Safe Off Leash?

Last weekend Jim, Willie, Tootsie and I stayed in a lovely log cabin owned by friends in the woods in eastern Wisconsin. I mention that because for the first time in her nine years of life, Tootsie got to run off leash in an unfenced area off the farm. Wooo Hooo! Some people might not understand what a huge step that was for a little puppy mill dog, but I’m guessing that many of you get it completely. I was over the moon with happiness that I could unsnap the lead, and trust that she would stop when told, come when called, and as importantly, get to sniff and explore with more freedom than she’s ever had in her nine years of life.

The decision I made got me thinking about the issue in general: When IS it safe to let a dog off leash? What do you need to know to evaluate the risk and decide whether to take it? I thought it might be an interesting exercise to list some of my criteria and decision points in regards to Tootsie, and to hear your thoughts and experiences in addition.

I should probably mention here that it is my belief that one of the things dogs want more than anything in the world is a certain amount of autonomy. Some dogs have a ton of it, others almost none, but surely every dog wants to be able to do what she wants to do, when she wants to do it at least some of the time. Being off leash fulfills that to a great extent, but it also puts dogs at the potential of risk. So how does one decide when to unsnap the lead? Here are at least some of the things that need to be considered:

CONTROL: It is something of an irony that the more control we have over our dogs, the more freedom we can give them. Never is that more true when asking if a dog can be safe off leash, and it was the question I asked myself late Friday night when I decided it was 99.999% a sure thing that once off leash and out of the car, Tootsie would sniff around, relieve herself and then immediately come when I called. But how does one know if a dog will come when called in any context?  Ah, you don’t, not 100%, but here’s what I think you need to get to 99.9999%:

STOP ON A DIME: People often assume that all one needs to manage an off leash dog is a good recall, but I’m a big proponent of first teaching a dog to stop on cue. Asking a dog to stop on a dime might be critical for the dog’s safety, and if you think about it, that’s a very different exercise than asking a dog to come back to you. I can’t count the number of times I asked Willie to stop and stand still (I use “Stand,” a cue common in sheep herding that asks a dog to do exactly that: don’t lie down, but stop moving). Perhaps he was starting to sniff beside a partially frozen stream, or I wanted him to wait for me to catch up before he went around a corner on a trail we were walking.

Besides being a handy cue, I’ve learned it is much more effective to ask a dog to stop first before calling him to come back to you, especially if he is moving fast in another direction. Think about it: If a dog is running away from you, in order to back to you she has to 1) stop, 2) turn around and 3) come back to you. That’s three things, right? I’ve found it far more effective, especially with dogs who love to run, to teach them first to stop on cue before asking them to do a recall. It’s not all that hard to do: Just let your dog get a step or two ahead of you and say “Whoa!” or “Stand” and then reinforce with something ridiculously wonderful. Gradually use the cue when the dog is either 1) farther away from you and 2) moving faster. Try to keep those 2 components separate as much as you can, and gradually build up to asking the dog to stop while tearing off in another direction. Manage this carefully though and set your dog up to win: don’t yell “Whoa” when  your beagle is disappearing into the woods after a rabbit if you haven’t gotten full compliance at a much easier level. However, a good stop is not enough…. you also need:

A RIDICULOUSLY GOOD RECALL: Coming when called when there’s no environmental competition simply doesn’t count as a “good enough recall”. One of the reasons I decided to let Tootsie off leash in the woods last weekend is because we have spent several months working on her coming when called while running away from me at a dead run toward something she really, really wanted. I’ve worked on her recall ever since I got her a year and a half ago (if you missed those blogs, she had been a puppy mill brood bitch for 7 years). It took me months to let her off leash at the farm, and then only in specific contexts in which I felt her behavior was completely predictable. But it’s one thing to have a dog come when called in a predictable and consistent context. It’s an entirely different matter to be able to get a dog to come to you when it is already dashing away toward something it wants.

