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When is a Dog Off-Leash Ready?

On a recent morning photo walk at a local park, I spotted an animal racing up a hillside. Was it a coyote? A bobcat? Nope! It was a blur of a dog, streaking across the greenery with no owner in sight. Now, this park is not a small, enclosed space. There are acres and acres, and no fencing. The dog raced around, flew past me, and disappeared up another hill almost out of sight. Although I didn’t see anyone else, I called out, “Is anyone missing a dog?” A few moments later, a man with a dog came walking in my direction. Although his dog was on leash, the one who was now gleefully flushing birds and squirrels out of the bushes also belonged to him.

“She’s getting worse every time I let her off leash!” he exclaimed, after unsuccessfully calling the dog a few times. “I don’t understand why.” I explained that it was possible his dog had learned that returning to her owner while at the park meant being leashed, thereby ending all the fun. The man agreed that was probably right, and added sheepishly that he’d also yelled at her a few times when she had come back. Further conversation revealed that she was only a year old, and the wild teenager had been adopted only 3 months previously from the shelter.

I shared with him that Sierra, who had been impounded at the shelter four times before I adopted her, was not allowed off leash for most of that first year. I knew she was a runner, plus her mix of northern breeds wasn’t likely to land her in the Recall Hall of Fame. Despite the owners of our local off-leash park pack constantly trying to badger me into to let Sierra run with their dogs, I steadfastly refused. Sure, it might have been fine…and it might not. Those folks made no secret of the fact that they thought I was being overly careful. Whatever! My dog’s safety comes first. It took a while to establish a reliable recall with Sierra, but once I knew she was bomb-proof, she was allowed off-leash a lot more of the time.

As a trainer, I frequently hear owners say they want to have their dog off-leash on walks. That’s a fine goal, assuming the area is safe and off-leash dogs are allowed. But in many cases the expectation is unrealistic, at least for the time being. Some dogs are simply too young or too new to the home, or are not yet trained well enough. Many people don’t realize that a solid recall takes time and effort; it must be conditioned. When hearing, “Come!” a dog’s body should start moving toward the owner without thinking twice. There should be no weighing, Hmm, sniffing the grass, or going back to my owner in the dog’s mind. In other words, coming when called should become a conditioned reflex. Exercises should begin at home with no distractions, first in the house and then in the yard, gradually adding distractions and eventually moving to a park or other area to practice with the dog on a long line for safety.

Getting back to the man with the adolescent runaway…he had mentioned that after she finally tires herself out, she was normally more amenable to coming when called. During the 45 minutes where I trekked through mud at one end of a hillside with the man at the other end, both of us looking for the dog and hoping to catch her, she finally tired. I asked the man to hand me some treats before he called her. I had the feeling she might run to me instead, and I didn’t want to grab her collar and hold her without feeding treats. I didn’t know the dog and getting bit was not on my morning schedule. He called the dog and, as predicted, she raced past him and came to me. I grabbed her collar with one hand and, while feeding treats, asked him to attach the leash. Whew! In addition, while we’d been waiting her to tire of her Doggy Disneyland, I had offered a bunch of pointers on starting to condition the recall at home. He seemed eager to start, and hopefully he’ll follow through. The bottom line is that a reliable recall can absolutely be achieved, but it takes some time to train. And until a dog will come when called each and every time, a leash keeps everyone safe. ________________________________________________________________ You can find my books, including my latest Help for Your Dog-Reactive Dog and pre-order One on One: A Dog Trainer's Guide to Private Lessons, 2nd edition at Streaming seminar videos (and some DVDs) and blog can be found there as well.

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