Dogs romping, playing, running free. I don’t think there is anything quite as beautiful and exhilarating as watching my dogs take off through an open field – their powerful, long strides, muscles glistening as they race each other through the tall grass. Wild dogs uninhibited by leash or fence.
Equally exhilarating is that moment when I call and they turn in tandem, racing each other back to me. After eight years, I am still in awe when my dogs respond with such instant enthusiasm. I am in awe not because it hasn’t happened with amazing regularity – it has. But rather because these two dogs are not the easygoing, stick-with-you type of dogs that make off-leash reliability a given. (They are more like the kind of dog you might see running away down the beach with a person in hot pursuit. You know the type. Perhaps you even share your life with one.)
If you do have a dog whose off-leash skills leave something to be desired, the tips in this article may help you gain the reliability you want, so both you and your dog can enjoy more freedom.
Dogs who are rarely allowed off leash tend to revel in the freedom, and may be reluctant to return to "captivity." In contrast, dogs who get lots of off-leash time often stick close to their handlers.
Off Leash Risks
I need to start with a word of caution: There is no way to guarantee the safety of your dog off leash. I would like to think that if we trained hard enough, or long enough, or with the right methods, that we could overcome all of the risks, that our dogs really could be completely reliable and safe. But the fact is that when dogs are off leash in an unsecured area, there will always be a chance that their instincts or desires will lead them into the path of danger. In addition, our environment is often unpredictable. When dogs are off leash, there is the chance of a sudden bang, an unexpected animal, or something else that may frighten or harm our dogs.
So why train for off-leash skills? Why not keep our animals on leash or in a safely secured area at all times? As hard as we may try to contain our dogs, the day may come when a gate is left open and our dogs are off leash unexpectedly. And, besides, dogs love to run, romp, and explore. Time spent off leash gives our dogs physical and mental exercise, keeping them healthy and happy. While 100 percent reliability may not be possible, the risks associated with a dog being off leash will be greatly minimized through a combination of training and management.
Train Without a Leash
For your dog to learn to respond when off leash, start by training without the aid of a leash whenever possible. This may seem obvious. But many of us spend weeks in dog classes working on sit, stay, down, and come with our dogs on a six-foot leash. When we head to the beach or woods and snap off the leash, our dogs act as if they’ve never been to training class. Unfortunately, on-leash training – while valuable for on-leash behaviors – can’t prepare either of you for the challenges of the off-leash experience.
This is partly due to the fact that people often and inadvertently use physical cues such as a slight pressure on the leash to help the dog know what they want. When the dog and handler lose that added signal, their communication falls apart.
Of course, you can’t simply head out to the stimulating environment of the park and expect your dog to behave as he would on leash in a quiet, controlled atmosphere. Start at home, in your kitchen or living room. When your dog can easily and happily move through a repertoire of off-leash skills in your home, move your training to the backyard. When he is an expert in the backyard, move to the (fenced) front yard, then to a fenced park. As your dog becomes more and more reliable working off leash, he will find it easier to respond to you even in new environments.
Include Training in Daily Play
I have a friend who claims she doesn’t like “training.” She has, however, taught her dogs to ride in the car, sit before dinner, stay when asked, race each other across the park on cue, come when called, retrieve a ball, hop into the bathtub, and a whole lot more – all without the aid of a dog class or training drills. How has she done this? She simply incorporates big rewards for good behavior into everyday life.
Incorporating off-leash training into daily activities can help you and your dog prepare for off-leash adventures. Your dog will learn to respond to you everywhere, all of the time. Simply offer big rewards for good behavior when you and your dog play, walk, feed, or just hang out.
In addition, incorporate off-leash exercises into your dog’s favorite experiences. Think about the types of play and activity your dog finds most engaging. Does your dog enjoy playing with other dogs? Chasing Frisbees? Tug games? Sniffing the ground in search of gophers? Dinner time? Incorporate off-leash training into each of these activities. For a dog that loves playing with other dogs, you can use dog play as a reward for a fabulous recall or a great down. If your dog loves sniffing the ground and exploring, you can teach him searching games (described below). If your dog loves to eat more than anything, have him work for his dinner.
