Off-Leash Training for Dogs

Should my dog go without a leash?

Freedom. What a wonderful concept even in the canine world. Dogs are curious explorers that enjoy running freely. Perhaps they meet a new canine friend, or chase a squirrel, or snatch a treat from a neighbor’s back porch. What fun! Freedom is great!

Besides being fun, running about provides dogs with mental and physical exercise that keeps them healthy and happy. The trick is to allow our dogs freedom while keeping them safe. How do we train them to behave when we snap off that lifeline we call a leash?

Although some dogs like to run free more than others, all dogs need to be trained so they will respond when they are off leash. Even if your dog is more like your shadow than an adventuring escape artist, there are always occasions when your dog might be outdoors off-leash. Something could always startle him or catch his attention, so here are some tips on training your dog to behave off leash.

You Are Home Base

Even though we are the center of their world, our innately social dogs enjoy a little diversity and crave experiences that involve other animals or people. They instinctively want to explore new sights, sounds, and smells. How do we let them experience a little freedom of movement, but protect them at the same time? We teach them to return to “home base,” which is at our side. Your dog should regard being at home base as fun and your attention as a reward.

One thing that fosters the desire to stick by your side is to exercise your dog in a confined area or on leash prior to an off- leash outing. Exercising your dog before a training session will release pent-up energy and help him focus on your instructions, keeping home base in sight.

How do we communicate without a leash?

Unfortunately, that exercise leash is an obstacle. Here’s why: when we walk a dog, we automatically draw back on the leash to control the dog’s movements. This physical cue is lost when a dog is not on a leash, so we have to substitute verbal or visual cues to effectively communicate with our dogs.

"We have to substitute verbal or visual cues to effectively communicate with our dogs."

Basic communication begins with heel, stay, and come. These verbal commands must be respected without the tug of a leash. To teach your dog to respond to verbal commands, start in a quiet area that is familiar and free from distractions, such as your kitchen or living room. When your dog responds consistently to your requests inside the house, move to a small fenced area, then to a larger enclosure. You may visit a dog park if you go at a time when fewer dogs are present. When your dog becomes proficient close to home or in confined areas, you can both venture out further or add more distractions.

For dogs that are resistant to off-leash training, using a dragline may be helpful. This long leash is actually a slick rope attached to a harness. The dragline is smooth so it does not get caught up on things while the dog explores, and he feels like his has total freedom of movement, even though you can retrieve him at will. Also, the harness, unlike a collar, prevents pressure to the neck and further enhances his feeling of freedom even though he is safely tethered to you.

How do I reinforce the training?

Incorporating off-leash training into ordinary daily activities reinforces the learning and makes the command more routine for your dog while moving about unfettered. This helps to prepare your dog for more adventures. Call your dog to “home base” as you do the laundry or make the bed. Take a walk in the backyard and summon him frequently for no particular reason. Your dog will soon learn to heed your call as a matter of routine.

"His response may be enhanced if he receives a reward for his prompt attention."

His response may be enhanced if he receives a reward for his prompt attention. The reward can be as simple as a “Good dog!” accompanied by a pat on the head. Or you can offer a tasty treat (kibble instead of a high calorie snack) or a favorite toy. Be careful not to create a dependency on treats as motivation for good behavior: treats are most effective when they are used intermittently.

If you are walking your dog off-leash and he spies a squirrel, he’s got to make a split-second decision. Do I want a piece of kibble more than I want to chase that squirrel? The squirrel may likely win out. And what if you do not have a food treat handy when you need it? If your dog is in the path of an oncoming car, will you have time to fumble in your pocket for a treat? Plus, some dogs tire of predictable rewards. So, if you choose to offer rewards, keep them handy and mix it up a bit. Offer a game of fetch, a hefty hug, or a favorite toy as an alternative to treats.

Reliable Recall

No matter how you encourage your dog to heed your commands, basic communication is key to successful off-leash experiences. Here are a few commands that every off-leash dog should acknowledge:

1. Heel or Come. Your dog should readily return to the traditional starting point (home base).

2. Stay. If danger lies between you and your dog, he should “stay” put where he is. If a car is approaching and your dog is ready to bound into the street, this command can be a lifesaver.

3. Down. Often a dog may appear aggressive to an approaching individual. The “down” command makes him appear less so and keeps everyone safe.

4. Leave it. If your dog approaches something he should avoid, e.g., a mud puddle or smelly garbage, this command can save you both the bother of a bath.

What are the risks?

Even with the best training, there is no way to guarantee the safety of an off-leash dog. Despite your best efforts, your canine friend may still wander into the path of danger. However, with consistent, persistent training, your dog can enjoy a level of freedom that can be both safe and fun. The responsibility lies with you to determine when and where his off-leash experiences should take place. Freedom feels good, but only when it is safe.