I was lucky here, because the farm provided the perfect set up. First, I have several fenced areas where I could safely let Tootsie off leash and work on her recall. The area around the house and barn is not fenced however, and has a road that runs by about 75 yards from the house, so I was much more cautious about letting her off leash there. In that context I first worked on teaching Tootsie to heel beside me as we walked from the house to the barn. She adores food, and so it didn’t take long to get a reliable response. Then I began asking her to stop or recall when I released her from the heel. I knew she would run straight to the barn, so I had no worries about her safety. I had her favorite food (chicken) in my pocket and asked her to stop the first time when she had just barely left my side. Gradually I began to give the cue when she was farther and farther away from me. Once I could get to her turn on a dime and run back to me even when twenty yards away I began to test it in other contexts. And sure enough, she flipped her little body in mid-air and came running.

CONTEXT: Location, Location, Location. Realtors aren’t the only ones who emphasize the importance of location. There are simply many places I would never let Tootsie off leash. Here’s an example: we went recently to visit a friend who lives in a suburb, with a small lawn between the house and the road. I asked her to potty before we went inside, and never would have considered letting her off leash in that context. Why? Because first, we were just too close to a road for comfort, she could have gotten into the road before I could blurt out a cue. Second, what would be the point? The cost/benefit balance was skewed far to the negative: the risk in no way was worth the pay off. At the cabin however, the closest road was a good 600 yards away,  and the payoff was huge. She got to be a dog off the farm for the first time in her little life, and although I’m sure some people would argue one should never take any risk at all, I’m not one of them. The only 100% guarantee of safety for Tootsie was to live in a cage, and she’d already done that for seven years. Enough is enough.

WHO’S YOUR DOG? If asked to name three things we all needed to consider before letting our dogs off leash, I’d say knowing each dog as a personality is the third. Tootsie spent 7 years in a cage, and didn’t know that the noises people made were meaningful for most of her life. She’s come incredibly far, but she’s still a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel that I got at age 7 who had never been trained to do anything for most of her life. Willie, on the other hand, came with recall software pre-installed. I could just about take him anywhere and let him off leash, although I still don’t take chances, because, really, what’s the point?

NEVER DONE: One last point: Don’t ever stop “training your dog to come.” I still often reinforce Willie for coming when called, sometimes with voice, sometimes with the toss of a toy or letting him chase me as I run away from him.  And I’ll never stop watching Tootsie like a hawk if she is off leash, and reminding her how very, very fun it is to come when called.

Here’s the little girl now, rounding the corner of the barn when I called her back to me from a dead sprint. She looks so serious, doesn’t she? But damn, she sure comes running!

MEANWHILE, back on the farm: A bit of a sad day. We’ve had a doe fawn living in the Orchard Pasture all spring and summer. Something was terribly wrong with her, she clearly wasn’t able to cope with living on her own. She would run smack into the fences at a dead run and was never able to jump them like all the other deer. She did well over the summer when there was a lot of food, but because she stayed in a very small area there was no way she was going to make it through the winter. There was also the concern about coyotes; eventually they would have found her and killed her. And so I contacted a DNR warden who came out, agreed that she was probably blind, and that she would slowly starve over the winter. Deer can’t be captured and re-located (they die of stress, it is horrifically cruel to try to capture and relocate them), and it was inevitable that the coyotes would find and kill her. The warden agreed that she should be put down, and did so humanely with one perfect shot. I know it was the right thing to do, and I know that deer are as common out here as beetles, but oh lordy they are lovely animals, and I’m feeling a big of sadness that such a beautiful thing didn’t make it.

Here she was yesterday:

 

 

Comments

  1. Jane says

    There’s one sentence in your post that has formed the basis for much angst in our family: “…we have spent several months working on her coming when called while running away from me at a dead run toward something she really, really wanted.” I’ve also worked on this with my two cattle dogs and have made tons of progress in NEARLY all situations. However, it all breaks down when it comes to extremely high-value prey targets like coyotes or deer. My male has a prey drive so ferocious that absolutely NOTHING else will penetrate his head if one comes into view. I can’t even describe the change in his demeanor, but it’s completely primal, and I utterly cease to exist for him. It’s very rare, and therefore very hard to train for, but when it happens he puts himself in grave danger. He had an encounter with a coyote last fall that landed us at the emergency vet’s, with stitches and potent antibiotics for him and great trauma to us all. Far from dissuading him, it was instead very reinforcing, and soon after the coyote incident it was obvious that his drive had only amped up. Before I could call him off squirrels and birds very readily; now, they are firmly within his sights as well.

