Sheepdog Training 09 – Getting a Good Recall on Your Dog

How to train your dog to have a good recall

a good recall is essential for a sheep or cattle dog
"Big" Ezra's always had a great recall, but not all dogs are the same.

So what should you do if you're out with your dog somewhere and he won't come back to you?

Well, first, you shouldn't really be releasing a dog that you can't trust but let's imagine you thought he'd be OK (after all, he comes to you straight away when you're at home in the garden).

Well, first, only take the dog to fairly small, enclosed spaces that he can't escape from (not onto a road or amongst someone else's sheep for example). Then you should let him go - and if he won't come back when you call him - walk away (and keep walking). He'll soon realise you've gone and come looking for you.

OK - OK every dog's an individual and there's always the exception to every rule, so let's say the disappearing act above didn't work. The chances are, you gave-in too early, but just supposing you didn't - you spent what seemed like hours trying to catch him and missed your favourite TV programme.

What can we do now? Well, we need to go back to the garden and make absolutely certain the dog's coming back 100% of the time.

Not when he feels like it - I mean straight away, 100%.

Now we put him on a long leash or cord and take him to the enclosed space we talked about.

Still coming back 100%? . . . Lengthen the leash.

Still 100%? . . . Release your end of the long leash.

He'll feel it pulling on his collar as it drags along the ground and he'll think you still hold the other end (and therefore, "absolute power").

Still coming back 100%? . . . Go back to a shorter leash but release your end so the pull on his collar is reduced. If he defaults, go back to the previous stage or even the one before that - and so on - I'm sure you get the idea.

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11 Replies to “Sheepdog Training 09 – Getting a Good Recall on Your Dog”

  1. Hi I have been a member for a while but recently stopped as my dog got quite good, but now I am having extreme severe difficulty with him. I can’t stop him running to sheep when he is not supposed to, as a result he has been tied up or locked away for hours, and I don’t want this to be the way I do it. I have tried different methods, but he doesn’t seem to think twice about the consequences, it has been very very hard to keep my temper when he runs down back lane to the sheep. Is keeping indoors the only way? He is brilliant when he is doing sheep and happier to come back when he has had sometime with them. What should I do I have nearly got past point with this dog.

    1. Once you introduce a dog to sheep, if the dog’s keen, it can be very frustrating to find that it runs off and chases them when you don’t want it to. We have a similar situation here at the moment with a six month old dog called Portia, but it’s not her fault, it’s ours.

      First, we have inadequate fencing.
      At the moment, Portia can’t escape from the yard, but it’s only a matter of time before she does. She loves jumping, and she sees some of our older dogs doing it (not to chase sheep) every day. Until she learns to jump out of the yard though, we can put her in her pen, or in the yard, and we can leave her there, unattended. You need a couple of places like that for your dogs (I presume you have at least two dogs because you mentioned a female puppy two months ago).

      Where our setup differs from yours (apart from us having a lot of dogs) is that we accept it’s impractical to have them with us all day, so they spend a large part of it shut in their pens. We’ve done it for many years, and although we’d prefer them to have more freedom, it just isn’t practical. High-drive working dogs which are left free and unattended will get into mischief unless they’ve been properly trained not to, and training them not to isn’t something which can be done quickly.

      Whether they’re going to be trained on sheep that day or not, we take all of our dogs out into the field twice a day for a good run. We aim to give them an hour and a half each session. At times when we have females in season, we have to keep males and females apart but otherwise, they all run together in our five acre (3 hectare) field where we keep the sheep!

      Apart from Portia, the dogs can be left unattended in the field for up to ten minutes, but we wouldn’t trust them for longer than that, because some of the younger dogs wouldn’t be able to resist running after the sheep.

      The older dogs could probably be left for hours, but you can never be too sure when there’s more than one or two.

      When we have a youngster who’s likely to chase them, we put the sheep in a small “paddock” made from sheep hurdles, and although though Portia can jump through hurdles for fun, they act as a bit of a deterrent. She’s only too aware that she can run off and chase the sheep, and although she did it for a while, we’ve (nearly) taught her not to do it now.

      In the past, whenever she ran off to the sheep, we caught her and put her away in her pen. Of course, dogs don’t like this restriction of freedom, so every time it happens, Portia’s learning that we don’t want her to run off to the sheep. If it happens while we have all the other dogs out in the field, we let her out after about twenty minutes, and we know it’s working, because she’s far less likely to run off again in that session.

      Keep in mind that dogs are pack animals. Your dog will (or should) see you as the pack leader, so while you’re close to the dog, it will be obedient, but if it can’t see you, or you’re quite a distance away from it, the dog’s natural pack instinct will overcome what you’ve taught it. Your dog’s instinct is to chase the sheep – so that’s what he’s doing when you aren’t around.

      You need to keep your dog under close supervision and at times when it can’t be supervised, you need to put it in a pen or a yard so that it can’t get into mischief.

