Off-leash Training — Part One

Vega runs free on the beach off leash

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.

Dog off leash on beach

Vega used her free­dom to learn that sea­wa­ter tastes nasty

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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