    So his freedom has been drastically curtailed as a result, which is truly sad. I just cannot trust him off-leash. I think with some work this spring I will be able to get him back to reliable recalls 99% of the time, including leaving the squirrels and birds alone, but we could lose it all (and him) with another chance encounter with something larger and more exciting.

  2. says

    First of all that Tootsie is an adorable little girl! It must be so wonderful to see her just being a dog after her sad start to life.

    I’m so very glad you mentioned a good “stop” command (and for me, I use the actual word “stop”). To me that’s even MORE important than a good recall. If my dog can stop on command I can always go get her while she’s standing there. Don’t get me wrong, Dahlia also has a strong recall, but the stop command is always the first thing out of my mouth and always the most important to me.

    My criteria for off leash is basically: good stop, good recall, and a good relationship with me. My dog was easy on all accounts. She’s a border collie mix and came programmed with “velcro” behaviors. After just a couple weeks of being our dog, she got out of the house and she didn’t run away. She ran to us and to the car because she wanted to go with us (she got to). I knew then that she’d be easy to train to be off leash and she was.

  3. Jennifer says

    Oh, goodness, I’m sorry about the doe. That’s so sad! But thank you for having the courage to do the right thing for her. Love the picture of Tootsie, too! What a cutie-pie. :) My Maggie is part beagle and there are only two places in the world she’s off-leash: our fenced backyard and my grandmother’s farm. Her recall training has just never been stronger than her sniffy nose.

  4. says

    Thought you’d never ask….

    There are so many factors that go into the decision to let a dog off leash. One, I think, is whether or not you get your dog as a pup during what I’ve heard called the “follow period”, when a puppy doesn’t want to stray far from you. You can build trust from that, & it’s easy to reinforce off leash walking while the pup is right there with you. Another factor is where you live, and also where you walk. It’s obviously a lot easier to work with a dog off leash if you’re not in a city or near a busy road, so if you live in a safe place for dogs you’ll take more chances & have an easier time determining what your dog needs to know in order to be trustworthy. Expectations play into this too. I’ve always said you inherit your mother’s dog, assuming that until fairly recently women spent more time at home than did men. We often expect from our dogs the behavior our mothers expected from theirs. If your childhood dog was good off leash you’ll want your dog to be reliable as well, you’ll know it’s possible, & you may well have learned how to train for it by watching mom. My dogs are off leash because my grandmother became serious about training after her Collie, Pal, learned about those newfangled Model T’s. I guess that dates me.
    One thing that’s always worked for me is never calling a dog if I’m not sure she’ll come. I don’t think recall can ever be optional, from puppyhood on. Kathy Sdao writes about hiding little hamburgers up in trees, so she can walk by & call her dogs and produce astounding rewards when they come.

  5. Beth with the Corgis says

    Hmmm. I would like to add one thing to your excellent post and that is for some dogs, familiarity breeds contempt. In surroundings that they know well, the need to pay attention to you diminishes and with it does the reliability of behavior.

    My Corgis are hard-wired to check in with their person, but not nearly the way a Border Collie is. They have just enough Spitz in their ancestry to cause some, er, “selective hearing” issues. Honestly no reward I can give will beat the dead thing in the woods or the mound of buried cat poop from the feral cats in the park near our home.

    Mine are very reliable hiking off-leash in semi-familiar or new areas; their desire to check in outweighs everything and they WILL recall off of anything there. But in the park by my house where they have spent hundreds of hours, and which they know from top to bottom, what used to be favorite off-leash trails have gradually mostly all become on-leash trails because they have no fear of losing me (and can find home on their own if they ever did— not that this has ever happened, but it seems they are aware of the possibility). I lose the one to his ridiculous “food” drive (or rather “edibles” drive; much of it is not food in the strictest sense) and the other to her prey drive— if she puts a chipmunk to ground, waving aged cheese directly in front of her nose won’t even get her to raise an eye, and this is a dog who usually noses every rock and stray bit of plastic to see if it might contain a morsel of something to eat.

