Building Off-Leash Reliability
The goal: Enjoying a walk with your dog running free by your side.
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.
A word of caution
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.
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.
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.
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 “Total Recall,” WDJ December 2001.)
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:
• Pay attention to what distracts your dog. This is another time when it may be helpful to make a list. Write down what your dog finds distracting and rank those distractions from easiest to overcome to those that are the most difficult. For example, a young puppy may find everything in his environment distracting – from a leaf on the ground, to a new person coming into the room, to a dog across the street. An older dog may be able to ignore the leaf, but a new person or dog may still pose a challenge. To really build a successful recall, plan on practicing with at least 30 different distractions.
• Practice your recall with one distraction at a time, starting with the easiest distraction on the list and progressing to the most challenging. Practice at the easiest level until your dog will come happily each time he is called in spite of the distraction. This could take one or two practice sessions for some distractions, but may take up to a week or more for others.
• Practice each level of distraction in a variety of places – the more places the better. For example, for a puppy who is distracted by a leaf on the ground, practice with a leaf as a distraction in your living room. Then practice with a leaf as a distraction in a bedroom, the kitchen, and the garage. Next, take the leaf outside in the backyard and front yard. Then graduate to a local park during a quiet time of day (like 7 am), where you can practice around lots of leaves.
• Make the value of your dog’s reinforcement match the difficulty of the recall. The more difficult the distraction or training situation, the better the reward. Continue to reinforce your dog’s recall with high-value treats or games until he comes when called consistently and reliably even in the face of all different kinds of distractions. Be careful not to make the mistake of thinking that because your dog “knows” to come when called, that you can stop giving great rewards every time.
• If you have a dog with a lot of experience in not coming when called, you may have greater success starting over with recall training. Pretend that you’ve never trained a recall before. Pick a new word (for example, instead of “come” you can say “here”) and start training from the beginning. You’ll find that your dog will progress faster than if you try to re-teach using the same word.
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:
• Go out: With this exercise, you teach your dog to move away from you across a yard or field. Teach your dog to “target,” that is, touch an object such as a highway cone or a small plastic lid with his nose. Begin by shaping your dog to touch the target while it is near you. When your dog is happily touching the target next to you, gradually move it farther away. Build up to sending your dog 20 or 30 feet to the target. (See “Right on Target,” March 2001 for more details on teaching targeting.)
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.
• Around: The easiest way to teach your dog to go around something is to use a chair as the “around” object. Stand on one side and motion your dog around the chair with your hand or a treat. Once he gets the idea, you can use just a hand motion, giving your dog a Click! and treat as he rounds the chair and turns back toward you. Use your reward marker the moment your dog turns back to you; if you Click! too early, he may turn back toward you the way he came.
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!
• Right and left: Teaching your dog to turn to his right or left on cue is a fun (and impressive) off-leash behavior. As with the “go out” exercise, you can teach this with either a target (good for food-motivated dogs!) or with a ball (better for toy-motivated dogs). Start with either the right or left – don’t try to teach them both at the same time.
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!
• Find it: This is a particularly fun behavior for a dog whose nose always seems to be on the ground. Start with a favorite toy or a treat. Show him the toy or treat, then place it in plain sight nearby. Lead your dog to the item. When he starts to sniff it or pick it up, say “Find it!” After a few times, he will start to go to the item on his own. When he happily moves away from you to the treat or toy, hide it behind a tree or rock. At first, let your dog see where you put it, but once he understands the game, make it harder to find. Before you know it, your dog will be a “find it” fanatic.
Train for safety, too
When your dog is off leash, two simple behaviors can add to his safety:
• Leave it or Off. Teaching your dog the “Leave it” or “Off” behavior can be of great value in off-leash situations. (See “Off Limits,” January 2002, for detailed instruction in teaching “off.”) I practice “Leave it” with my dogs around food, other animals, and people. You can use it if your dog finds a tasty piece of garbage or if he wants to visit another dog. It’s also a helpful behavior when you have a friendly dog who wants to meet every person she passes. For those happy canines that love to roll in smelly things, a well-timed “Off!” can prevent a bath later on!
• Distance down or down on recall: Imagine your dog is across the street from you; perhaps the gate was left open and he wandered over to visit the neighbor’s dog. He sees you and is ready to race toward you. Out of the corner of your eye, you see a car coming. You raise your hand, giving the signal for your dog to down. Your dog drops. The car speeds by. The coast is then clear and you can now safely call your dog to you. Teaching your dog to down at a distance can save his life in an emergency.
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.
-by Mardi Richmond
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."