BEHAVIOR & TRAINING

Off Leash Dog Training: The Best Techniques To Apply

Off leash dogs
John Walton
Written by John Walton

There is absolutely nothing quite like seeing your pooch run free; muscles stretching, powerful strides and obvious joy in their movement. This is how dogs are meant to be, running free and exploring their environment. But what happens when it’s time to go home and your dog will not come back to you for love nor money, or another dog appears and your pooch goes bounding over like the hound from hell? Not good things, I can assure you, little or no off leash training will lead to trouble.

Before you even start off leash training, and you must start off leash training if you wish to be a responsible dog owner, you need to heed a word of warning. There are no guarantees, even with the best training in the world that your dog will be 100% safe off leash. It would be wonderful to think that with enough training our dogs could become completely reliable off the leash but it just isn’t the case.

Should I leash

There will always be a chance that our dogs desires and natural instincts may lead them into danger, or that a sudden noise, unexpected object or animal will startle them into non-wanted behavior.

It would be easy at this point to say that you will just therefore keep your dog on a leash at all times. This may be the solution if your dog has any underlying issues which may affect their off leash behavior, but in normal circumstances would be unfair on your dog and you. Besides which the time may come where your gate is left open unexpectedly or your dog manages to escape the house etc and off leash training will come in extremely handy.

Off leash dogs

In the long run off leash training is extremely beneficial to dogs kept on or allowed off leash. Whilst 100% reliability cannot be achieved the risks of allowing your dog off leash can be greatly minimized, and your dog and you will get to enjoy its freedoms.

The first steps in off leash training

In order to get your dog to respond when off leash, you need to start off leash training as early as possible. Although this may seem obvious most of us actually spend the majority of our time training our dogs on leash, and then wonder why they behave like they have never had any training when allowed off the leash.

Teach your dog to walk politely on a leash

On lead training whilst valuable does not prepare either you or your dog for being off leash.

First training sessions off leash

You cannot simply head to the park, take your dog off the leash and start training. Firstly they will not behave as they do on leash and secondly this could be a dangerous activity. Think distractions, other animals, noises etc; all these may cause your dog to respond inappropriately. You should start your training in your living room, kitchen or other room of the house where you have full control of the situation. These environments are also familiar to your dog and will provide little or no distraction from the training.

When your dog is competent at off leash skills in the house you can move your training to the back or front (fenced) garden. This will provide a little more distraction for your dog but still be an environment familiar enough to them that training should be reasonably easily accomplished.

The Premack principle

This principle in dog training is named after the researcher who first formulated it, Dr. David Premack. He discovered that for any two behaviors, the one that your dog prefers can strengthen the one that you prefer. In simple terms when you were young and your parents said you can go to the mall if you tidy your room; that is the Premack principle. Your guardians took the desire to go to the mall and used it as a reward for the cleaning of your room.

We can put this principle to good use when training our dogs off leash. The reward is being off leash with all the exciting distractions; the desired behavior, regular check ins from your dog. This is not the same skill as teaching your dog to come back when called, instead your dog will just come back to you from time to time.

Paying attention

The main point of this exercise is to get your dog to pay attention to you. When off leash in a park or other area you have little control it is imperative you know your dog will pay attention. Here are the Premack principles for achieving this:

  1. Starting in the house or garden as previously stated hold your dog on the leash until they focus on you, even briefly.
  2. When this happens say ‘good’ and release them from the leash.

That is the first lesson complete and your dog will soon learn when it is repeated that by giving you their attention for even a moment, they are rewarded by being allowed to go off leash and have some freedom.

Dog paying attention

From now you will always no matter where you are wait for that moment of attention from your dog before you release them.

Returning to you

During your dogs wandering around the garden, off leash, it is inevitable that they will pass close by you. In order to get your dog to do this on a regular basis:

  1. When your dog is close say ‘good’ and drop a treat.
  2. Now encourage your dog to go play again.

Simple but efficient. Your dog will soon associate coming close to you with praise, a treat and the chance to go off and play again.

