A leash isn’t a bad thing. Some of us really pride ourselves in having the ability to walk our dogs off leash. A leash is not only a safety device, but it can serve as a means of communication with our dogs. Using one for all walks should be the standard, until you have a dog that can prove their reliability off leash with a steady recall, and only done when it is safe to do so.
Some dogs just get it, some can learn it, and some are never candidates to be off leash dogs. Breeding and genetics can play a big part in determining their eligibility as off leash candidates. For example, hounds have been selectively bred to perform a job with little human interaction. They rarely make for good off leash dogs. Their powerful noses just prove to be too much of a distraction, they get on a good track and away they go. The next thing they know, you are miles away, and they generally aren’t terribly bothered by this. That is not to say that every hound fits that mould, but as a generalization most will fall into the typical hound category.
In direct contrast from our Hounds are breeds like the Retriever. These wonderful companions are bred to work intensely along side with us, and are easily trainable. Anticipating our next move, and ready to spring into action, fulfilling our every request. They watch us closely, in tune with our body language. A strong desire to be with us, attached to our sides. Unfortunately, this can cause some separation anxiety if not handled or addressed when it starts to show warning flags, but this drive to please can make for a great off leash candidate. Add in a little quick programing, a prompt recall is easily trained.
Training has a lot to do with having a reliable off leash dog, too. Genetics can pre-program some “Settings” in your dog, but training is where you can make or break it.
The first common mistake when working with a dog off leash is taking a fully charged dog, and turning them loose to burn off the energy. You want them to go for a run, but it should be done with a little more control. It is a bit like dumping a full can of gas on a fire and then asking it to not flare up, and out of control. The dog is too excited and you’re setting yourself up for failure.
Before taking the leash off, take the edge off of your dog.
Tire them out a bit first and you will find your dog is a little more manageable. They will still enjoy the freedom, but they may not need to run off so far before deciding if or when they should come back to check in. Take them for a quick burst of speed- if you’re able to. A quick but fast run can diffuse that initial excitement. Practise some commands. This provides some mental stimulation for the dog, gets their mind and body working together, and gets their brain into training mode. Now you have a dog that is more warmed up to listening to you. You have set the stage with an expectation that they will have to work a little before gaining freedoms.
Another mistake is heading to the dog park, taking the dog out of the car, put the leash on the dog, walk to the park and take the leash off. Walk around for an hour, call the dog back, put them on the leash and load up and go home. We just taught the dog that the park is a free for all, with no rules. The dog will begin to associate being caught and put back on leash and as the ending to fun time, and time to go home. You now have a dog that will not want to return to you as having the leash put on marks the end of the walk. So what can you do differently?
First, begin with coming pre-loaded with yummy, tasty, treats. A full smorgasbord of deliciousness. Some regular kibble, some tasty dry treats, yummier moist treats and the holy grail for when you’re beyond desperate to have your dog come back to you. This may be liver, an empty chip bag rattling in your hand followed by roast, or cheese, whatever it will take for your dog to be like “Hey, is that?? Oh yes!! Yes! I’m coming back for that!”. If it gets that reaction from your dog, pack it as your secret weapon.
Begin your walk with showing your dog the treat bag. Make a point of showing them you are ready, and offer a freebie to prove you’re willing to share. Un-clip the leash, as nonchalantly as you can. Any time your dog comes back on their own accord or because you asked them to check in, offer a random sampling from the treat bag. Now you are teaching your dog that you are full of goodness, and willing to share if they are in range. That is some pretty powerful programming. If your dog is becoming less interested in the treats, increase the value of the treat.
No more free-for-all walks.
You need to become a more aware pet owner. Your dog needs to work for this new found freedom. You, put the phone away, it is time to pay attention to your dog. Your new job is to keep your dog engaged with you, keep their focus on you, and keep their body in range of a small but comfortable distance. Imagine a small radius around you. If your dog ventures to the outskirts of this area, you need to do whatever you can to get their focus back on you and head towards you. The ultimate goal is to have your dog off leash, without them really noticing that there is no physical barrier preventing them from tearing across the park. You are going to create an invisible leash to keep your dog with you.
Bring a toy.
When ever possible, have your dog work for toys and fun (or food). This doesn’t mean showing them a ball or stuffy, it means bringing these toys to life and make the dog want to play with you. Add movement, play a little game of keep away. Dogs always want what they think they aren’t allowed to have. Keep your dog in your invisible radius and working with you as much as possible.
Practise calling your dog back to you, often. Reward like crazy. Toys, treats, verbal praise and any combination of those. Set your dog up for success by only calling them to you when they are already watching you (eye contact), and/or headed in your direction. Invite them in to you by backing up a step or two. Reward them for coming to you, then use a release word like “okay” or “go play” to send them back to exploring. Returning to you no longer means the end of the walk.
With these tips you are telling your dog that you are full of awesome, amazing, wonderful things and they will be receiving these for hanging out with you. Keep at it consistently and your dog will always want to be at your side, not the other side of the dog park. You will have a more attentive dog, that listens better and doesn’t roam as far. That is when you can keep it going and really start to build on a reliable recall, and have an off leash dog that walks with you, not away from you.
By Katie @Pet_IQ
Katie is a Pet Industry Consultant, Dog Trainer, Rescuer, PetCoach Advisor, and specializes in “All things dog”. She proudly shares her home with three lovely rescue mutts, and one special foster.