On Good Behavior LLC

Success Off-Leash

Here are some dos and don’ts to successfully working with your dog off-leash, whether in your backyard, the dog park, at an agility class, or on a hiking trail.

DO reward your dog for checking in with you with praise and an occasional treat. Remember, paying attention to you is a good thing! All too often, when puppies check in, they are told to go play. This leads to an adult dog who ignores you when let off-leash.

DON’T associate the leash coming off with running away from you. Take the leash off and play with a toy, play find the cookie on the ground, or ask for a trick and reward it. When you are ready, dismiss your dog very clearly “OK, Go Play”. If necessary, have two leashes attached so that if your dog tries to bolt when you take off the first one, you can prevent it.

DO get your baby puppy used to following you off-leash. Puppies are very concerned about losing you in their first few weeks in your home (typically up to at least 12 weeks) and at this age, you can catch them pretty easily. I take my puppies hiking in farm fields or big corporate campus lawns or friends’ fenced yards at this age (places where dog germs are minimal) and just walk. Any time the puppy catches up to me, he or she gets lots of praise, petting and sometimes a treat. I don’t ever coax the puppy and periodically I’ll hide behind a tree and wait for the puppy to find me. I want them to learn that it’s their job to keep track of me, not visa versa.

DON’T chase your dog to exercise him unless you can stop the game at will with a sit or come command. If this is a challenge, put a long line on your dog, encourage him to Run, Run or use whatever your cue is for keep-away, then after a couple minutes, ask for a sit. If he doesn’t sit, walk your way up the long line and hold him on a short leash until he sits. As soon as he does, release him with “OK” followed by your keep-away cue. Repeat until you don’t ever need to get hold of the long line before you try this off-leash.

DO use a leash or long line when you need it for safety or to make sure your dog is successful in responding to your cues, but don’t use it as a crutch. All too often, when the dog is on leash, the owner is free to check out! If you aren’t paying attention to your dog, he won’t pay attention to you either. To see how dependant you are on the leash, try draping it over your shoulders or tying it around your waist rather than holding it in your hand. Can you keep your dog with you without needing to touch the leash?

DO call your dog frequently when he is free in your yard, hiking, or in the dog park. Reward him with a treat, praise, or throwing a ball (only use petting if your dog really enjoys it while playing outdoors—most dogs don’t), and then immediately dismiss him to go play. If you only call your dog when you are ready to leave, he will associate being called with ending the fun.

Got you thinking? If you’d like to learn more about keeping your dog’s attention off-leash, Leslie McDevitt’s book “Control Unleashed”  has lots of great games and exercises aimed at teaching agility dogs to stay focused while off-leash. 

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