Off-leash dogs are a touchy topic, and pretty much every dog owner I know has something to say about it. We’ve all encountered a rampant pooch running wild, or a distracted and inconsiderate owner who claims his dog is “friendly” while she lunges at everything that moves.
Still, there is something to be said for watching my beloved four-legged friend, Kira, run free with the wind flapping her ears and a big goofy grin on her face. We love our dogs, and we want them to be happy.
If you could effectively train your dog to have great recall, to listen to you no matter what, and to have fun within given boundaries, such as an off-leash park or other safe area, why wouldn’t you? Here are five tips that can help you achieve this.
When I first started training Kira, my Border Collie/Husky mix, I walked with her on a short leash, directly by my side. Every single day, every time we walked. For about nine months. My goal was to teach Kira that her place was by my side. I never strayed from this method, not even once. Eleven years later, Kira rarely strays from my side, and when she does, she will turn on a dime at the sound of my voice.
A reliable recall “takes consistency and repetition, and consistency and repetition, and more consistency and repetition,” says Noelle Blessey, co-owner of Los Angeles-based dog trainers Thank Dog! Blessey believes that owners need as much training as dogs in order to achieve effective results. “It starts on-leash in a non-distracted environment, and slowly, through methodical steps, reaches the point of no leash in a distracted environment. If you are an owner who is interested in working through every step with your dog, get started right away and work it. There are no shortcuts.”
Not every dog is capable of off-leash play. There are certain breeds who I would be more hesitant to let loose. My dog, a Border Collie mix, is a breed well known for attention to vocal commands. She may be easier to off-leash train than say a hound, whose nose tends to lead them astray more often that not. Of course, there are always exceptions to this rule. Get to know the specifics of your dog’s breed and personality before you attempt off-leash training.
As a former dog walker, I have many gripes about the ever-popular extending or retractable leash. Though it may seem awfully convenient to let your dog wander at will while still being tethered to you, extending leashes are actually teaching your dog nasty habits — and are even dangerous. The dog is learning to pull you when he wants to go somewhere. He is also learning that he has free reign to go where he wants when he wants. Neither of these will help you with on- or off-leash training. Instead, I have had great success with 30- and 50-foot-long leashes. Take them to the dog park and allow your dogs to roam, pulling back the leash if they don’t respond to your recall. In my experience, puppies benefit greatly from this tactic.
Using treats for recall is a popular tool as well. I have seen this work incredibly well for food-focused dogs; however, it never worked a lick with my fussy Border Collie. Blessey also suggests that you learn how to use any tool properly before attempting training. She stresses, “Any tool can be misused in the hands of the uneducated. Any tool. Treats and leashes are tools, but your voice is a tool, too.” Learning how to use a specific tool is just as much your responsibility as which tool you choose.
No matter the situation, you need to be aware of your surroundings at all times. When I’m at the park and a new dog enters, I watch that dog’s behavior, and I watch the owner’s behavior. If the dog looks threatened or her hackles are up, if the owner is keeping her distance or restraining the dog, or if there are any other signs that the dog may not be comfortable in the park, then I call my dog back and put her on the leash, or keep her by my side, until I can confirm the situation. As friendly and well-behaved as my dog is, there is no accounting for other people or their animals. It is always better to err on the side of safety. The responsibility lies in our own hands.
Blessey is a firm advocate of the commitment to professional training. “Seek out a professional and be ready to do some work. Your results will be directly correlated to your commitment and consistency. But you can have so much fun with it and be rewarded by the bond you build with your dog during this kind of training.”
Unless you have an unending amount of time to spend training your dog, a professional trainer can ease your way into this challenging task.
It is an incredible thing to watch a pack of dogs tumble and wrestle. Equally beautiful is to see your best dog-friend streak past you in a blur. My dog runs like the wind. To see her take off in a wide circle, her black-grey fur streaming behind her, brings so much joy into my heart. I’m glad that I spent the time and effort to train her well, so that I can have the confidence necessary to let her run free. With commitment, sensible goals, and consistency, you can do the same thing.
Read more about off-leash life with dogs:
About the author: Maya Bastian is a dreamer by nature, a wanderer at heart, and an artist when the inspiration strikes. After almost a decade of spending every waking hour working and playing with a bunch of furry, four-legged friends, she realized she was never going to be able to pee outside as well as they did, so she quit and started traveling the world. Now based out of L.A., Maya works as a documentary filmmaker and video artist. She misses those days of canine connection and wrestling in the park, but she doesn’t miss picking up all that poop.