    So I caution everyone to pay special attention t0 the “Who’s Your Dog” section and understand WHAT is motivating their dog’s excellent recall. In familiar surroundings, Jack will come off of dead things only for steak or hot dogs and only if we’ve been working intensely on recall for days (he’s smart enough to weigh what I have against what he wants, and I’ve had him stop and consider before continuing on his way in the other direction if my treats don’t measure up), and Maddie won’t come off of put-to-ground small critters for love or money because she fails to even hear me. Their reliability in the familiar places drops from 99.99 to 95% if there are high distractions, and that is just not good enough for me. BUT if we are in less familiar surroundings, their constant attention to where we are keeps them much more focused and they are not lost to those distractions to begin with. We then hit that 99.99% and I trust them.

    One other point is that the cost/benefit analysis changes for me with the terrain. I always let my dogs off-leash for strange stream crossings, on narrow paths, and on steep parts of trail. The risk of us getting tangled in the leash and having an accident are far higher than the risk of the dog getting lost in the woods.

    Do you have any feeling on the benefit of training a dog to a whistle (the kind you buy)? I presume it carries further, and I would imagine that if the dog did have a moment of extreme distraction and ran off, it might be easier to help the dog find you. I have thought of doing it specifically for hiking, but my fear is that if someone else had a similar whistle and the dogs were trained to it, they might get confused and run off?

  6. Beth with the Corgis says

    Susan, I LOVE your idea about hiding food along the path! I may have to try that. It might help if my “thinker” dog thought I could magically produce great food out of thin air. What’s that old saying? Most people who say they want a really smart dog have never owned one. :-)

  7. Susan says

    Unfortunately, I have had to take away my tricolor Cavalier’s freedom in all but the totally fenced areas. He remains, on leash at all times now as he has gone deaf and I can’t call him back. It saddens me that he doesn’t get the opportunity, but I refuse to take the chance. I’m glad yours finally had a chance to taste of the freedom of her choices that gives her the reliability that lets you unclip the leash.

  8. Margaret McLaughlin says

    The only time my dogs are off leash now is either ina training situation or awhen they are retrieving tennis balls or bumpers (from water), or inside a fenced area. My first dog, a Keeshond, was often walked off leash in the mornings with a friend & her pack, but that was 18 years ago, & too much has changed–leash laws, more people using the parks, more people who might have mace, pepper spray, or worse. It’s also hard to scoop it if you don’t see it fall:) Cobie had a very reliable recall, & usually could be called off anything, but there were a couple of times he put my heart in my throat chasing a rabbit towards the highway.
    So I would say it’s more than a training issue for many of us unless you are fortunate enough to live on a farm.
    I agree 100% with a “stop” cue being even more important than a recall. I could stop & drop Cobie 50 ft away with a hand signal, which did much to reassure oncoming people. I taught Elly a “whoa” for skijoring that also ssaved many a Q on the agility field. Taught her to sit to a whistle when doing fieldwork–that’s another good option for people who like to walk their dogs in open areas. The sound carrries much further, & it’s easier n your voice.

  9. Tricia says

    Learned the value of stop vs. recall years ago when my dog wanted to come running to me from across the street as a car was coming up the road. He was hit lightly due to slow speed of car, so was okay. But I realized that wait or stop was as valuable as come. Scary as hell. Good lesson. A distant drop or stop is truly valuable.

  10. Margaret T says

    One more thing to consider: what predators are around you? We have had my sister’s papillon on the beach in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. But there are eagles that thought he looked very tasty, and hawks in his own back yard (literally–my sister has an area woven over with visible rope to discourage them). Coyotes, wolves, cougars, bear–all can be a threat to a dog. Know your territory and the other creatures that live there.

  11. Lynn says

    So many people seem to feel that dogs need to be leashed ALL the time (unless they’re in their own back yards). So sad… I know dogs that are never allowed one iota of freedom off-leash, simply because the owners fear they’d be lost. For sure, I do see “LOST DOG” notices all the time. It does give one pause to consider.

    But what a joy to hike with an off-leash dog! My Border collie has a reliable recall, but I am friends with the owner of a littermate who tells me that “oh, no, I could never take Moss hiking” (to this beautiful location, where we spot waterfowl in abundance and even the occasional bald eagle) – “he would just chase deer”. While I have, on any number of occasions, called my dog off deer fleeing at full tilt. Why can I succeed where they fear to tread?

