Kate is a former veterinarian's assistant of five years. She maintains a passion for training and caring for dogs of all types.
When we're out walking our pup in our condominium complex, we have to have her leashed—it's just the rules of our association. When it comes to hiking the trails near our home, however, we like to let her have a little freedom to explore unleashed. We also want to keep her safe though, which is why we didn't just one day decide to unleash her collar and say, "Go, run free!" It took a little training to get her to the point where she could walk with us without the leash. Here are the steps we took, which you can try with your curious dog.
How We Trained Our Dog to Walk Off-Leash
|Part 1||Part 2||Part 3|
We built trust in each other, teaching her how to come when called.
We identified and addressed her most common distractions, including pesky lawnmowers and busy squirrels.
We put what we learned into practice in safe spaces like the dog park, allowing her off-leash time in five-minute intervals.
Part 1: Find an Ideal Space and Establish Trust
Are you ready? Let's begin training our dog to walk off-leash.
Start in a Confined Space
To begin the training, we had our puppy on a long leash. We don't have a fenced yard, but if you do, that would work too.
To start, we let her walk several feet away from us then called out her name. We made sure that when we called for her and when she got to us rewarded her with a mini-milk bone.
I think the key here to this step going so smoothly is that we were careful with the tone of our voice when we called for her, using a sing-songy voice as opposed to a training-tone. It helped her associate this step with a positive experience.
Play Games That Reinforce Off-Leash Training
These games work best in a fenced yard, but if you don't have access to one (like us), you can use a large indoor space like a basement or garage. When it was cool enough we just backed the car out, shut our garage and used that to work with her in the evenings. Here are some of the games we played during the off-leash training:
- Doggy in the Middle: I needed my husband to help out with this one since you need two people to play. The two of us would stand far apart, then he'd call her over and reward her with a big ol' head-pat and some praise. Once she was done getting her lovin' I'd call her over and give her praise too. Basically, this game helped her to learn that she wants to always come back to one of us when we call her because she'll get lots of cuddles. This way, if we're out hiking and she gets too far away all we have to do is call her back and we can trust that she'll be running back for a snuggle.
- Fetch: You know how to play this one, I don't need to explain it. Our dog likes tennis balls best for this game and it's just another way to enforce leaving and returning.
- Find Me: This is like playing hide-and-seek with your dog. My kid and I actually did this one together. I'd have him take her into his room to "hide" while they counted to ten. Once they hit ten, he'd open the door and she'd come out looking for me. Again, this was a way to help her think about finding one of her people when we were out of sight.
Build Trust With Your Dog
In order to successfully train your dog off-leash, it's important that you trust each other. Here are some things to avoid when teaching your dog to trust you and build good recall skills:
- Overuse of Recall: Be strategic when you're calling for your dog. Dogs are like children, they'll tune you out if you call them repeatedly for no reason.
- Tricking Him: Don't make the mistake of tricking their dog into thinking she's going for a walk just to pop her in her kennel instead. The only thing this will teach her is that you can't be trusted and that you're the demise of all things fun.
- Calling to Scold: Never call your dog to you to scold her. This sets up a negative association in her mind. If you need to correct her behavior, whether it's barking at your cat or tearing through the trash, go to her and deal with the situation there.
Part 2: Identify and Address Distractions
Now that you've established trust and taught your dog to come when called, we are ready to move on to the next step.
Find out what distracts your dog the most. Some dogs have a high prey drive so squirrels and rabbits are their main distractions. Other dogs are distracted by other dogs, people or cars. The best way to know is to just observe her on your walks together. What makes her pull at the leash the hardest or what puts her on full alert? Those are her distractions.
Deal With Distractions
Start training your dog to ignore her distractions. Start with the ones that aren't as big of a deal for her (like our dog sometimes gets distracted by a lawn mower when we're out but she won't go after it) and then work your way up to the more intense ones (she full-throttle hurls herself at seagulls).
To do this, you'll need to add the command, "watch me." "Watch me" can be taught in two different ways.
- With your dog on her leash start walking. Once she's chilled out, turn around quickly and head in the opposite direction with her. As you do this, give the command, "Watch me!" Do this a few times throughout the walk, so that she learns to keep her attention on you and you're going to do next.
- Another way to teach "watch me" is off-leash. The off-leash method varies according to whether your dog is food driven or toy driven. If treats are your dog's thing, then before you give it hold it close to your face and say "watch me." Make sure you have her full attention before you give the treat. The method is the same if your dog is toy driven. Use the "watch me" command before giving or throwing the toy.
Once your dog has mastered this command, you can start using it on your walks. Practice it with each of her distractions until she's consistent with it. Watch her behavior closely to identify which distractions she still needs to master and focus on those until she gets it right.
Part 3: Finally Off-Leash
Now it's time to develop your dog's off-leash skills. The best place to start would be a dog-friendly park that doesn't have much street traffic close by. Start by walking your dog on the leash and then when the two of you are relaxed and comfortable, drop the leash. Your dog may look at you in surprise. That's the moment to give the watch me command. Keeping the leash on for the first few training sessions lets you grab it quickly if she loses control. It also helps if an unfriendly dog approaches.
Keep the off-leash times short at first. Short means less than five minutes. You can gradually increase the time as you and your dog become more confident. In time we were able to take the leash off altogether with our pup able to walk freely by your our side.
Keep a Leash Handy
I know, I know, you just read all of that to be like, "Ummm, what, I need a leash?" Here's the thing though: For your dog's safety, it's a good idea to keep a leash on you when you two are out, even if you never use it. In situations where an aggressive dog comes around or you come across a cafe or park where dog leashes are required, you'll be happy to have one handy.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2018 Kate Stroud