Recall and Off-Leash in Cats

What is “recall”?

Recall is a fancy dog training term for your pet coming to you when you call them. 

Can cats learn recall?

Yes, they can, BUT…

It will never be 100% reliable. If there is something of higher importance (for example, a bird they’re hunting, or a dog who’s scaring them), they will not listen. Sometimes, even the grass is more interesting than me calling him. A reliable recall is when the cat immediately stops whatever they’re doing, no matter what, and comes back to you without hesitation. In my opinion and experience, it doesn’t happen reliably in cats, at least not with Teddy.

How do you train recall?

Training recall is an essential skill and pretty much the basics of cat training. It’s teaching them their name, and to come to you. 

  1. Start off by saying their name, and giving them a treat. This will teach them their name too. (Eg. “Teddy!”)
  2. Next, say their name (eg. “Teddy!”), wait for a reaction (turning their head, or even ears), and give them a treat.
  3. Next, move a little distance away, and say their name and come. (Eg. “Teddy, come!”) When they come to you, give them a treat. If they don’t come, then spend more time on Step 2.
  4. Next, call them to come (eg. “Teddy, come!”) at random times throughout the day, but don’t let them know you have a treat. This step will disassociate the treat as a lure, and they’ll learn that they get rewarded if they come when called, and not only when they see a treat in your hand.
  5. Next, try this outside where there are distractions.
  6. Finally, you can start to phase out the treat. At first, they get treats 100% of the times they come, but you can start to give them a pet to replace the treat, and eventually only get a treat 1/10 times. (We can’t give them a treat every time because they’ll become really fat.) Eventually, they will learn to come when they are called, just on the off chance they might get a treat.

Recall takes a lot of practice, and Teddy is still training every time we go outside for a walk. As I said, its not 100% reliable.

If Teddy’s recall is not reliable, how can you let him off leash?

I am not encouraging anyone to off leash their cats. There is always a risk, and as the owner, you are 100% responsible for the safety of your animals.

When I let go of Teddy’s leash, I am not relying on his recall skills. I am trusting Teddy’s natural personality and instinct. Teddy wants to stay within sight of me, and gets very upset if he can no longer see me. He will meow loudly as if to say “WHERE ARE YOU?”, and run towards me as soon as he spots me. This is not recall, and not something I trained intentionally. It’s Teddy wanting to stay with me by himself, rather than him coming to me because I called him.

Teddy is never completely off leash, as he has his leash trailing behind him. The trailing leash allows me to step on it to stop him, which I can do much faster than bending over to pick him up. It has saved us a couple of times. It also indicates where he is, if he crawled into a bush or in a hole somewhere, the leash will be trailing behind and I can see where it leads.

Why does Teddy naturally follow you?

Normally, cats associate their safety and sense of “home” within a geographical territory. This is how outdoor cats know how to stay close to home. With adventure cats, we are constantly bringing them to new places. The only constant is me, his human. Therefore he has associated his sense of “home” and safety with me. As long as he is with me, he does not worry about getting home at the end of the day, because he is already with me. This is not something that is trained using commands and treats, its more of a learned trait from adventuring experience.

I first tested this theory when Teddy was around 2 years old, so after 2 years of adventuring together. I would find a quiet and enclosed park, and walk around a corner or a bush. And he would run after me, meowing. After many practices, I can now gauge how safe the environment is, and Teddy’s mood, and I will sometimes let him off leash if I think it’s safe to do so.

I also practice recall when letting Teddy off leash. He seems to be more responsive when I give him some freedom to wander, and will come back to me around 75% of the time. When he is on the leash, its like he is already with me, so he doesn’t really feel like coming any closer.

Why do you let Teddy off leash at all?

There is undeniably a risk to letting your pet free. They may run off, get lost, attacked by wild animals, or hit by a car. If anything were to happen, it would be 100% my fault for not keeping him safe. I know this and always keep an eye on him, and I will run over and step on his leash if I can see him about to do something unsafe.

The first advantage to off leashing is building trust. Teddy is staying with me because he wants to, not because he has to. This means that in the case of an accident where he escapes his harness, I know that he will come back to me. Accidents do happen, and knowing that Teddy instinctively will come back to me is an added confidence for me bringing him on walks.

The second advantage is it makes our walks easier. When I am close to Teddy and holding his leash, Teddy has no sense of urgency to go anywhere. He will wander, and sniff, and explore. This is because I am already close to him, and he does not feel like he has to follow me to keep up. If I drop the leash, and walk further ahead, Teddy can see that I am walking away, and he will follow. Teddy actually walks pretty well when he is off leash and when I walk ahead. When the I don’t feel the environment is safe for off leash, I will use the Flexi leash instead (though retractable leashes can be even more troublesome at times).

In what situations will you let Teddy off leash?

First I look at Teddy’s mood.

If he is actively hunting something, he is more likely to chase the critter instead of paying attention to me. If there is something scaring him, like a dog or person walking past, he is more likely to try and hide rather than stay with me. If Teddy is at a calm, neutral mood, then I will consider letting him free.

Second, I will look at the environment we are in.

If I can’t see a far distance (like too many trees blocking my view), I won’t be able to things coming our way, so this is a no go. I need to be able to see if there will be anyone or anything that will potentially scare Teddy. Open areas work well, but cats tend to prefer the perimeter rather than the center of an open space.

I also see if there are any small gaps that Teddy could fit through, but I can’t – for example, bushes, or fences. If Teddy goes through these spaces, I will not be able to follow him to retrieve him if needed, so this is also a no go.

Lastly, I’ll assess any potential dangers in the area. For example, if the area has wildlife, broken glass, or other dangers, I will keep him on a leash so I can control where he goes.

Also, please remember that leash rules apply to cats too.

2 thoughts on “Recall and Off-Leash in Cats

  1. Absolutely wonderful information. I love that you address the fact that Teddy wanting to stay with you is not a learned trait, but rather trust, and associating you with home. I think this is very important for people to understand. I have not attempted the trailing leash yet but your tips for reading the environment and his mood first are so helpful and important. I always enjoy reading your post they are so informative. Best wishes to you and Teddy from me and Ziggy 💙


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