    It’s been a slow but steady process. For sure, at first we were reluctant to let our dog get more than a couple of feet from our sides. But we called him back every time he reached the edge of what we viewed as our “safe zone”, and now he’s learned to check in with us. I carry a shepherd’s whistle, and if I he goes out of sight, I give his recall whistle; he’s always back in moments. I rarely need to use it; most of the time he checks in on his own. These days I mostly whistle a “lie DOWN” if I see other hikers, or a biker, approaching. And he knows that “lie DOWN” means he has to stay down until I release him.

    To those contemplating letting a dog off leash, but worried about what a huge step it might represent: I encourage you to take a leaf out of the book of local dogwalkers, and consider a “coupling leash”: a leash with clips at both ends. Couple your “new to off-leash” dog to one with a reliable recall. Your newbie offleash dog will soon learn that recall means recall, no matter how tempting the scent of that squirrel or deer.

  12. says

    Great topic. Tootsie is so cute. Sad for the doe though. I let my pups, off lead at our park downtown, fairly close to a busy main street, sometimes. They are fairly predictable in their desire to follow our well trodden paths. I so agree that they treasure their autonomy and are just overjoyed with their freedom of following their own noses. I use wait as a cue for my little guy to stop and not go too far out of my sight or cross a path before I get there. It’s such a joy to see my little Sumo-boy come flying back to me with such excitement and eagerness to please when called. Can’t say the same of my Isabella-girl who especially this past year has come to exhibit a new kind of stubbornness, an insistence on her own way and her own time. But given our circumstances I figure she is entitled, most of the time.

  13. Rebecca Rice says

    How much does breed matter when deciding to let your dog off leash? I struggle with that, because I own a greyhound, and a rat terrier. Say they both are 99.9% reliable off-leash. Say that the 0.1% time when they aren’t reliable and chase off after something, they both stop after 2 minutes. My little rattie, as cute as she is, is going to be somewhere that I can probably find her, and probably still within the range of my voice, so she can work her way back to me. The greyhound is going to be over a mile away in that time, and that’s because she is a slow greyhound. And, being a greyhound, is probably not going to have any idea of how to get back home. Unless the area is very open and she has run straight, finding her is going to be a lot harder and probably will involve multiple people.

    So I ponder what to do. I am more likely to let Pixie off leash (once I get her recall better… she’s not at a level where I would be comfortable yet), simply because I feel like I can handle the “oops, I was wrong” better. With a dog like Katie, that can hit 35 mph (I said she was slow… fast ones will hit 45) in 3 strides, your time to react to the “oops” is an eye-blink, and the results of being wrong much more drastic. And so I get caught in the “how good do you have to be” in cycle, when you can never be 100% sure about the result of letting them go off-leash. Is 99.9% sure enough? Is it better to keep her controlled, knowing that that one random time, you might never see your dog again? Or to let her off leash, knowing how much she loves to run?

    And I guess it’s fair to ask… what exactly do we mean by “off leash”? Is letting your dog off leash in a fenced-in field the same as letting them walk off leash on a forest hiking trail? What about off leash in your yard, versus the field? How much autonomy does a dog need to feel fulfilled? Does it count if you take your dog’s leash off, and they promptly walk over to a sunny spot in the yard and nap for an hour? Or just if they take that opportunity to go “do stuff”?

    Thanks for making me think… the more I type, the more I wonder!

  14. Nicola says

    One of the additional things I now consider is how common is the stimulus. I moved from the city, with a great off leash park and fully trained dogs who would drop everything to come to me, even if they were playing/chasing/it was their best friend. I now live in the country, and there are few off leash parks which are safe, and it often isn’t safe to allow my dogs to interact with other dogs (lack of vaccination, hunting dogs which will attack my tiny fox terrier). However, as their daily interaction with other dogs has ceased, along with the opportunity to reward them for correct behaviour, they have become much more interested in meeting the occasional dog we do see. I now go to a park which isn’t an official off leash area any more, and watch like a hawk for any other dogs, so I can get my dogs in the car and out of there safely. Funnily enough, when I take them back to the city, and the off leash parks there, they are reliable again. Well, the one which isn’t deaf is :). Part of their less than ideal behaviour is probably because we don’t get the chance to practice as much with the temptation, but there is certainly an issue of familiarisation – getting to see lots of safe dogs regularly vs rarely getting to say hello to a dog.

