Off Leash Obedience Mysteries, Solved!
I have had several requests as of late to write an article on off leash dog obedience. Almost everyone that has a dog aspires to off leash dog obedience at some point in time. But there are essential steps to getting there and ways to make sure it is effective and fun!
Off Leash Essentials
- The first thing to remember is that off leash obedience is ADVANCED obedience. The rituals that you must follow in dog obedience are first basic obedience, then intermediate obedience and finally advanced obedience.
- Preparing for advanced obedience means your dog is listening to you at the end of a long line (a leash that is 25 or 50 feet long). Long lines (not flexi leashes) are a great way to test your obedience skills and still give you the ability to be in control of his behavior and limit his ability to run.
- Off leash obedience is definitely an advanced stage of dog obedience, and in order to get there successfully your dog must be listening to you on leash both inside and out of the house at least 90% of the time. I believe he must also listen to you off leash around the house over 90% of the time.
- If your dog is not at this level, go back and work on your basic and intermediate skills. There is no shame in having to back up and revisit your obedience skills. Even the most advanced trainers and dogs will have to regress in their training at different points. My goal is always 90% before I take another step forward.
- Next you must find several safe places to train.
Most dogs, when first unsnapped from their leash will bolt and frolic, in the area and the only way to ensure your pet’s safety is to make sure that the area is safe and
I recommend a fenced baseball field, a tennis court, an empty off leash dog park, or even a friend’s fenced yard.
Be aware of off leash dog laws and only use spaces where it is legal to unleash your dog!
The first thing I do is unhook my dog and let him enjoy a bit of freedom. Essentially I want to see if he is comfortable being away from me and how far his comfort limit takes him. Some dogs will run as far and fast as they can, but others will dart and wander within 10-30 yards while constantly keeping an eye on you to make sure you don’t leave him.
I, of course, want a dog that cares where I am and does not want to wander too far away from me. As long as the area is safe, I can wander or run in the opposite direction and see if he cares. It is a dismal sign if he doesn’t pay any attention to your actions and it will make your training much more difficult.
If he comes back to me, within a 6 foot area I will praise him, click him and reward him for making a good decision. I want him to be comfortable coming back to me and knowing that I won’t over react, get angry, force him back on his leash or punish him in any way.
Next, once he has had several minutes of frolicking and leaping about and he seems a bit bored it is time to test my level of obedience so I casually call him over. Casual meaning, it is not a strict obedience command “COME” it is more lenient “Come On” or “Come Here”.
If he willingly comes to you click and treat; lavishly praise him and jackpot him for a tough decision that he made correctly! Realize that it takes a lot of trust in you to risk his losing his freedom by coming back to you. That is why it is essential for you NOT to leash him when he comes to you. Allow him to continue playing off his leash.
If he does not come after 2 requests, it is time to reorient your plan for obedience and back up a few levels. Do NOT continue to call him or you will weaken the command and his respect and commitment to you. Wait until you can go and get him, or he chooses to come to you, this is another reason for picking a safe place, so if you lose control he is still safe.
If he is willingly listening it will be time for you to move on during the next training session. Your first session is just to determine what your dog does with what he deems true freedom and your inability to control him.
The first step in your first true off leash session is to begin dropping the leash. I must reiterate, if your dog pulls on the leash and is not good at listening, he is not ready for off leash obedience!
Begin obedience as you normally would with your dog on a leash. As long as your dog is listening to you and having a good time training you can drop the leash and let him drag it behind you. If he begins to get distracted, you may step on or reach down and grab the leash at anytime.
It is normal for him to get distracted at first when he realizes you no longer hold the leash. Provided you are still training in a safe environment there is no need to worry if he bolts or doesn’t listen; this simply means he is not ready to move forward.
Continue to work with him for several sessions dropping the leash and picking it up as needed. This dropping and picking it up when he doesn’t listen lets him know that ultimately you are still in charge even if he feels no pressure from you on the leash. He must learn to listen to you and pay attention to your body.
Once you have successfully completed this step and you rarely if ever need to pick up the leash because of his unruliness you are ready to go to the next step.
Next is to unsnap the leash. Some dogs let their hearing take over their brains and when they hear the leash unsnap they are ready to dart away. Don’t judge! Ever since they were puppies the unsnapping of the leash has meant they were “off duty”; it just usually happens in the confines of your home where it is not only okay but also expected for him to dash off.
Now it is time to teach him that even if you unsnap you want him to listen to your commands. I often hook two leashes up for this critical moment. One leash I tie to my belt loop or hook around my leash, so if he tries to run away, he will quickly realize I am always in control! You may also hook a long line up with your regular leash and let it drag behind you as you train; if he tries to run when you unsnap you can step on his long line to regain control.
They even make leashes out of fishing line and a light weight wooden handle (invisible leash) in case you are worried your dog can SEE the leash or feel it hang from his
collar. I NEVER recommend an electric or shock collar for training. Shock collars ruin trust and scare dogs and even if it makes your dog listen, I believe you will see problems in the future and the ultimate avoidance of you and future commands. Aggressive painful techniques are never the answer and can ruin a good dog!
If you have to make use of the “hidden or invisible leash” often, then it is time to back up and polish your routine by dropping the leash and improving your obedience.
If your dog is excelling still, it is time to continue on the road to off leash heeling!
What is the Most Important Thing to Remember While Off Leash Heeling?
- Motivation, praise, toys, treats and fun are the only tools you are left with; you are no longer physically in control!
- You will probably have to back up a few times and use a leash occasionally, this is normal and to be expected!
If you have done your job, your dog will willingly chose to stay by your side and listen to your commands. If you have not…you will need to back up in your training and add more fun, games and positive reinforcement before you are finally ready to reap the rewards of off leash training!
I have been a professional dog trainer and pet sitter for over 20 years. I am a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, through the international Certification Counsel of Professional Dog Trainers. I have trained and worked with police, Schutzhund and personal protection dogs. I trained Assistance Dogs in a men’s prison and ran my own nonprofit organization to take adult dogs from shelters and to train them to assist children and adults with disabilities, at no charge to my clients. My nonprofit organization and I were nominated for several awards of merit and even made the front page of the Denver Post. I was a veterinary technician for many years, where I learned about all aspects of health and preventative medicine. I have trained and worked with exotic animals and cheetahs. I introduced a temperament testing program in my local shelter and sat on the board of directors. I volunteered with my dog “Mr. Snitch” and helped local children learn to read. I have attained obedience titles and several blue ribbons. I am constantly in search of ways to continue my education and excellence when it comes to animals, their behavior and their health.