Recall Training: Let’s Take this Outside!

Last week, we reviewed the steps needed to classically condition an enthusiastic response to your whistle or other recall signal through a variety of games...


Last week, we reviewed the steps needed to classically condition an enthusiastic response to your whistle or other recall signal through a variety of games and exercises while in the home. If you’ve followed these steps, and your dog is enthusiastically running to find you as you hide throughout the house, you can begin taking the recall training outside.


Initially, you should begin practicing this outside in a relatively low distraction environment, like your fenced-in back yard. Even if this area does not provide visual distractions in the form of other dogs, people, or animals, nonetheless there will be lots of new smells and sounds to serve as your early distractions.

Often, the time of day during which you practice may effect the distraction level of your yard practice – you may find early morning and evening hours to be the most popular times for walkers, bikers, dog walkers, etc. In this case, getting in a few days (or more) of practicing during afternoon hours, when the distraction level is reduced, will be a good idea before practicing at peak activity times.

You will repeat the reinforcement protocol we discussed last week, initially blowing the whistle when you are right next to your dog, grabbing her collar, and feeding her delicious treats continuously while you mentally sing your alphabet. Practice this 2 – 4x day and only a single time per session. Gradually, you can begin adding in distance and some of the games we discussed last week including round robin recalls with other family members and friendly volunteers. Once your dog happily zooms to you as you blow your recall whistle at any time of day, from any distance in your yard, you can begin introducing distractions.


What does your dog find distracting? The list of distractions and the level of distraction each presents varies widely according to the individual dog. If you have multiple dogs, it is a good idea to make a separate distraction list for each dog. Distractions can be visual, scents, sounds, weather conditions, even the surfaces on which you practice. Sit down and make a list of all the things your dog finds distracting, regardless of the distraction level.

Once your list is completed (and you will find it’s never really complete, so you should add to it as you find new distractions in the environment), you should review your list and rank the distractions on a scale of 1 – 5.

  1. Your dog notices but will happily work around the distraction
  2. Your dog sometimes works well around the distraction
  3. Your dog will usually work well around the distraction but will occasionally “blow you off”
  4. Your dog will only work well around the distraction in ideal conditions (you have amazing food treats, he is very hungry and/or tired, etc.)
  5. Your dog has never worked well or rarely works well around the distraction (may pull or strain on the leash toward, vocalize, etc.)

I like to see at least ten distractions for each of these levels. A sample distraction list might look like this:

Level One Distractions

Other, well-behaved dog on leash at distance

Hard plastic ball (like jolly ball) – stationary

Music playing


Family member watching training session

Empty food bowl on ground

Frisbee lying on ground

Presence of agility equipment in the training environment

Fresh bowl of water

Sounds of kids playing or dogs barking in the distance

Level Two Distractions

Guests arriving at the door – familiar

Hard plastic ball – rolled between two people

Tennis ball resting on ground

Other, well-behaved dog on leash within ten feet

Multiple family members in training environment

Person taking pictures of or videotaping session

Smell of yummy food on counter or cooking on stove

Low value food on the floor

Mild street traffic

Other family dog in the environment

Level Three Distractions

Guests arriving at the door – strangers

Weather conditions – mild rain or snow

Wet surfaces (rainy grass or pavement)

Tennis ball rolled between two people

Kitty litter box

Multiple well-behaved dogs on leash at distance

Single ill-mannered canine on leash at distance

Heavy street traffic


Kiddy pool

Level Four Distractions

Lots of children playing, screaming, etc.

Scents in the grass or environment

Household cats

Loud noises (banging or crashing)

High value food on the ground or floor

Slick surfaces – ice, tile, etc.

Tennis ball toss and catch

Pouring rain

Multiple well-behaved dogs close by

Single ill-mannered canine close by or multiple rude dogs leashed at distance

Level Five Distractions



Woodchuck hole to sniff in

Water source for swimming

Favorite doggy friend

Other dogs chasing lure on lure course

Poorly mannered dog off leash

Tennis ball thrown

Remote control car

Person bicycling, rollerblading, or skateboarding

Next time, we’ll talk about how we can systematically introduce these distractions and strategies for using them to your training advantage! Until then, happy training!

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