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Using Target Training to Improve Off-Leash Recall

Using Target Training to Improve Off-Leash Recall

Having a dog with a reliable recall is extremely important for their safety and obedience. A dog that comes when called is able to be let off-leash safely and gives the owner more control. Many owners struggle with teaching their dogs to reliably come when called, especially when there are distractions around. Using target training is an effective way to improve off-leash recall as it associates coming to the owner with a positive reward.

What is Target Training?

Target training involves teaching the dog to touch their nose or paw to a specific target. The target can be your hand, a stick, or any other object. To teach target training:

  • Hold the target in front of the dog and wait for them to investigate it. As soon as they touch it, mark the behavior with a "yes!" or click of a clicker and give a treat.

  • Repeat this until the dog is consistently touching the target. Say the command "touch" as they are about to make contact.

  • Gradually hold the target further away or in different positions so the dog has to move to touch it. Always reward when they touch the target.

  • Fade out the hand signal and say "touch" before they make contact to associate the verbal cue.

  • Practice having the dog touch the target from greater distances and in different locations.

Target training creates a positive association with moving toward the target. We can use this to improve recall by making ourselves the target.

Using Target Training for Recall

Once your dog reliably touches the target on cue, you can remove the target object and become the target yourself.

  • Stand a short distance from your dog and give the "touch" cue, rewarding when they boop your hand with their nose.

  • Gradually increase the distance between you and your dog. Continue to reward every time they run up and touch your hand.

  • After some repetitions, switch the cue from "touch" to "come." Reward when they run up and touch your hand.

  • Increase distance and work in environments with more distractions. Use high-value rewards when there are competing motivators.

  • Eventually phase out the touch and just reward for coming toward you.

  • Continue to practice recall in many different situations, reinforcing every time they successfully come when called.

The key is to go slowly and reward generously in the beginning, building your dog's confidence that coming to you results in something positive. They learn that ignoring distractions and running to you is extremely rewarding.

Tips for Improving Recall with Target Training

Here are some tips to get the most out of using target training for improving recall:

  • Use an extremely rewarding treat that your dog doesn't get at other times. Small pieces of chicken, hot dog, liver treats, cheese, or dried liver work very well.

  • Start in environments with minimal distractions first before working up to high distraction areas.

  • Reward every successful recall. This builds a strong reinforcement history.

  • Use a long lead so you can prevent rewarding if they don't come when called. Never punish for not coming.

  • Make it a game, running backwards and using an excited tone of voice when they run up to "touch."

  • Increase the difficulty slowly – don't expect a perfectly trained recall overnight. Be patient and reward generously.

  • Practice short recalls of just a few feet at first to set your dog up for success, before working at longer distances.

  • Recalls should always be a positive experience. If you need to handle your dog for something unpleasant, call them and then walk to meet them so they still get the reward.

  • Use random rewards to maintain the behavior. Sometimes reward with a treat, sometimes with praise, sometimes with a favorite game.

With consistency and patience, you can teach even the most stubborn dog to love running up to you when called using target training. The key is creating strongly positive associations with the recall cue. Your dog learns that responding to you is extremely rewarding no matter what distractions are present.

Common Problems and Solutions

Here are some common challenges people encounter when training recall with the target method:

My dog won't touch the target in the first place. Make sure you are using a reward your dog finds very motivating. Also, simply hold the target right in front of their nose so it's almost impossible not to touch. Reward the slightest nose touch to the target. Gradually shape for harder touches.

My dog touches the target but won't move away from me. Increase the distance very gradually, even half an inch at a time in the beginning. Practice in short sessions and reward generously. Increase distance slowly over multiple sessions until your dog has the confidence to move several feet away.

My dog comes part way then gets distracted or stops. Decrease the distance and reward for even slight progress towards you. Practice in less distracting environments until your dog's recall is more solid. Use a long lead to prevent rewarding incorrect responses.

My dog comes when called at home but not in public. This means you have progressed too quickly. Go back to easier environments and lower distraction areas. Reward all correct responses but prevent rewarding incorrect ones with a leash. Increase difficulty much more slowly next time.

My dog comes but ignores me as soon as she reaches me. Reward your dog for coming all the way to you and staying focused. Ask for a sit when they arrive if needed. Make it more rewarding to pay attention to you than anything else when called.

With some troubleshooting, you can overcome these common issues. The most important thing is to reward every correct response, increase distance and distractions gradually, and make it an enjoyable experience for your dog.

Using Target Sticks

Another variation of target training is using target sticks. This involves placing the target on the end of a stick or dowel and asking your dog to touch it. The same method applies – reward nose touches until the behavior is learned, then gradually increase distance and introduce the verbal cue "touch."

Target sticks are useful because:

  • You can place the target in specific positions rather easily, like up high or low to the ground. This gets dogs used to moving their head and body into different positions.

  • The target can be clearly seen against your body when you hold it against your leg, for example. This helps some dogs differentiate it from just touching you.

  • You can send the target out much further from your body, enabling practicing recalls from greater distances.

  • It provides a visible cue for your dog versus just your empty hand.

  • It's portable and convenient – sticks are easy to find and carry around.

The same steps apply – reward for touches, add distance, introduce the verbal cue, transfer the behavior so you become the target, reward recalls. The stick simply provides more flexibility in training positions. Once your dog understands the touching behavior you can dispense with props.

Real-Life Practice Tips

Some tips for practicing target training recalls in real-life scenarios:

  • When out in public, periodically call your dog just to touch your hand and reward. No leash required for short distances.

  • In a safe area, toss treats on the ground so your dog goes out exploring. Call them back frequently just to check in and reward.

