Eleven years ago, I got out of my car to look at a chihuahua I was thinking about rescuing. The dog was a 9-month-old Chihuahua female, who was being rehomed because of a behavioral issue that almost killed her.
The issue was frequent escaping, and then refusing to be caught once she was out the door. This fun game for her was a nerve-wracking experience for the owners who ultimately decided they couldn’t keep her.
Recall issues are a common problem with rescue dogs. If you are trying to figure out how to fix recall in a rescue dog, here are a few lessons I learned while teaching Leia to come when called.
Teach “Touch It” First
The moment I brought Leia home, it became obvious there was more to her recall issues than not knowing the command. She understood the assignment, and the assignment was to never get caught.
This is very common when new or inexperienced dog owners scold their dog after successfully capturing it. They mean to tell the dog not to run away, but inadvertently tell them not to come. The action you are punishing is the last one they did.
The good news is that dogs do not generalize, so you can fix this by teaching them a different command that achieves the same objective.
You can teach your dog to touch your hand for example, instead of asking them to come. A hand touch involves them touching your hand with their nose. This will get your dog close enough to leash them, or at least get them out of the road if you need to.
To teach this command, I used a clicker and treats. I showed Leia my hand, and she sniffed it out of curiosity. As soon as she did, she got a click and a treat.
After a few repetitions, Leia figured out it was touching my hand that got the snacks. Over time I made it a little harder by raising my hand or moving it slowly so she had to catch it to get her treat. She loved the games, and also didn’t mind hand-touching her way back into the house.
Restart Recall Completely
Once I had a safe way to get Leia back into the house without stressing or frightening her, fixing her recall began. This was a much longer road. We started by relearning recall in the house. I would call her and show her a fabulous treat to help her come.
If she didn’t come and my husband’s dog came instead, my husband’s dog got the snack. She quickly learned to be first to get to me if she wanted a snack.
Outside, we worked on leash only and eventually used a long lead to gradually expand the distance. At this time she would dutifully work on leash, but if the leash was unsnapped or she escaped out the front door, she still would not come.
In order to stop the leash bolting, I put her regular leash on, but also snapped a super light kitten leash to her harness. During our walks, I would practice unsnapping one leash. After a couple of times taking off, she learned that the leash coming off didn’t necessarily mean she was free to run away.
A fun way to practice recall in the house and secure yard is to play “pass the puppy.” In this game, you and a family member or friend your dog likes sit down as far apart as your dog will reliably come or space allows. Each of you has treats your dog loves.
Take turns calling the dog and giving them a treat. This is great exercise, great practice, but most importantly, establishes coming when called as a fun thing to do. Your dog is more likely to come if they perceive it as a fun activity, not a chore. Here are some other fun games you can play to teach recall.
Borrow a Helper Dog
This only works if you have a dog with reliable recall that your dog is comfortable with. A specific point we still had issues with is if my dog ‘escaped’ out the front door, she still would not come when called.
I ended up finding a double leash attachment and leashing Leia to my eldest, Rocco, who had a very reliable recall. We simulated escapes, and I recalled them both. Leia discovered that she was coming back whether she wanted to or not and got—praise and treats!
We practiced every single day for over a year before one day, Leia got loose for real and I decided to try a recall on her before the hand touch. She looked over her shoulder at me with an uncertain tail wag, deciding what to do.
The moment she decided to come to me instead of running away is one of the single best moments of my life for dog ownership. I’m proud to say that her recall is 100% now, and she takes great joy in coming when she hears her name.
It’s worth it to teach your pet to come, and while the journey isn’t always easy, I hope these tips help.