Advancing off leash training

Once your dog is reliable in the house and garden, off leash, you can move your training to a fenced park. This is where your dog will become less predictable in their reactions to training as they are no longer in a familiar environment and you can no longer control the conditions. Noises, people and other distractions are inevitable and you should be prepared for this and ready to act upon it accordingly.

Dogs waiting for command without leash

You are also going to be adding the more advanced parts of off leash training such as recall, leave it and distance downs in this new environment. It is unlikely your garden was large enough to train in these successfully. Add new training and new environment together and you have potential for problems.

The biggest of these problems is that as soon as you let your dog off the leash they are more than likely going to go crazy for all the new sights, sounds and smells and you are going to be left chasing them across the park. This, I think you will agree is not what we want and needs to be controlled. Enter the long leash!

The long, long leash

Using a long leash gives you control of your dog even when you are a great distance from them. These leashes can be bought at lengths of up to 50 feet and are ideal for early training. You simply take your dog to the park on their normal leash and swap it for the long leash when you get there or walk them there on the longer leash coiled up. You can then let this leash trail behind your dog as they wander and run around simulating being off leash whilst in the park.

How you control your dog (should the need arise) on these leashes is up to you. You could hold the end reigning your dog in if need be or you can completely let go and just step on the lead if needed. Placing knots at strategic points will help if you choose the standing on method. This will ensure your dogs lead does not slip from beneath your feet.

Dogs off leash

There are however a few things to consider when using the long leash to train your dog. These include:

  • Working on leash management skills. Practice letting the leash out for your dog to move further away and coiling it up when you want to reign your dog in.
  • Always pay attention. You do not want to be pulled off your feet or miss the time to stand on your dogs leash because your dog has bounded off and you haven’t noticed.
  • Never try to stop your dog short when they are at a full speed run. Move towards your dog whilst reigning them in so you gradually stop them. Not doing this can result in serious injury to your dog.
  • Never leave your dog alone on leash.
  • Make sure you use a durable, strong long leash. The last thing you want is the leash to snap or wear away due to trailing on the ground.

How to off leash train your dog

First you will need to reinforce the training you gave in your garden. Remembering that off leash training is all about your dog paying attention to you repeat the steps in paying attention and returning to you.

Off leash in the garden

This time though when removing your dogs leash as a reward for giving you attention clip on the long leash. This way you can stop your dog from making that dash for freedom whilst giving them freedom.

Before we start

Recall is probably the most important skill when it comes to off leash reliability. Having your dog come to you immediately in almost any environment and situation makes your dog one of the safest off leash. Here are some tips to make recall easier to teach:

  • Try to train your puppy / dog off leash at every safe opportunity. This will get your dog used to being off leash and behaving in an appropriate manner from an early age.
  • Include off leash training in play. For example instead of throwing a ball for your dog to fetch you could encourage him to come to you and get it. Use the word come and voila, early recall training.
  • Avoid using food lures every time as a reward. A dog that knows they will get a reward when behaving appropriately will soon learn to behave in the correct ways. However they may also learn that the reward isn’t worth giving up whatever they are doing for. Keep rewards varied and surprising to your dog.

Building on reliable recall

Once you have reasonable reliability in recall at home or in the garden through play you can move it to the park or other less controllable area. Here’s how:

  1. Continue to reward anytime your dog returns to you without any recall using various different rewards.
  2. Allow your dog to move away from you then call them back using the command you have used in the house or garden.
  3. If they return to you reward them and allow them to move off again. If they don’t return stop your dog from moving any further away by reigning the long leash in.
  4. Regain their attention by using the already learnt pay attention and try again.

None of this however takes into account the inevitable distractions that will cause your dog to forget everything you have taught them and run amok!

Off leash recall

There are many things that might distract your dog including leaves, people, other dogs and noises. It will take time to train your dog to ignore these and obey your recall but you need to persevere. Make the rewards for ignoring distractions and coming back to you bigger than the reward they will get from the distraction. Use the long leash to restrain your dog from going after the distractions and refocus their attention on you.

This may sound like a lot of work and a long process and it is, but with perseverance you will get there and have a dog who is reliable and as safe as possible off leash.

