by My Rubicon Days, Cascadian Nomads, and Tenacious Little Terrier during the first full week of each month! The theme this month was recall, so be sure to poke around for lots of ideas and stories about how other bloggers are working on this fun, important skill!


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4 thoughts on “Games to Level Up Your Recall!

  1. Thank you! How did you know we needed just exactly these steps to ‘up’ our recall abilities! Proofing is always the hardest part for us; these are wonderful suggestions.


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