Recall Games to Train With
Turning your recall practice into fun and games helps both you and your dog enjoy the training. Mix your “regular” training sessions with sessions of the following recall games:
Back and forth recall game. For this game, you will need another person. Call your dog between the two of you. Each time your dog comes, give a great big happy reward (silly play, jumping up and down, great food treat, play ball, etc.)
Hide and seek. Have your dog stay in one spot. Go into another room and hide. Ask your dog to “COME find me” (emphasize the word “Come!”). When your dog finds you, give a great big happy reward. Repeat 3 to 10 times, and stop while your dog is really engaged. Once your dog knows this game, you can initiate a game of it unexpectedly. Example: At the beach, dart behind a rock and call, “Come find me!” When your dog finds you, get crazy happy.
Dinner time recalls. Have your dog sit or down and stay while you prepare his dinner. Continue to have your dog stay while you take the dinner into another room. Call your dog to you; dinner is his reward.
“You’re the most wonderful dog” recall. Call your dog to you. When your dog comes, get down on the ground and play, play, play for at least three solid minutes.
Ball between the legs. Call your dog to you. As she comes running, throw a ball (or a favorite treat) between your legs and call “get it.” (Or, if your dog is too big to walk between your legs, you can simply turn around and toss the ball.) Remember to say “get it” when your dog goes by so she doesn’t start to think the recall means to run past you.
Avoid Food “Lures”
Positive reinforcement training and the use of a reward marker, like a clicker or the word “Yes!” are essential tools for training off leash. Reward markers let your dog know that he got it right and the reward is coming, even when he’s 20, 30, or more feet away. A dog who is appropriately rewarded for his efforts will quickly learn to listen and respond off leash. Make his rewards match the difficulty of the exercise. In other words, make his response worthwhile!
However, it is very important that you don’t rely on a lure, such as a visible food supply or toys – when working on off-leash skills. It’s fine at first to hold out a treat for your dog to see while encouraging him to come to you, but repeated and ongoing use of a lure will fail more often than not in novel off-leash environments.
If your dog sees in advance what reward you are offering in exchange for a given behavior, he can weigh its value against whatever it is that he’d rather be doing, say, chasing a squirrel. You might even witness his thought process, “Hmm. Dog biscuit? Or squirrel chase? Dog biscuit? Squirrel chase?” In this case, the squirrel chasing will generally win the dog’s attention.
Instead, always make the rewards for off-leash behaviors interesting, exciting, and most importantly, unpredictable. I find it helpful to list all of the things my dog likes – from favorite food and toys, to freedom and doggy play – and rank them in order with his favorites at the top of the list. For one of my dogs, a tennis ball easily tops all other rewards. For the other, chicken chunks and chasing small animals (not a reward I choose to use) compete for the number one spot. Freedom, or the chance to run and romp like wild dogs, is probably next on both of their lists.
Pick your dog’s top five or six rewards and, if possible, reserve those for off-leash training. Mix up his favorites, varying which one you give him for which behavior. When you keep your dog guessing, he will stay engaged, giving you an edge in a stimulating environment like a dog park or beach. For example, when I call my dog to me, she may get a romping game of ball, a chunk of fresh chicken, or a dog treat followed by a release to go off and play again. She’s never sure which will be coming. For an especially difficult recall, she may even get them all.
Recall Rules for Off-Leash Success
These simple rules will help you and your dog maintain a reliable recall.
1. Don’t end play by calling your dog to you. Instead, go get your dog or wait until he is ready to come to you on his own.
2. Always follow a recall with one of your dog’s favorite things, be it food, a Frisbee, or playing with another dog.
3. Do a few “high-value” recalls right away during off-leash play; let your dog know that coming to you will be worth his while. Then release your dog to play again.