Safety off leash training

There will be times when your dog is off leash that you need them to do something for safeties sake. Imagine your dog is running around and sees some spilt food on the floor, you will have no clue what the food is and definitely do not want your dog to eat it. Or maybe your dog has escaped from the garden and gone across the road. There is now a car coming and you do not want your dog to run back across the road to you. This is where the safety ‘down’ and ‘leave’ come into play.

The ‘leave it’ command

  1. Place a treat on the floor in front of your dog and instruct them to leave it by saying leave. When they move towards the treat, as they inevitably will, move them away.
  2. Repeat the leave command until they leave the treat and do not move towards it. When this happens remove the bait on the floor, praising them and giving them a treat from your other hand.
  3. Repeat this process until they are reliably leaving the bait. Try using different baits so your dog will get used to leaving different things.
  4. Once they are reliable, move away from the bait and repeat the training so that your dog becomes used to this command being used from a distance.

When moving this training to the outdoors there will be more than food you may wish your dog to leave alone. People, other animals, smelly objects puddles, all may be included.

Leave it command training

Repeat the training you have already given using the long leash to stop your dog when necessary. Bear in mind it may take your dog longer to start leaving people, animals alone as this has not been incorporated into their training before.

The ‘down’ command

Your dog should already know how to do a down on command when they are near you. To achieve a distance down you just need to reinforce this training but at a distance from your dog.

Start with short distances and build up using the long leash to regain control when necessary. Offer rewards for good behaviour and try to increase the speed in which your dog obeys your command. A rapid down could save your dog’s life one day.

Down command training

It is always to be remembered that every dog has their limits. Some dogs may have fears that will compromise their off leash safety and others strong desires that will lead them astray. By paying careful attention to your dog’s particular distractions you will be able to work through some of these challenges and where no solution is possible control the situation. For example if you know your dog does not like loud noises but know a storm is coming, then you can keep them on a leash or wait for the storm to pass before taking them out.

The more aware you are of your dog’s limits, the better you will be able to determine when and where to let your dog romp free. The better off leash trained your dog is, the more you will be able to let them off leash safely.

About the author
John Walton
John Walton

John Walton lives in Somerville, MA, with his two dogs, two sons, and very understanding mate. He is a Certified Pet Dog Trainer, a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, a mentor trainer for the Animal Behavior College, an AKC Certified CGC Evaluator, and the Training Director for the New England Dog Training Club.

  • Emily Pearson

    The one important thing in off leash training is to make sure the pooch won’t relate the idea of ‘checking in’ with the end of the freedom/fun. This is accomplished by commanding the dogs to ‘check in’ then abruptly ending the fun times, so it’s safe to say that must be avoided. In any case, another fun training is hiding behind a boulder/tree when the pooch gets too far. Because once he returns he’ll find lots and lots of treats and he’ll begin to associate returning with something positive. It’s pretty effective for off leash training, it’s what we do!

    • John Walton

      This is one of the disadvantage of training off-leash, especially if the dog breed that you are training is easily distracted (like Golden Retrievers), or basically any dog that is too friendly can be easily distracted and pose off-leash training as a challenge.

  • Cate Turner

    When dealing with the recall of dogs who run around and don’t ”check” regularly, we’ve been told by a repute trainer that when dogs don’t pay attention to you or would just up and ignore you then trying to get their chasing instinct is a good tactic. Basically, you stand sideways and make a racket, flailing you arms and making noise while calling your dog. You must look like you’re having fun to get their attention, also don’t forget to move into the direction you want them to go! This basically ‘taps’ or ”activates” the dog’s instincts to chase so they’ come to you!

    • John Walton

      Consistency plays an important role is making any type of training to be successful. You should also understand these instincts to be able to effectively deliver training sessions and keep it in its memory.

  • Betsy Johnson

    I was thinking, are there dog breeds out there that are easy to train off-leash? My sister’s Beagle can be a stubborn girl! Sis is still trying her best to train her dog. Any thoughts?

    • John Walton

      Some dog breeds actually shine when trained off-leash, especially those breeds on top of the most intelligent ones like the Border Collie and the Poodle. They are very bright and can learn instructions without being on a leash.

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