    Actually, with my border collie now under treatment for anxiety (he is only just allowed to meet familiar dogs in familiar places), my Tenterfield terrier (think rat terrier) being deaf, and my beloved old kelpie cross having severe arthritis, I really miss the fun of an off leash walk. It is now a fine balancing act between the excitement they get when they run off leash where rabbits and wallabys have been, and their physical and emotional safety. I really enjoyed reading of Tootsie’s run, and Willie’s fun – enjoy Trisha, you’ve worked hard for it.

  15. Alexo says

    My BC came to me at almost 9 weeks. The Velcro chip didn’t come included. She is very “independent” and the area where we leave is too dangerous to take any chances. She is almost 3 years old, and a recall is something we constantly work on. She is also a scaredy dog, so you never know when something is going to set her off. Because of her issues, and all the work we do, we have a great relationship, and even though I know she will comeback and check on me, the risk is too great to take chances. She has a good “stand” and has learned to never cross a door, or gate without sitting first and waiting to be released, or until the leash snaps on.

  16. says

    My sympathy for your loss of the fawn. It’s so easy to get attached, even to someone who isn’t “ours” the way our dogs are…..

    It used to be the case that you never saw an off-leash dog in our suburban neighborhood. Then a guy down the street from me got a new hunting dog. That dog wears an electronic collar a lot of the time, and I rarely see him anywhere he shouldn’t be (not never…. but rarely). He is off-leash a lot — but not … free. He is in his yard, or he is walking at heel.

    He is an extremely bad example for the neighborhood. Apparently everyone thinks “If that dog can be off leash, so can my dog!”

    Now it’s very common to see off-leash dogs, and NONE of the rest of them have more than a grain of reliability. They run into the road, they run across the road. I have seen cars have to stop for loose dogs, more times than I have counted.

    I don’t know if it’s arrogance or stupidity. Or a combination, I guess. It makes me furious that all these idiots are taking such chances with their dogs (and I hate that they don’t care how the driver who finally hits one of the dogs will feel — or me, the innocent bystander, watching a dog get hit)…..

    I have spoken to the guy whose dog is in the electronic collar, and have said that I think it’s bad for other people to see his dog off-leash, because they don’t understand the amount of training it takes to keep their dogs safe when off-leash, and that I wish he wouldn’t walk his dog off-leash in the suburb, but the result was that he leashes the dog when he sees me, and has him off leash all the rest of the time.

    Sigh.

  17. Eileen says

    Thank you for breaking it down. It is a good way for me to quantify my gut feeling of yes it is ok, or no way am I letting you off leash now.

    And way to go Tootsie!! Cavs sure know how to enjoy life, and I am so happy she gets to enjoy it now after her tough early life.

  18. says

    I think you said it all. Thank you for this article ! It was inspiring and reminded me to never give up on the “come back”. Somedays my two dogs do it so well (I must admit having 2 dogs seems easier for the call back) but somedays I would like to cry. But I never gave up, and I always pay with a treat and I must say it gets better every day.
    But the two most important things I have learned is that dogs, no matter how well trained, will always have their instinct and following a trail will sometimes always be more interesting than chicken. But when it happens, I stop making noises and hide behind a tree and of course watch them. Inevitably, at one moment they realize I am not following anymore and they come back running looking for me. That’s when I pay a lot to congratulate their decision to come back.
    Second thing is, when I know that most danger are out of the way (mostly roads) I always always keep them on sight. That’s one of the most important thing about allowing my dogs to be off leash. Always knowing where they are.

  19. Terrie says

    One big factor for me is if there are other dogs around. My foolish little girl gets a big kick out of barking at the big dogs, and at 4.5 lbs, she’s a tasty looking treat for dogs with a high prey drive. Even if the bigger dogs aren’t aggressive, she’s so small that they could do some serious damage by simply stepping on her.

  20. Karen says

    Nice photo of Tootsie. Love how you captured her with all four feet off the ground. Was this taken with your new camera?

  21. liz says

    Great list!

    I think it helps if, in addition to all of the work on the list, there is a game plan for the possibility that things won’t go as planned. Plan B, or “I need to affect this situation immediately,” for me is to be the silliest thing on two legs. I’ve made really odd noises, dropped and rolled on the ground, danced, skipped, pretended to be hunting, dug in piles of leaves, and shook fallen tree branches when a dog either didn’t stop on cue or became loose on accident without proofed training. I sometimes do this when training loose leash walking- holding the dog’s interest and maintaining a playful approach. Which particular brand of silliness will work best depends on the dog, so yes, absolutely know as much as possible about what motivates the dog. All in all, I think that as a last resort or in case of emergencies, be the best clown you can be.