      You don’t say what you’re doing when your dog is unattended and runs off but try to spend as much time with the dog as possible. Have him with you while you’re doing something away from sheep, but keep a very close watch on him, and call him back every time you see him start to “slope off” towards the sheep. If the sheep are down the lane somewhere though, he probably won’t run off at all while you’re around.

      In future if the dog runs back to the sheep, go and collect him but don’t be cross with him because that’s likely to give him the idea you don’t want him to work sheep. Simply collect him and take him back to his pen, put him in it, and leave him there for several hours.

      Make a point of taking him to sheep regularly though, just to reinforce the fact that you want him to work AT THE PROPER TIME. Eventually, your dog will learn that he’s not to run off, and you’ll be able to give him more freedom, but I wouldn’t recommend leaving him free when you’re not on the premises.

      Just at the moment, Portia’s pretty good when we take the dogs out in the field. We can walk to within about 30 metres of the sheep paddock, and although she’s clearly love to go to them, I’m able to keep her with me. The more practice she gets at this, the closer we’ll be able to get without her running at them.

      It’s not cruel to keep dogs in proper pens. We pride ourselves on how happy our dogs are, but of course, they’d rather be unrestricted if they could.

      You don’t say how long you’ve had the dog or how old he is. Is he properly bonded with you? I strongly recommend you renew your membership and watch more of our Sheepdog Training Tutorials – especially the revised version of “Stopping the Dog” which we uploaded a day or so ago. I think it (and the two other chapters we’re revising at the moment) will help you a lot.

      1. He is almost 2 but we have had only had him since July, he was a trained sheepdog. So we are struggling with the recall more than anything else he is brilliant in the sheep field, but I think we have to bond a bit more.
        Thankyou so much I cannot tell you how much I appreciate your responses I am going to renew the membership ASAP. He was very much a working dog when he came and wouldn’t actually obey unless in the field so I am going back to basic obedience training it is seeming to work, but we will see. He is just learning to sit on command outside the field. The words that’ll do just make him turn back and keep running so I am going to have to work at it. We have now started trying to reward him for coming back each time and now responding a lot better than the punishing him for running away. But thank you again for your time

  2. Hi Andy, we have a beautiful working dog for our milk herd and he is as good as gold and then about once a week he will be out with me getting the cows in and suddenly he runs off and just keeps going. He runs across the fields and into the town and then several hours later I might find him having been caught by someone.
    Is this a common trait and is there anything I can do? He lives in a pen on a long chain and has the run of the farm when we are working and we think we are building a bond and then he will run off. He’s a cracking dog but I’m obviously worried he gets into the main road or gets knocked over when he’s on his travels. Do you have any suggestions. We got given the dog as a puppy and he’s about 6 years old now.

    1. Hmmm… Something’s amiss here.
      First, I really don’t like dogs on chains other than for a few minutes at a time. How much time does the dog spend chained up, and how much time is he with you during the day? Presumably he’s not tied up when he’s with you at work. How does he behave, what does he do?
      Surely there must be some pattern to it? Other than “about once a week”, does it happen in a particular field? Electric fence? Some local noise which frightens the dog? Does he see something and then go? There must be something which triggers it.
      A very obvious one with entire males is a female in heat, but that’s extremely unlikely to happen once a week.
      If you see him going, what happens if you call him back? It’s hard to understand a dog which you’ve had for six years, ignoring your recall.
      I suggest you observe him closely, and find out what inspires him to run away like this.

      1. Hi Andy,

        Thank you so much for coming back to us. In terms of time on the chain, his kennel and pen is open at the front and so he is on the chain all night but then gets to roam further than his pen into the garden. In the morning he’s then let off and we go and bring the cows in. He will then go back on his chain during milking and come off depending on what I’m doing around the farm. When he’s off, he’s with me and quite content usually with a stick or ball in his mouth waiting for me to throw it and he will play and fetch it while I’m working around and about. He’s quite content and happy.
        In terms of triggers, there’s no real pattern to it. I also put it down to him being entire and a bitch being in heat somewhere but he goes so frequently surely it can’t be that. The thing I think is most frequent in terms of triggers is that he goes when he loses sight of me or if he’s left alone – for example we’d had hours together the other day, he was happy and fetching sticks, the phone went and I can into the house for 15 mins while he was in the garden, I even gave him a Boneo/treat stick and when I went back out he’d gone.
        In the fields, it isn’t any one place but usually if he is at the far end of a field or with some distance between me and him, he then looks and decides to go. If I call him, he looks to acknowledge it and then just keeps on running.
        The only thing I can think is that there isn’t a routine to his day due to the variation of events on the farm. Sometimes he can be off and with me for hours, sometimes he only comes for the cows twice for about half an hour.
        If you have any suggestions I’d be really grateful as as I say, he’s a cracking dog and we really don’t want anything to happen to him when he runs off.
        Many thanks, Rob

