When it comes to training, many people feel a dog hasn’t reached a high level of training until the dog is “off-leash trained.” Off-leash training can be fun and may seem like your dog has more freedom, but there’s a lot that goes into off-leash training and it isn’t for everyone! Never feel pressured to do off-leash training if you or your dog aren’t safe or comfortable doing so, but if you feel ready to start, follow these safety tips and rules. You DON’T need a shock collar (sometimes called ecollar, stim collar, remote collar, or training collar) to get off-leash!
Before taking your dog’s leash off, make sure that he is under control on a long line. Long lines come in many different lengths and give your dog freedom without you losing total control. Start with a ten foot line and progress to a long line that is over a hundred feet long. Biothane is a great option for a long line because it is waterproof and lightweight. Even biothane that is one-half inch in width is rated for 400lb or more for break strength (this does not include the hardware on the leash, which may have a lower break strength). When your dog is successful on a long line, you can plan when to remove the leash. You also want to make sure you have a standard lead at all times, so you can walk your dog to and from your vehicle without worrying about vehicles in the parking lot or walking through a crowd.
Recall is very important, and your dog cannot be allowed off-leash until he readily responds to a recall, but there are other behaviors your dog must know before you take the leash off. This includes how to leave it when asked, and even better if he can leave things without being asked. When you may not see what’s on the ground before your dog does, it’s really important that your dog not pick up everything within reach. Another cue your dog should know is an emergency stop, sometimes called a drop on recall. The difference is that it isn’t as important for your dog to drop in place after you’ve called him, it’s more important for your dog to stop if he’s running away from you or parallel to you. You can have him stop in a sit, down, or stand, but he should stop when you ask and remain in position until you call him or go get him. This behavior is very important in case there is a barrier or obstacle between you and your dog or you are in a position where it is unsafe to call your dog to you.
Are you willing to put $100 on your dog’s recall? Are you willing to bet cold, hard cash that your dog will immediately respond to your recall in the face of distractions such as other people, dogs, or wildlife? This point cannot be emphasized enough: your dog’s life depends on coming when you call, so build a strong reinforcement history for the recall. You do not want him running into the parking lot, road, or approaching another animal. If you won’t put money on your dog coming when you call, do not take his leash off.
Have your dog’s favorite treats on you. Mine go crazy for hot dogs, so I dehydrate chopped hot dogs and carry them with me when we go out for an off-leash or long line walk. Every recall means they will get rewarded. You can’t “over reward” a recall. The closer your reinforcement ratio is 1:1 the better off you and your dog will be. Yes, that means using treats (or toys, for the toy driven dog) forever, but it’s a small price to pay for a super reliable and life-saving recall. Figure out what your dog just can’t get enough of and always carry that when you take your dog for a long line or off-leash walk.
If your dog is off-leash and you see another person or dog, put your dog’s leash back on (or hold the long line closer to your dog). It’s unsafe and inconsiderate to allow your dog to approach anyone without explicit permission. Even if your dog is great at ignoring people, dogs, bicycles, whatever may be in the environment, grab your dog and leash him until others are out of sight. The other person may be fearful of dogs or their dog may be fearful of other dogs. Since everyone should be able to enjoy public spaces safely, any person with an off-leash dog has the responsibility to call and contain the dog when someone is trying to get by or pass through. You can even go a step further and teach your dog to automatically return to you when he sees another dog or person to make the process easier.
No matter how much training your dog has, no matter how close your dog will stay, no matter how perfect your dog’s heel may be, you are NEVER exempt from leash laws. If your area has leash laws, you must abide by them. “But my dog is really well-trained,” is not an argument in court for a loose dog citation. This also goes for private property that requires dogs be leashed. If a property owner is generous enough to allow people to bring their dogs, be kind enough to follow their rules and keep your dog leashed.
Off-leash training is not something to be taken lightly! Remember to train your dog to respond to appropriate cues (remember, never use a shock collar!) with complete accuracy, carry high value treats, leash your dog when appropriate, and you and your dog can enjoy off-leash adventures together. If you need help teaching a recall or how to check in with you, contact us to get started.