The 5 Essentials for a Great Off-Leash Experience with Your Dog

One of the first steps for my clients to schedule an appointment with me is to have them fill out a training request form to provide me with some background information on the human and dog. One of the questions I ask on the form is "What is your favorite thing to do with your dog?"  I get all kinds of answers including "cuddle, hang out, play fetch, go jogging, teach tricks" name it, I get all kinds of answers. If I were a soon-to-be Thriving Canine client filling out a form, I would say, without hesitation, that my favorite thing to do is to go walking or hiking with my dogs off-leash. It is so freeing to be without the burden of a leash and so fun to watch my dogs just be dogs. The key, of course, is that you need a certain level of trust and a solid communication system to achieve this joyous experience. Otherwise, it can quickly turn into a very stressful or dangerous situation. You know...lots of yelling, screaming, begging, pleading, chasing and your basic panic attack as Rover runs into dangerous situations or disappears into the woods after a deer. To avoid these nightmares, I have provided my list of the five essentials that will lead you to a great off-leash experience.
  1. Silent Attentiveness: The most valuable asset for going off-leash with any dog is having a healthy relationship. This means the dog cares about you, wants to be with you and keeps an eye on you. If the dog is not keeping an eye on you, then you will be constantly monitoring your dog and unable to relax. The dog should ideally be keeping an eye on you, not the other way around! You should have a slightly aloof attitude that says "I provide a lot of necessary and awesome things so you better follow me!" Try just walking without giving your dog any cues and see what happens. You might be surprised at how well your dog follows. On the flip side, you may discover that you have a very independent dog that doesn't seem to notice your departure or the fact that you've created some distance. In either case getting your dog to keep tabs on you is an important exercise and should be done on a 50' long-line before going off-leash. If you find yourself at the end of the leash and changing directions and your dog doesn't notice, give a light leash correction, just enough to gain attention, and continue walking, silently and confidently to get your dog to follow you. There are no commands in this exercise, this is just an exercise to naturally improve your leadership position. The leader of a pack of dogs would just walk and the others would follow without being commanded to do so. Right? Right.
  2. Casual Recall: The attentiveness described above is an important foundation but there will be times when it is not enough. After all, we are not wild dogs living in a natural environment and a dog that is not under verbal control should not be off-leash in our human-created society. Wouldn't you agree? So, our dogs must, at bare minimum, have a "casual" recall. This means the dog will come when called in some basic manner but not necessarily to a degree worthy of an obedience title. They may walk or casually trot over to you, they may make an arc or even stop to sniff along the way but they get there decently enough. A casual recall might be a cue to follow you in a general direction or get in your general area like "This way" or "C'mon" or a light whistle. It might be a cue to come all the way to you for a quick check in like "C'mere" or making kissy sounds and patting your legs to encourage a greeting. Any or all of these, or whatever casual cue you come up with, are casual recalls and any dog being allowed off-lead should reliably follow some form of these.
  3. Formal Recall: A formal recall is more specific and definitive than a casual recall. Usually the command is the dog's name followed by "Come" or "Here" and this is what's generally taught in obedience classes. A formal recall requires the dog to come directly and without hesitation. Sometimes referred to as "call to front" it also requires that the dog sit directly in front of you, the handler, upon arrival. The dog must also hold an attentive sit until released. This extra demanding version of calling a dog is often overlooked by the average dog owner. This is understandable as a casual recall is perfectly fine for most people but I think a formal recall is a very valuable asset, even for regular folks who don't compete in obedience trials. I personally don't use the formal as often as the casual recall, but when I do, I reward heavily, hence when I do formally call my dogs, they come with much more speed and enthusiasm. This makes for a great emergency recall because the dog loves to do it, does it quickly and holds a solid sit so you can get a leash on if an emergency dictates.  (See DVD or Come chapter download for detailed instructions)  
  4. Leave It: It is critical that an off-leash dog has a reliable response to some sort of what I call a "negative" command. By negative I mean that, rather than instructing the dog to perform a particular behavior, it is telling the dog to stop doing something or what not to do. I use "Leave It" to tell my dogs to leave something alone but you could use "No" or "Eh" or "Schtt" or whatever you want. The point is that you must be able to tell the dog to get away from, drop or stop chasing know squirrels, cat poop, dead fish and all the other stuff that's fun for dogs but problematic for us. Sure, you could redirect the dog by calling them to you but sometimes that's simply not sufficient. The benefit of negative commands is that they let the dog know there is actually something wrong with certain behaviors. This in turn requires less micromanagement. You are basically saying "Do whatever you want, other than that."
  5. Wait: Often confused with "Stay," the "Wait" command is actually a threshold or boundary exercise. Stay means freeze like statue and is generally used in conjunction with a position such as Sit-Stay or Down-Stay. Wait simply means don't cross this line or don't go any farther. Wait is well known for its use at obvious thresholds like doors, gates and streets but it's also very beneficial when walking or hiking off-leash. The wait command allows the dog more freedom with less micromanagement. Rather than calling them back to you when they get too far ahead you can just say "Wait" which tells the dog not to go any farther. They don't have to come or freeze in place, they can sniff around or do whatever they like as long as they stay behind the invisible boundary you just drew.
There you have it, the five essentials to a great off-leash experience. You may find some of them more important or valuable to you than others or that your dog is just better at some than others. That's fine, you can always play to your dog's strengths but I really believe that all five are essential for the ultimate off-leash experience. Regardless, the biggest secret to off-leash success is to avoid going off-leash too soon. Practice all five of these essentials with the 50' long-line until you feel as though you don't need it anymore...then use it for one more week just to be sure. At that point try going off-leash in a fenced area and see how it goes. Remember, once you go off-leash you are going on faith.
Follow the local leash laws, be safe and have fun!
Chad Culp, Canine Behavior Consultant and Certified Dog Trainer
© Thriving Canine 2014
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