        1. That’s really unusual, Rob.
          The only advice I can offer is to keep looking for something that’s causing him to run off, but at six years of age, it could be a habit that he got into when he was a youngster, and he’s just kept it going.
          What breed is he? We’ve had a good number of border collies (and a few kelpies) in our time, and we’ve had the odd one clear off for some reason or other. A hot air balloon which flew very low over our field (probably to look at all the dogs) and then loudly activated its burners, was the most recent. One of our dogs ran away up to our wood, and we couldn’t find her, but she came back by about mid day!
          The behaviour you describe is extremely unusual though.
          The variety you give your dog is great, but it’s clear that when the dog is farther away from you (or can’t see you) is the danger time, so I suggest you try very hard to keep him fairly close.
          Dogs are descended from wolves, and as such are “pack animals”. They feel confident when they’re in a pack, and when you only have one dog, the dog will see it’s owner as the rest of the pack. As the dog gets further away from the rest of the pack (you) its confidence will dwindle, and it will begin to revert to its natural “pack behaviour”. Without any guidance from the rest of the pack, your dog reacts by running.
          Actually, a thought has just occurred to me! I don’t know how well trained the dog is, and how keen he is to work cattle, but if he IS keen, when he runs off, I strongly suggest you give him a working command, rather than calling him back with your usual recall command.
          When you train a sensitive dog to work sheep, sometimes the dog will run back to the yard if it thinks you’re cross, or even putting too much pressure on it. I’ve found that when this happens, a working command (best of all a whistle) works far better than a recall command. Whatever you do, don’t let the dog suspect that you’re annoyed with it, either. Far better to use a whistle. If the dog detects the faintest hint that you’re cross, it’s far less likely to come back. You can’t express your feelings with a whistle, so the dog can’t detect that you’re annoyed! Use a command which the dog likes (like “Get Up” etc).
          Now, I have to be honest, I’ve spent quite a lot of time replying to you, and you’re not one of our members! You can learn a lot about training your dog by subscribing to our Online Sheepdog Training Tutorials. We even have one chapter called “An Insight Into Pack Behaviour” I’m not pretending you’ll find a quick fix there, but the more background understanding you have of the dog and what it’s doing, the more likely you are to solve this problem.

          1. Dear Andy,

            Thank you so much for your help and insights. I’ve only just found the site so will sign up to the videos.

            Thank you very much. I will try reverting to the whistle.

            All the best,

            Rob

  3. Thanks Andy. I’ll get cracking with the training. She seems to be getting better on the lead. I appreciate your opinion. Cheers.

  4. Hi Andy

    I am thoroughly enjoying your videos. They are very inspiring. Thank you.

    I have a 5 month old border collie who I am hoping to begin training with sheep in the next couple of months. It is my first time training a collie. I’m currently concentrating on lead training and recall while also building my training pen.

    I am having a problem with recall. Just as you describe above, she is great in the back garden, but when I take her around the farm and into fields she often ignores me when I call her back. She is very keen on sheep, and quite a strong willed pup. Indeed, I have had a couple of extremely traumatic incidents when she wouldn’t come back and drifted over two arable fields (with me frantically chasing her) and into a neighboring field of sheep.

    My plan to resolve this is to lead train her and work intensively on recall while trying to develop our bond. However, until her recall is 100% she is permanently attached to a lead. I no longer let her run freely off the lead as I can’t trust her yet not to run away and head towards the sheep. I now walk her on a standard lead around the farm and on the road, and in the fields she is on a 40′ cord.

    My question is, does having her permanently attached to me do her any harm? She is often at the full length of the long cord, and while this gives me a good opportunity to work on training her to stand and come back to me, she seems to get very frustrated, biting at the cord etc.. I am worried that it may be doing her more harm than good, but what else can I do? What do you think?

    Many thanks

    Neil

    1. Your dog sounds great, Neil! What she’s doing is perfectly normal for a promising young farm dog.

      You’re doing the right thing, but don’t overdo the restraining. If you continually hold the dog back when she’s trying to get at the sheep, she’ll eventually stop trying to get at them altogether, and it will be difficult to get her interested in them again.

      I suggest you spend some time training her to walk properly on the lead (away from sheep) and not pulling. This will strengthen her bond with you as well.

      If you don’t have a small enough paddock to enable you to catch her when she runs after the sheep, by all means keep her on the rope, but don’t let her get the idea you don’t want her to go after the sheep. Simply let go of the long cord and let her run around with that trailing behind her. Then it’s (comparatively) easy to grab the rope as she comes past you. You can even tread on the rope as she runs past you, but be very careful, being brought to a sudden stop when she’s in full-flight, might injure her neck. I suggest you only do it if you can put something stretchable between her collar and the rope to absorb the shock.

      If she was mine though, I’d start training her! She’s obviously ready for some short sessions. Hurry up and get that ring finished!

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