4. Work on your timing. It may be very difficult for dogs to “hear and obey” when they are in the middle of greeting another dog, the moment they find a great smell, or in the midst of a prey drive chase (after a squirrel, for example). At these times, you can increase your chances of success by calling him at the moment he can most easily disengage from his other activity. For example, if your dog is greeting another dog, wait for the moment when you can see they are about to turn away from each other, then call your dog.
5. Avoid repeatedly calling your dog when you know he won’t or can’t come. Go get him instead.
6. Always (and this is a golden rule) act or behave as if your dog is the most wonderful being in the world when he comes to you – no matter what he was doing before he came.
Build a Reliable Recall
Some people might think coming when called should top the list for building off-leash reliability. Coming when called, or the recall, is indeed the backbone of off-leash skills. A dog that will come immediately in almost any situation is safest off leash. But I’ve found that without the first three tips (training off leash, making training part of daily play, and training positively without the use of lure), it’s almost impossible to train a reliable recall. Once you’re incorporating the first three tips, training a recall becomes much easier.
In the very beginning it is helpful to use a food "lure" to encourage a dog to come to you. Discontinue use of the lure as soon as you can; you don’t want her to learn to come only when she sees food.
For a dog or puppy that doesn’t yet know “come,” you can start by encouraging him to move toward you. When your dog gets to you, Click! (or use another reward marker, such as the word “Yes!”) and give him a treat. Instead of feeding the treat from your hand, toss it a short distance away. Tossing the treat moves your dog away from you, so he will have to move toward you again for the next Click! and treat. Wait for your dog to come back to you (after eating the treat). When he gets to you, Click! and toss the treat. When he is consistently coming to you for the Click! and treat toss, you can start adding the word “come.” (For more details on teaching your dog to come, see “Why a Reliable Recall is So Important,” WDJ December 2000.)
The secret to building a reliable recall is to teach your dog to come when called in a low distraction environment (like your living room) and then very gradually train him to respond in the face of increasing distractions. Increase the distractions slowly enough so that your dog can handle it. Consistently and repeatedly reward successful recalls while avoiding situations where your dog may not come when called. The biggest mistake most of us make when training a recall is expecting our dogs to automatically be able to come in difficult situations from the get-go.
When teaching the recall, plan frequent practice times. They don’t have to be long or formal – a couple of fun repetitions in the middle of playtime is great – but do try to train a little on most days. Practice your recalls with the following in mind:
By systematically teaching your dog to come when called, you can gradually “proof” the behavior so that he can respond successfully in increasingly difficult situations. This sounds like a lot of work, and it is. But the work will pay off big time when your dog responds to your recall with great enthusiasm under even the most difficult circumstances.
The ability for dogs to herd or run agility requires communication at a distance. A dog who works as team member in these or other off-leash activities learns that he is “working” even when the leash is off and he is some distance from his handler.
One of the best ways to ensure that your dog will stay “connected” to you at a distance is to teach him that it’s rewarding to come when called and to move away when asked. The idea is to shift his concept of off-leash time from one of a vacation away from you to one of a vacation with you. You want your dog to understand that staying connected with you while running, romping, and playing will ultimately make play time even more rewarding.
Even if you’re not into dog sports and you don’t live on a sheep ranch, you can incorporate some distance behaviors in your everyday play. Some that I find fun include:
Once she understands the "around" exercise, you can work your way up to sending the dog to circle distant trees and return.
Alternatively, teach your dog to “go out” with ball play. Just before you toss the ball, say “Go!” Soon your dog will race away when he hears the word, before you throw the ball. At that point, you can send your dog out and then ask for another behavior, like a distance down, before tossing the ball.
After he will happily circle the chair, you can gradually move away until you can send him around the chair from a distance. Later, you can have him circle trees or other natural features. It’s a great way for him to get exercise while working on off-leash skills!
Let’s say you choose the left. Begin with your dog sitting on your left side – facing the same direction as you – and a ball in your left hand. Say the word “Left” and a half-second later toss the ball to the left. Soon your dog will begin anticipating the toss and turning to the left when he hears the word. After your dog has this down, try it with your dog sitting on your right side, but still asking him to turn to the left. This will make him think a bit more as he will have to move around you to perform the behavior.
