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.
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.