We see them in photographs and hear about them in dog training books, sometimes we even catch a glimpse of one on a trail: well-mannered dogs that follow their owners everywhere sans leash. Can this really be possible? For so many of us the idea of unclipping that leash incites less than feelings of confidence. For those of us that have had to pull out some pro football quality tackles to catch an escaped dog it causes sheer panic. To leash or not to leash? There are plenty of solid points for either argument.
Safety concerns. Dogs are living animals, not machines. They have their own agendas and interests, frequently ones that are very different from our own (“Hang on a sec while I roll in this goose poo”). 100% compliance off leash is difficult even with the best dogs. For beginner dogs it is unrealistic. Whenever we unclip that leash we run the chance that things could go wrong.
There is a lot we can do to minimize this of course. Get to know our dogs, instill some basic training cues, and pick areas with little chance for error. Still off-leash dogs have a lot more opportunity to self-reinforce with bad behaviors. It takes an certain type of owner (one who is comfortable with the occasional eaten dead mole) to have an off-leash dog. This means accepting the risks with the benefits.
Free dogs have more fun. Having a dog that remains reliable and responsive off-leash opens us up to a world of fun. Maximum exercise potential, dog sports, and just a whole lot of being a dog to be had. Leashes are pretty unnatural (I didn’t say unnecessary) and watching a dog move freely is a pleasure for both parties.
What kind of off-leash? I would divide off-leash goals into three categories, from easiest to most difficult:
- I want my dog to come when I call him. This just means if my dogs gets lose, runs away, I drop the leash, etc, I can get him back to me. This is easy to achieve with a little training and is achievable even for those cheeky trouble makers.
- I want my dog to be off-leash for short structured periods. This is appropriate for agility and other dog sports or for just having a dog that can play ball at the park. This is also pretty realistic for all but the most challenging behavior issues. The key being “structured” meaning every second from when the leash comes off to when it goes back on is occupied. Unstructured time like digging around in our bag for the tennis ball leaves our dogs to decide how to spend their time.
- I want my dog to remain close to me off-leash for long unstructured periods. This is where it gets challenging. Individual personality, genetics, and early training and socialization have a huge impact on success here. Some dogs are natural wanderers. Some dogs have intense predatory drives and live to chase animals. Some dogs stay with their owners but have a personal bubble that is far larger than an owner is comfortable with (won’t stray more than 100 yards but is frequently out of sight). Some dogs are really friendly and just keeping them from saying hello to everything and everyone in the forest is an enormous task. It is not to say that it can’t be done, but with how much training, for how long, where, and with how much success will vary greatly.
Some food for thought before we begin our preparation for off-leash work. In our next article we will discuss factors in assessing our training focus for reliable responses unleashed.