Off-leash Training — Part Two

Off leash dog training

My human is not pay­ing atten­tion and I’m up to no good.

For those of us that are con­tem­plat­ing off-leash train­ing, the next step is to eval­u­ate what areas need work in order to have suc­cess.  Com­plete off-leash con­trol in every capac­ity is not real­is­tic for every dog but with some prac­tice, many dogs can enjoy greater freedom.

Is my dog safe?  As much as we train and try there is always a chance (more like a guar­an­tee) that our dogs will bump into peo­ple and dogs when loose.  We are respon­si­ble legally and morally for our dog’s actions so here are some must-haves:

    • Acquired bite inhi­bi­tion.  This is crit­i­cal.  A dog with a his­tory of dam­ag­ing bites to peo­ple or dogs will never be an off-leash can­di­date unless safely muz­zled.  If you have a dog like this, start con­di­tion­ing them to tol­er­ate a muz­zle today.
    • Con­fi­dence on-leash.  In order to have a dog that is com­fort­able being approached by peo­ple and dogs off-leash, we have to start on-leash.  A dog that is uncom­fort­able being approached on-leash will be no more com­fort­able off-leash.  The only dif­fer­ence will be that instead of being held with us, they will be able to flee.  A fear­ful dog run­ning can head right into panic-inducing sit­u­a­tions lead­ing to more run­ning.  A dis­as­ter in the making.
    • No more than mild behav­ioral issues.  A dog that rushes dogs aggres­sively, chases chil­dren, or nips at pass­ing cyclists is not a can­di­date for off-leash train­ing until these issues improve.  Acci­dents hap­pen, but in this liti­gious soci­ety it is impor­tant that we try and min­i­mize our dog doing those doggy things that can be so eas­ily inter­preted badly.

How’s our rela­tion­ship?  If a dog pulls and is unre­spon­sive on leash, things are only going to get worse when the leash comes off.  First we need to build the basics on-leash.

How’s our recall?  At the very least we need a solid emer­gency recall so that when things go wrong, we can col­lect and leash our dogs.  Keep in mind that a good recall ends in a firm col­lar grab so that we have ample time to attach a leash.

What’s our off-leash his­tory?  Dogs with a his­tory of run­ning away, get­ting into trou­ble, ignor­ing our requests to return, or chas­ing small ani­mals are going to be more chal­leng­ing cases.  The more a dog learns what they can get away with and more impor­tantly, what lit­tle you can do to stop them, the more dif­fi­cult it will be to obtain con­trol off-leash.  On the other hand dogs with no off-leash his­tory or young dogs are promis­ing can­di­dates for off-leash manners.

Is loose time engag­ing?  We get into the habit of unclip­ping our dogs and then let­ting them do what­ever they want with­out inter­rup­tion for long peri­ods.  This fre­quently hap­pens at dog parks or fenced areas.  We inad­ver­tently teach our dogs to dis­en­gage from us when the leash comes off.  This is the oppo­site of prepa­ra­tion for unleashed con­trol and can pose prob­lems for training.

Where will we be off-leash?  We touched on this in “Part One” but where you plan on tak­ing your dog off-leash has a huge impact on how much train­ing is involved (and how much trou­ble we can get into).  There are plenty of less-frequented hikes in my area where I may only run onto a hand­ful of peo­ple and dogs.  In the course of 5 hours, I may only have to leash my dog to pass another 3 times.  If I wanted to take my dog to a pop­u­lar beach how­ever, I will have to run a prover­bial gaunt­let of dis­trac­tions.  I may have to call my dog away from a dis­trac­tion sev­eral times in a minute.  It would be a lot of work and vig­i­lance on my part and we could eas­ily make mistakes.

Our train­ing expe­ri­ence?  Train­ing a dog for off-leash reli­a­bil­ity can take a lot of keen obser­va­tional skills and pre­ci­sion tim­ing on our part.  Depend­ing on the dog and loca­tion, we may have to con­tin­u­ously scout for poten­tial chal­lenges on the hori­zon.  This can be exhaust­ing and make for a less than relax­ing hike.  Some dogs can only han­dle the sound of another’s tags clink­ing in the dis­tance before they are sucked in.  Oth­ers can han­dle a dog approach­ing for quite some time before the urge to greet trumps obe­di­ence.  How slick I am at catch­ing my dog before they make mis­takes will be a huge fac­tor in success.

Breed/Personality ten­den­cies.  This is a humon­gous com­po­nent to leash man­ners.  There are many breeds, dare I say most, that con­tain within their DNA a long and very rein­forced his­tory of pay­ing no atten­tion to humans when loose.  For most of these breeds con­fi­dently going where no dog has gone before regard­less of the dan­ger or dif­fi­culty in being retrieved by their prospec­tive human is also well-wired.  This can make off-leash train­ing difficult.

Take Bea­gles for exam­ple.  Bea­gles are bred to track down a scent until the source of the scent is found no mat­ter how dif­fi­cult that task may be.  They are on a mis­sion.  We taught them to vocal­ize dur­ing this process so that we wouldn’t lose them com­pletely but find­ing them while they bay enthu­si­as­ti­cally at their quary can take hours and even when found, col­lect­ing them can be chal­leng­ing depend­ing on the envi­ron­ment (think thick brush on the side of a very steep hill next to a cliff).

Or how about ter­ri­ers?  Go in a pitch black hole and fight some unknown ani­mal to the death until one of two things hap­pen: your per­son finally digs you out of the ground (which may take hours) or you get severely injured.  Notice that “your human calls you and you come” is not an option that I gave there.

Or huskies?  Run as fast as you can han­dle for miles and miles and miles into the unknown, day or night, freez­ing cold or storm.  And as expe­ri­enced by many Idi­tarod mush­ers, even if your sled dri­ver falls off your sled.  Never look back.

sled dogs running

I hope my dog doesn’t need this much exercise

Thank­fully most of us do not have dogs from well pre­served work­ing lines and if we do, hope­fully we know what to do with them.  There are also a lot of breeds that remain close to and under con­trol of their humans as part of their jobs.   A lot of the time good train­ing and rea­son­able expec­ta­tions can beat out chal­leng­ing genet­ics.  Some­times they can’t.  In our next series we will begin to lay the foun­da­tion for off-leash con­trol so we have the best chance pos­si­ble for success.

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