Dogs are wired to explore their environment, seeking new things, food, and mates. They’re meant to run, and that’s exactly what they’ll do when given the chance to finally be free of the leash and feel the wind in their faces. Dogs not only seek out these basic needs, but they also desire to discover social interactions that can’t easily be obtained while still on the leash. Convincing your dog it’s more worthwhile to stay with you is the key to stop him from running off.
The Training Process
The main difficulty with training off leash, especially if the dog has been previously trained on leash, is that people often, inadvertently or not, use physical cues to encourage their dog to do what they want. Slight pressure on the leash or, at worst, jerking the leash (not advised!) are some ways people signal what they desire from their dog and when training off leash, a different kind of communication must be used.
Typical training sessions use treats as rewards for a dog’s job well done. However, behaviors can also be used as rewards. The Premack Principle, or the theory of reinforcement, states that the more probable behaviors will reinforce less probable behaviors. In other words, you can train your dog by rewarding him with his preferred behavior of being free of the leash, as long as he complies with his less preferred behavior of staying close to you. This will teach your dog that he can be loose to go play, provided he pays attention to you and sticks nearby.
Like with any other forms of training, it’s best to start your off leash dog training in the most distraction-free environment possible, keeping the training sessions short and to the point. Your kitchen or living room is a good start, then moving to the backyard and later a fenced park when his off leash skills improve. The more your dog is used to staying near you off leash, the easier it will be for him in new, more stimulating, environments.
There are plenty of recall games you can use to train your dog. Hide and seek is a popular one, in which you have your dog stay in one spot, go to another room or area to hide, then ask your dog to “COME find me.” Doing this enough times will emphasize to your dog that “come” whether you are out of site or not is his cue to get to wherever you are, and because it’s a game he will be more eager to do it because he won’t associate the command with the end of his play time off leash. So be sure to follow up the command with one of your dog’s favorite things (food, ball, etc.).
But, if you find that any of these techniques are having little no impact on your dog, a professional handling management program may be just what you need. Professional trainers have encountered every type of dog and temperament, and can teach you how to approach off leash dog training in a way that will suit you and your pup’s needs.
Risks of Going Off Leash
It’s important to clarify that when you are taking your dog off leash outdoors, you are doing so in a place that isn’t crowded, and not an inner city with tons of traffic or place where it is required that dogs be on leash. Remember that even with all the off leash training in the world, there is no way to truly guarantee your dog’s safety, especially in an unsecured and unpredictable area. There’s always the risk of a sudden bang or strange animal that will catch you or your dog off guard and drive his instincts to kick in and disregard training in that moment.
Some breeds are more easily trained to be off leash than others. Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, dogs usually bred for companionship, are more likely to stick close to their owner, while Huskies and other types of dogs that are bred to run, hunt, and chase. All dogs are different, however, and regardless of breed, personality, training, and comfort in each situation will determine how your dog behaves in that instance.
You may ask, why even start off leash dog training at all and just keep him on leash for more guaranteed safety? You can try to contain your dog as much as possible but the day may come when a gate is left open or your dog finds a way to get loose of his leash and that training will help you to further manage those types of situations.