  • Recruit friends or family to call your dog so they learn to respond to more than just you. Have them reward with treats when your dog runs over.

  • Set up mini recall "tests" – have someone hold your dog, walk across a room, then call them to you. Reward for success.

  • Practice in environments with increasing levels of distraction. A parks, trails, pet stores etc. Start with minimal distractions first.

  • Use a "safety net" like a long lead in case your dog doesn't respond so you can prevent rewarding. Remove if once reliable.

  • Carry tasty treats in your pocket on every walk. Recall frequently and reward to maintain the behavior.

The more you can practice recall in real life situations, the better your dog's response will become. Reward every correct recall, even if you've asked a hundred times that day. This builds consistency.

Troubleshooting Common Recall Issues

If you are having trouble getting your dog to recall using the target training method, here are some tips:

My dog is too distracted by other dogs/people/smells. Get their attention first by calling their name and running backwards excitedly. Reward any movement towards you. Work in less distracting environments until the behavior is solid. Manage their environment and prevent rehearsing bad habits.

My dog comes slowly or ignores me. Increase your level of excitement with happy talk, clapping, etc. Back up or run away to trigger their chase instinct. Use an extremely rewarding treat they rarely get elsewhere. Avoid repeating cues as this teaches them to ignore you.

My dog comes but runs past me. Ask for a "front" cue where they come directly in front and sit in front. Or call them directly to you, have them sit, then walk backwards as you reward so they stay focused on you. Reward for focus.

My dog was doing well then started blowing me off. You likely increased distance/distraction too quickly. Go back to an easier level for a while so your dog can be successful. Randomly reward recalls again even if you think your dog "knows" it. Prevention rehearsal of ignoring you.

My dog has no food motivation outside. Use toys, praise or life rewards like getting to greet someone. Try more exciting food items. Reward sniffing breaks after recalls. Always make coming to you more rewarding than anything else available.

My dog gets fearful being away from me. Don't force distance; let your dog determine how far they comfortable going. Pair separation with lots of rewards. Very gradually work up distance over multiple short sessions. If your dog is very velcro, consult a trainer for separation anxiety tips.

Recall troubleshooting takes some creativity. Focus on setting your dog up for success, rewarding every step in the right direction, and preventing your dog from rehearsing bad habits. Stay positive and patient! Consistency will pay off.

Proofing the Behavior

Once your dog is reliably recalling using target training in minimal distraction environments, you can begin to "proof" the behavior for more challenging situations. Proofing means practicing and rewarding the behavior in different contexts to strengthen it. Tips for proofing recall:

  • Practice in environments with gradually more distractions – more people, dogs, activities, smells, etc. Go back to easier levels frequently to keep your dog successful.

  • Have unfamiliar people call your dog – friends, family members, friendly strangers (with treats). Teach your dog to respond to more than just you.

  • Set up "tests" – have someone hold or wait with your dog, then call them from a distance and reward for coming. Do this frequently.

  • Practice at times of day when your dog may be less attentive – first thing in the morning, midday when hot, evening when tired. Reward successes.

  • Gradually increase the length of time between recalls – reward every time but stretch out how often you call them over a walk, for example.

  • Practice from different positions – call your dog when you are sitting, bending over, lying down, running away from them, etc.

  • Sporadically reward great recalls with real-life rewards like getting to greet someone, go play, have a favorite toy, get fed, etc.

The key is to challenge your dog's recall in every way you can think of, while frequently going back to easier scenarios they can handle so they don't get frustrated. Your end goal is a dog who will quickly respond to a recall no matter the environment or situation. Take it slowly over many sessions.

Maintaining a Reliable Recall

Congratulations, you've put in the hard work to teach your dog a reliable recall using target training! However, you can't relax once your dog is responding well. Proper maintenance is required to ensure the behavior doesn't deteriorate over time. Follow these tips:

  • Continue rewarding your dog frequently when they come. Don't assume they "know" it now. The more times they are reinforced, the stronger the behavior will be.

  • Use "life rewards" – letting your dog greet someone, have a toy, play a game, etc. This provides variety in reinforcement.

  • Practice short recalls periodically throughout walks and activities. Call your dog, reward, release to go play.

  • Set up mini training sessions and "tests" – have family practice recalls in different environments and reward your dog.

  • Gradually increase how long you wait between rewards for recalls – stretch it out over an entire walk, for example. But reward every recall during a session.

  • Avoid repeating commands – say it once then use a leash or other means to prevent rewarding if your dog doesn't listen. Repeating cues weakens them.

  • If your dog ever fails to recall, immediately cease letting them off-leash until you can practice and proof the behavior again. One ignored recall can set back progress.

A reliable recall requires upkeep through continuous reinforcement. But the investment is well worth it for the freedom, exercise, and safety it provides your dog! Keep rewarding and enjoy having a dog who enthusiastically comes when called.


Teaching dogs to reliably come when called is an essential yet often challenging obedience behavior. Using target training creates a strong positive association with running up to the owner, which can significantly improve off-leash recall. By initially rewarding touches to a target object, then transferring that to the handler, dogs learn that responding to the recall cue is extremely rewarding.

With patience and proper use of reinforcement, target training can teach even stubborn dogs consistent off-leash recall. Starting in low distraction areas and slowly adding difficulty is the key. Reward every recall attempt and maintain the behavior through continuous reinforcement. Use troubleshooting tips to overcome common challenges. The result is a well-trained dog who loves running to you when called, no matter the environment or situation. Reliable recall provides dogs with more freedom, enriches the human-animal bond, and is rewarding for owners and pets alike.

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