Next, try it with the dog facing you. The tricky part here is remembering to toss the ball to the dog’s left – not yours! (One of my students came up with the great idea of putting a chalk mark on her dog’s left ear to help her remember which way to toss the ball. Since she never made mistakes in her cues, her dog never got confused.)
Don’t start working on “right” until your dog has his “left” down pat. Train the rights and lefts at separate times until he can do them both easily. Then you can start mixing them up and impressing your friends!
Train for Safety, Too
When your dog is off leash, two simple behaviors can add to his safety:
Your dog should know how to do a “down” on cue when she’s near you. “Shape” faster and faster responses, by marking and rewarding your dog’s increasingly quick responses. Then, gradually increase the distance between you and your dog as you ask for the down. When you are far apart, it may be inconvenient to keep up a liberal reinforcement (treat) schedule for her successes, but make sure you do. You want her to be highly motivated to perform the down as quickly as possible.
Respect Your Dog’s Limits
Every dog has limits. Some dogs have special fears that may compromise their off-leash safety – for example, some dogs will run blindly at the sound of anything that sounds like a gun, including a distant backfiring car. Others may have strong drives that can lead them astray, such as the fresh scent of a pheasant for a hunting dog, or the sight of a rabbit running for a sight hound. Get to know your dog’s limits, understand what motivates him, and anticipate when and where you may have problems. You may be able to set up special training situations to work through some challenges; for example, for the noise-phobic dog, you can slowly increase the amount of “background noise” in your training area with a portable stereo.
With other dogs, it may not be worth the effort it would take to make them reliable in certain situations; you may need to disallow off-leash play with some dogs in certain situations. For a dog who is fearful of loud thunder, for example, it’s best to keep the leash on when a storm is coming.
Dogs with high prey drive and car chasers are two other examples. While the dog’s behavior can be improved through training in each case, he may never be completely safe off-leash when near prey animals or moving cars, respectively. The more aware you are of your dog’s limits, the better you will be able to determine when and where to let your dog romp free.
The Freedom Balance
You’ve probably seen one – a dog who is off leash all the time and responds to his handler’s cues almost instantly. For a dog who has freedom all of the time, attention from his handler becomes more rewarding than the freedom.
Conversely, a dog who gets very little freedom will find it hard to do anything but revel in joy when he does finally get the opportunity to run, romp, and explore. The best of treats (or the worst of punishments) may not be enough to dissuade a dog who gets only fleeting experiences with freedom. In fact, for many of our dogs, being off leash is such a novel experience that they will lose their brains (and all of their good training) whenever the leash is snapped off. The only way to combat this syndrome is to provide your dog with as many off-leash romps as possible.
For those of us who live in areas with strict leash laws, off leash romps can be difficult to arrange – difficult, but not impossible. Here are a few ideas:
➤ Find parks, trails, or beaches in your area where dogs are allowed off leash. Plan weekend romps to nearby parks or forests.
➤ Visit fenced playgrounds early in the morning or after dusk, when they are empty. (This is a safe option for dogs that are still learning to come when called.) Visit fenced sporting areas such as tennis courts or baseball fields when games aren’t in progress.
➤ Sign up for training classes that offer off-leash play time. Or enroll your dog in doggy daycare, even for just a day or two a week.
➤ Make play dates with your dog’s friends. Take turns going to different homes. Someone else’s backyard is a novel off-leash environment for your dog. (Of course, this is recommended only for dogs who do well with other dogs in their homes.) Or visit dog-less friends who are amiable to your dog exploring their backyards. Remember to allow your dog to romp off leash only where it is allowed and where it is safe.
Mardi Richmond lives in Santa Cruz, California, where she teaches agility for fun classes and writes about dogs. She is the co-author of Ruffing It: The Complete Guide to Camping with Dogs.