Going “off leash” isn’t the best goal for many dog owners

One of the things many of my clients ask for is a dog that is reliable off-leash.  It seems most of us have an idyllic vision of our dogs romping in the park, having fun, and then instantly returning to us when necessary.

Unfortunately, the reality of off-leash work rarely matches our vision. I’m not saying an off-leash recall is impossible, far from it. But, it takes a LOT of work. Even then, there is always the possibility that your dog will see or smell something that trumps coming back to you. In many locations it is actually illegal for your dog to be off leash, so be sure you know your state and local municipal codes.

The reason an off-leash recall can be so difficult is that our dogs love to run and chase things. Many of them are hard-wired to chase small animals or birds. Some dogs hit a scent and just have to follow it, no matter what we might be telling them. In order to combat this, you have to be more fun than a squirrel or a rabbit or the scent of a female dog in heat. You want your dog to know that coming back to you means LOTS of totally awesome cookies, or a big game of tug with a favorite toy. This doesn’t happen overnight. There are even great trainers who have dogs that even after years of work still don’t have a recall that is 100 percent reliable. My personal belief is that there is no recall that is 100 percent reliable. There is always going to be something, somewhere that makes your dog want to investigate or chase.

This is why I always have a talk with my clients who put down as a goal on the first day of class that they want to let their dog off leash in the park and have him or her come back to them.

Let me give you a few scenarios.

  • My dog Batman has several obedience titles. He is 8 years old and we do a lot of work together. About 80 percent of the time I am comfortable with him off-leash coming back to me. But, I have seen him run across a road right in front of an oncoming car. It happened when I let him out of my van in my own driveway. Usually Batman gets out of the van and runs to the front-door of the house, but on this day, there was a rabbit in our yard that I did not see. Batman took off after that rabbit faster than I could have imagined and no amount of me asking him to come back to me was getting through to him. He dashed across the road and barely missed getting hit by a car. I almost fainted I was so stressed and the driver of the car was so shook up he had to stop.
  • Sparkles was a dog I had before Batman. I often took her to my parent’s house when I went to visit and she and I would go hiking in the woods. But, Sparkles had some kind of sight hound in her. When she saw a deer she would just take off, no matter what I said or did. Usually she came back after she couldn’t see the deer anymore. One day she didn’t come back. I think she probably scared up another deer and then another and kept chasing them farther and farther away. For three days I looked for her. I went to all the neighbors; I drove in ever-widening circles stopping to call her name. Every morning I got up hoping she would be on the front steps. Every evening I went out one last time calling her name. On the fourth day she came back, but she was in bad shape. Some other animal, most likely a coyote had been after her. My veterinarian thought by the bite wounds that Sparkles must have gotten under a log that gave her some protection as only her lips and face had bite marks.  After a few weeks of antibiotics she was fine.
  • One of our adopters came in today to let us know that the dog he adopted was doing great, but he said she had been hit by a car last month. She was off leash and suddenly darted into traffic. The man said that always before the dog had come back when they called her, but this one time she didn’t. The dog is going to be ok, but she required some extensive medical attention.

I’m sure you’ve all seen a dog dead by the side of the road. That could have been any of the dogs I’ve written about here, it is just in these cases the dogs were lucky.

If you are still determined to play with your dog off leash, take some precautions. Make sure your dog is microchipped and is wearing a collar with ID tags. Start with very easy recalls in an enclosed area and then add distractions such as someone throwing a ball, riding a bicycle or walking a dog by. You want to add these distractions while you are still in a safe environment before you take your dog to the park. Have something your dog REALLY wants and when he or she comes back to you, give lots of praise and give them the treat or toy. Consider having your dog drag a 30 foot long line. If the dog is dragging a long leash, your chances of catching up to it are greatly improved. Watch your area for distractions that might tempt your dog and start asking your dog to come back to you before he or she sees that distraction.

Also, make sure your dog has something other than a recall that he or she is good at. I have been saved many times because Batman has a very good Down. I can yell down and he will no matter what (as long as it isn’t a rabbit or a squirrel). Some dogs will come back if you ignore them and walk away from them.

The number one thing to remember is that if your dog gets loose and you do get it back, have a HUGE party. Lots of praise, treats, tug, whatever the dog wants. No matter how mad you are at the dog, never, ever punish it for returning to you. It will just make the dog decide that coming back to you wasn’t such a good idea in the first place.

As long as you are playing with your dog, having fun and loving him, he won’t mind if he is never off-leash romping in the park. Being safe is much better than a dead dog by the side of the road.

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