An Off-Leash Walk Ended in Tragedy for My Dog, and I Was Powerless to Stop It

My experience as a trainer couldn't change the fact that dogs don't always come on command.


It was midday on Jan. 16 when my dog suddenly and tragically passed away. I had let him outside, getting ready to go on a walk in my backyard. I’m a dog trainer, and Lynal and I had gone through this routine a thousand times. But this day was different.

At the front of my house was a fairly busy street; on the other side was a huge orchard. Someone was walking a dog on the other side of the street — and although we had seen this before, Lynal was suddenly determined to meet this particular dog. He let out what would soon be his last Beagle howl and darted toward the road.

I called out every recall word I had for him and even threw in his favorite word, “cookie.” It didn’t work. I watched in horror as a gasoline truck ran him over. In an instant, he was dead.

“Wasn’t he trained?”

The most common responses I get when I tell this story to my clients is, “Didn’t he know ‘come’? Wasn’t he trained? What went wrong?”

The answer is yes, he did know “come.” Yes, he was trained. And what went wrong was a judgment on my part.

Lynal was a psychiatric service dog, performed search and rescue, and was competent in competitive obedience. We had taken classes such as “Really Reliable Recall” and learned a recall word on a response collar. In other words, Lynal was very well trained. But I learned a lesson that tragic day in January about dogs, recalls, and training that I will never forget. The fact is, no dog can ever be 100-percent trained.

The most important command of all

Having a solid recall probably the most important thing you can teach your dog. Even if he doesn’t come 100 percent of the time, having a 99-percent trained dog in recall could absolutely save his life.

To train your pet to have a good “come” command, you should first talk to a few trainers about how they train recall. Some trainers are pretty loosey-goosey on recalls, and you may inadvertently teach your dog that “come” means he can come when he feels like it (if you have good treats).

Naturally, I have been terrified to start teaching my new dog, Addisen, to come on command. I’m so fearful that I will call her one day and she will ignore me, and that could be the death of her.

But I didn’t like the idea of not having that 99-percent assurance that she would come back when I called her. I’d like to share a bit of the knowledge I have gained about recalls since Lynal passed away.

A better way to train recall

I have a new favorite way to teach recall. To do this, have someone distract your dog, maybe with a so-so treat or some petting. Stand behind your dog and say his name. When he turns his head, give him a higher-value treat than the one he is being distracted with. After doing this exercise about 10 times, take a step back and continue the exercise. In this way, your dog has to step toward you to get the reward. Continue the exercise until it’s obvious that your dog is competent, then take another step back.

Your dog will be learning to come to you without your saying the word “come.” I like this method because you are starting your training with a distraction. Most of the time you need your dog to come to you when there is a distraction involved.

In the “Really Reliable Recall” class I attended with Lynal, the trainer had someone hold a 30-foot leash attached to the dog while the handler (you) hid. Once you are hidden, you call the dog and the person holding the leash lets the dog find you. As the dog finds you and approaches you for a reward, you give the dog a full 30 seconds of treats, one right after another! The trainer suggested that you use a different word from your typical recall word and use this only in emergencies or once a month.

There will always be that one-percent chance

Even after teaching an emergency recall word, you still will not have a 100-percent trained dog. It’s always possible that a stimulus will get the dog’s attention enough to make him ignore you completely.

We can be prepared and think our dogs will definitely come back, but there will always be that one-percent chance that your dog will see a rare breed that he doesn’t recognize, spot someone in a strange hat, or become mesmerized by a bag wafting in the wind, which he absolutely must chase.

As responsible dog owners, we have to ask ourselves, “Is it worth letting the dog run free?” I’d love to hike with my dog off-leash and take her in the orchard, but I just don’t know if I can live with the regret of losing another dog because of a judgment call like this.

If you do want to let your dog run free, decide what constitutes a “safe” place. Ask yourself, “Is there a road around? Is it hunting season? Is there a heavily wooded area nearby that a person cannot get through?” If you feel that your dog is safe and has a great recall, you may be inclined to take the chance and allow your dog to be free. But remember, no dog is 100-percent trained.

Clarissa Fallis, a behaviorist and trainer from upstate New York, writes for Pets Adviser, where she has written about the heartache and dealing with the loss of her dog.

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4 thoughts on “An Off-Leash Walk Ended in Tragedy for My Dog, and I Was Powerless to Stop It”

  1. Pingback: Things Dog Owners Do That Put Their Pups In Danger – skills achievers

  2. How about you keep your dog on a leash unless you’re in a secure enclosed area? People who think they can control their dogs off leash in open areas are a danger to everyone including other dogs. My dog is a product of an abusive background who has been rehabilitated and trained, but still carries trauma scars psychologically. He is 10 years old, and is amazingly well adjusted given his background. However, at his age he is not going to change significantly. When he is on the leash he feels very aggressive towards other dogs.When off leash dogs come running out him to play, he gets agitated, his back is up, he is frantically trying to defend himself from the perceived danger based on his past Trumatic history. I find people Who leave their dogs off leash in an ope area where they can run away incredibly irresponsible not just to themselves but to others and it infuriates me. The arrogance and sense of superiority of these dog owners when I reprimand them for leaving their dog off leash in a public open area that is not for dogs is infuriating. They look at me like I have a dog who is not well trained that I am somehow deficient and they call their dogs in these muted calm low tones as if to say “if you were capable your dog would be off leash to because there is a way to master this.” It doesn’t matter, all dogs have different histories and people who leave their dogs off the leash in unsecured areas are simply irresponsible and rude and inconsiderate.

    1. I completely agree. While both of my dogs are very friendly, when someone else’s dog runs up to them I always sit and think “now what if my dog was aggressive?” The last thing I really want to deal with is some irresponsible owner not having their dog on leash running towards my dogs. My little one (15lb dog) is nervous around bigger dogs when first meeting them. If a big dog runs up to her she would flip out.

      Also, what if *I* didn’t have any dogs but was scared of them? What if someone had a very traumatic experience with a dog and your very well behaved/trained dog just decided they wanted to run over to that person? The whole thing is very rude and inconsiderate.

      Dog are DOGS, they are not human beings. Stop letting them run around just because they are “trained”. I’m sorry for your loss but this is why no one should have their dogs off leash, they are animals and do not understand how dangerous running around is. I live in an apartment and would love for mine to run around outside but I just do not risk it. We have a huge open space for them to play inside and I also take them to my in-laws every once in awhile since they have a secured backyard. Even then I watch them since I worry the smaller one might dig out.

      Please just keep your dogs on leash. I am honestly shocked after your loss that are still considering doing this and advising other people to as well.

  3. Pingback: Why You Should Leash Your dogs – -Name-

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