Hands down the most important thing that you can teach your dog is to come to you on command. 100% of the time. It shouldn't matter what distractions are present, there times when recalls are a matter of life and death.
Susan Garrett says "There is nothing more important than teaching your dog a reliable recall, nothing . . . it is the foundation of all brilliance and it reflects the relationship you have with your dog."
That last part can be tough to hear for people who don't have a good recall with their dogs. The first key in teaching a reliable recall is having a word that means 'You come here no matter what!' That means if you use this word and your dog doesn't come to you, you must go get them, immediately, no matter what. Then you should limit there freedom for a short time (If there off lead put them on a leash, if they are on a long leash shorten it). Now we call our dogs to us all the time. More than we proubably realize. And sometimes it is a choice for them around the house. If you just casually want to snuggle with your dog on the couch you might lean down and casually call them over. They may or may not be in a snuggle mood and therefore may or may not come on command. And to be honest I don't think dogs should have to.
There is any easy distinction to make here I think. You should have more than one command. I casual "Come on over" command which implies a choice. It means "Hey, I'd like you to be with me right now, but its not a big deal" and you need a concrete "Come here now!" command, in which there is no choice. Some would say this makes all of your commands wishy washy, and that a dog should always respond to any command immediately no matter what, with the efficiency of a well trained SS officer. And that allowing your dog to ignore ANY command will mean that all your commands are meaningless and optional. Now I understand the thinking here, but then again my dog is not going to be winning any national AKC championships in obedience or agility. So I can handle a little wishy washy.
To teach a reliable recall I think the keys are lots of practice, first in non distracting locations. For example, start in your own home when nothing much is going on and your dogs are very bored. Chances are mommy will be more interesting than sleeping under the couch. Especially if she has treats. When your dog is 100% reliable then, up the anti with more distractions. Can you come to me when someone else is making dinner? When there are guests over? When another dog is playing next to you? When we're in the back yard? When you see a squirrel?
Now when your dog makes the choice not to come back to you (which at some point he will) I will usually repeat the command at least once. (Another bit of wishy washyness hard core trainers would chastise me for). But if the dog is off leash and far away, he might legitimately not have heard me. Also if you have a dachshund and they see/smell prey, they have a tendency to do this lovely thing called going 'hound deaf'. Now that's no excuse to ignore your recall, but sometimes it warrants a second chance to close the nose and open the ears. But the rule of two is a strict one. I only say it twice and then I go and get the dog. Now when your dog dose something really hard, like recall off a squirrel. It is important to some of the time let them go back to chasing the squirrel immediately after coming to you. This makes the squirrel chasing a reward for the recall.
Another tip is to never scream angrily for a dog to come to you. Even in panicky situations. No dog wants to respond to a recall when there owner is mad at them. Listen to yourself, would you run towards that? If the answer is no, don't expect your dog to come back. Recall a dog that's darted out the front door with the same calm relaxed voice you use when you practice.
Gaius' recall is generally pretty good but there are a few distractions he really struggles with. One being water fowl. Time for a truly embarrassing story:
Gaius is a proud member of the Dog Scouts of America! which is probably as dorky as it gets as a dog person. But its fun and we love the monthly hikes. Since Gaius dose have a fairly reliable recall, I generally let him go off leash for 90% of the time. Two months ago we were on our hike and Gaius heard ducks on the James River. And off he went.
Can you pick out the black spec that is Gaius?
I called once. Nothing. I called twice nothing. And I watched as my ten pound dog tried to ford the James River. Gaius has some issues with out of water recalls. He doesn't think I have the guts to dive in the water and get him. Well in this case I didn't, but luckily Sean did. Here's another picture of the very cranky Sean's daring rescue.
Angry daddy is angry
Now Jen our group leader is a little high strung and freaked a bit. She was convinced that my little purse dog would be swept downstream never to be seen again. He'd reach the ocean and be covered in oil or some such nonsense (I think he could have made it back to shore, but who am Ito argue). And for the next week I got a lot of tsking at my dog training school for having a 'bad recall'. Which was well deserved. So now the main goal on all hikes is to improve my recall skills with Gaius! Here is a short video of the hike, its only the first ten minutes because after that the flip camera took an unexpected swim (No worries its fine now. Its very hardy)
Gaius did a really great job yesterday he only ignored my recall 3 times. All were out of water (There is a clue on what needs work). All three times he ended up back on the leash for a few minutes (he was not a happy camper sitting next to me while the other dogs played).
So now we must look back at the words from Susan Garrett "[Your recall] reflects the relationship you have with your dog". So looking at the evidence, Gaius loves ducks more than he loves me :) Or in other words, Gaius finds chasing ducks more rewarding than coming to me when I call him. So will Gaius ever find my company better than that of water fowl? Proubably not. But the thing is he's not really choosing between me and water fowl. Because I go to get Gaius every time he ignores my recall what he's really choosing between is coming to me and getting a treat or losing freedom. And really that choice is a no brainier.Besides there is a high possibility that after returning to me I'll let him chase the ducks again. Unless they are in the middle of the James during a high water advisory.