Safety and reliable recall are the two most important factors when training your dog off-leash.
Letting your dog off-leash is fun and exhilarating for both of you. But there are a lot of distractions and potential dangers lying in wait for off-leash dogs. For example, unexpected loud noises such as backfiring trucks, wailing sirens, or exploding firecrackers can cause a dog to bolt. So if you’re going to let your dog run free, you need to be able to control him, so he’ll stay safe and come when he’s called.
1. Start with a safe environment
Off-leash training is just like school. It starts at kindergarten, then progresses to grade school, high school and finally college level reliability. Setting up an environment that’s safe is the most important step in all training, and the first and best environment in which to begin off-leash training is in your house and backyard.
Before letting your dog off-leash anywhere beyond your yard, carefully survey the area to ensure its safety. Look for possible hazards such as broken fencing, busy roads, garbage, or animal burrows that could cause serious injury to a running dog.
2. Motivate your dog to listen to you
If Mother Nature is sitting on your dog’s shoulder whispering, “Chase the bird!” and you’re dozens of yards away yelling, “Come back, I have a biscuit!” — who is he going to listen to? That’s your competition. In order to get your dog to choose you over Mother Nature, you have to first convince him you’re worth it.
In the beginning, the quickest way to have your dog form a positive association with you is to liberally use highly-valued treats (e.g., chicken, cheese) and play, so that he sees you as the best provider of fun things ever. He learns what to do to get you to give him what he wants, like treats, toys, games, freedom to play with other dogs, and saying hello to people he likes. In fact, fun and games is another term for training.
3. Teaching reliable recall
Compare behaviour to a tomato plant. It takes time for a tomato plant to take root, grow, spread out, and produce fruit. The process is similar to neural pathways growing in a dog’s brain during training. It takes time, fertilization (great rewards) and cultivation (consistency and repetition) to get results. To get your dog to choose to follow a particular behavioural pathway, such as to come when called, instead of the pathway Mother Nature is growing, like chase the bird, training must begin early and be repeated often. It must also start at a non-distracting, capability-appropriate level at which both you and your dog can be successful.
The most important behaviour to teach your dog in preparation for being off-leash is “come”. There are a few ways you can do this.
A) This is something you can do everyday from the first day you bring a puppy or newly adopted dog into the home. This is pure Pavlov. Say a word like “treat”, “here” or “bingo” and within one second, stick a treat in your dog’s mouth. You must be close enough to the dog that the treat gets right to him; you don’t want him walking towards you. Do this every day for the rest of his life.
Think of it this way: by doing this exercise, you are putting money in your savings account so if an emergency hits during an off-leash walk in the park, you can make an emergency withdrawal. Is your dog running at a skunk? Make an emergency withdrawal and say the word you used during training.
Test him: It is important to let your dog’s neural pathways grow without interruption. Do a test after the first 30 to 60 days of initiating this particular training. Watch him playing and suddenly say “Here!” If he doesn’t immediately stop what he’s doing and come to you, do not repeat the word. Continue your daily practice and try again in 15 to 30 days. Make it fun, and be consistent and precise with signals. Start at a kindergarten level and gradually add more challenges with various distractions and increased distance and duration.
B) Many trainers use the word “touch” to have a dog touch something with his nose. I use the same idea to teach “come” by saying the word and having the dog touch my hand. If my dogs see my hand move down to my side, even from 100 yards away, they know it’s the hand signal for “come” and will respond by returning to me.
Start by first rubbing a little chicken (or other treat) on your hand, then put your hand one inch from your dog’s nose. As soon as he touches his nose to your hand, click and/or exclaim “Yay!” or “Good job!” and reward with a highly-valued treat. Once your dog figures out that touching your hand gets him a reward, add the vocal cue “come” and present your hand. Gradually add distance, a foot at a time, until he comes all the way across a room to touch your hand. If he gets confused, go back to the point where you were successful. When he starts responding within three seconds, and does what you ask three times in a row, progress to the next level. When you take it outside, start again from a distance of one inch and work up until you are across the yard. Gradually add more challenges in the form of various distractions and increased distances.
C) Play the “look what I have” game. Get a friend to a hold a treat and show it to your dog. Stand right next to your friend, say “come”, and put your hand an inch or so away from the dog’s nose. If he turns his head away from the treat to touch your hand, get your friend to immediately reward him with the treat.
Gradually progress to moving further and further away from each other, even to the point where you’re out of sight, using the “come” cue to get your dog to move from your friend to you. This is important because you want your dog to respond not only to your hand signals, but also to the sound of your voice. If a dog won’t turn away from a piece of chicken, he will never turn away from a squirrel.
Not all dogs can become off-leash reliable, due to their health, age, previous training and history. But if you start consistently training your dog from an early age, and keep safety and responsibility in mind, you’ll be able to let him run free without worry.