Price of Freedom

To me, the joys of off-leash hikes are worth any amount of training maintenance.

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whole dog journal editor nancy kerns

I asked trainer and WDJ’s Training Editor Pat Miller to write about the risks and responsibilities of off-leash dog walks in this issue. That’s because I’m a huge fan of hiking with my dogs off-leash, but I recognize that the activity is a huge challenge for many dog owners.

I hike with my dogs off-leash a couple times a week. I am supremely lucky to live nearby a “wildlife area” where it’s legal for dogs to be off-leash for much of the year (not during the bird nesting season, however). It has wide-open views, offers several areas where dogs can drink and swim in safe, clean water, and best of all, I hardly ever see anyone else out there!

But it’s not without hazards. The area is home to lots of rattlesnakes, and we see them frequently in the late summer and early fall. There is a shooting range nearby, and hunting is allowed in various seasons; some dogs (not mine) are frightened by the sound of gunfire and may spook. There are always birds on the various bodies of water we walk around; dogs who chase waterfowl might take off and never be seen again! And the boundary fenceline we sometimes walk along is just barbed wire and cattle graze on the other side; a nave town-dog who decides to crawl under the fence in hopes of a fun chase risks getting stomped by the range-smart mama cows, who defend their calves from coyotes year after year.

To me, the benefits of off-leash walks in this area are worth the risks – but I also work hard to make sure my dogs have razor-sharp recalls, that they respond to “OFF!” by halting or turning away from whatever has piqued their interest, and that they will sit down immediately on cue and stay put until I release them with another cue. We practice each of these behaviors every single time we walk out there, and I bring high-value treats (and Woody’s favorite squeak ball) to reward them richly for their cooperation.

It’s not for everyone. I have friends who are put off by the snakes, others whose dogs are so overstimulated by the water birds that they cannot be let off-leash, and one whose dog comes unglued when she hears gunfire. That’s all fine with me; my dogs and I are fine with being alone in our (practically private) park.

CORRECTION

I inadvertently left Solid Gold off the list of our approved dry dog foods in last month’s issue. It was an oversight and absolutely no reflection on any lapse on the part of the company. We have added their company and product information to the online version of the February issue and will include this information in the April issue, along with some other notes and discussion about the dry food review.

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