  22. Gordon says

    I read the article with much interest, while nodding in agreement throughout. My Malamutes live a life with a whole LOT of autonomy. It’s just the way it worked out and so I decided to let them run with it. They come and go as they please, as they have unfettered access to both outside and inside. Once outside, they have 6 acres in which to roam. 6 fenced acres, I might ad, so they don’t have complete free reign outside. Inside, they pretty much do what they want here, too…as there are no “stay off the furniture” rules, etc. They will comply when asked “off”, first try/every try, and they tend to gravitate toward each of their special place. My large male’s injury (getting closer and closer to being finally healed, knock on wood) prevents him from being allowed access to any stairs. This means he can’t go upstairs to the bedrooms up there or downstairs to the basement. And because he is not allowed this access, to keep it “fair”, we don’t allow the other one access, either. Outside the fence, their off leash privileges are limited to the road that we live on (1-mile long dead end, dirt road that basically goes nowhere…a mile back into woods that are several hundred acres of undeveloped woodlands. Northern breed dogs are notoriously difficult to teach a solid recall, but these two are remarkably good at it. The female is exceptional. Stop and drop is hit or miss, to be quite honest. But, we know their strengths, we know their weaknesses, we (and they, for that matter) understand the life that they live and their learned behaviors are definitely adapted to their lifestyle. We also understand and acknowledge that they will live out their lives in this place with this lifestyle, so their behaviors were undoubtedly developed with this in mind.

  23. LisaH says

    Now I am curious to know if there are breeds known for better recall – either genetically/nature or just easier to train/nurture?

    When I got my 1st dog in March 2007 I was very fortunate to be immediately introduced to the writings of Ian Dunbar and Suzanne Clothier (in addition to Trisha) and they seemed to emphasize the value of off-leash training. Value in giving the dog autonomy & building your relationship but also related to the idea that if your dog only listens on-leash then they aren’t actually trained, just restrained. Having said that, I also realize that it always depends on so many variables as others have posted …. location, distractions, physical limitations such as size or deafness, personality, and familiarity. While I can quite safely have my 2 Velcro BCs (that I got as puppies from breeders) off-leash in a wide variety of safe rural settings (they are weirdly oblivious to wildlife -deer, turkeys), it is so important to not judge others as we don’t know their specific situation. I know I have felt unfairly judged when my male has snarked at another dog when on-leash and the implied criticism is that I have an aggressive dog that I failed to train. That behavior I can train till the end of time but he just does not like another dog near his face when he is restrained, period. He is pretty great otherwise:).

    My little female has that similar serious face that Tootsie has when she is really focused – so sweet.

  24. Trisha says

    The breed issue is an important one, glad that several of you brought it up. There’s no question that breed has an impact on each individual’s probability of being responsive to a recall. Every dog is an individual, but really: do you want to train a husky to stop chasing a rabbit or a border collie? I didn’t mention in the post (but I think I’ll add it later today when I get another minute) that I would never, ever have let my Great Pyrenees Tulip off leash off the farm. Like a few of the dogs mentioned above, she was reliable 98% of the time, but the other 2% she’d get a look in her eye that preceded a headlong dash after another animal. If I could see it the instant her eyes changed I could almost always stop her, but note the “almost always” part. That’s not good enough for me in an unfamiliar environment, so all walks off the farm with Tulip were on leash. I would put Willie at one end of the continuum (easiest), Tulip at the other (hardest) and Tootsie in the middle. I’d say that fits well with their breed predispositions. On the other hand, I also had one of those BCs who hadn’t read the book, and I had to work my tail off when she was an adolescent to be able to take her off leash elsewhere. I could by the time she was two, but it took some serious work. But Tulip? Never….

  25. Mary says

    Love your picture of Tootsie in the middle of her recall. Also love your phrase “recall software pre-installed”. My BC didn’t come with that software – I think he was slow to mature (or I was slow to train). However I found that as we worked on sheep, and he became more reliable with his stop and recall (lie down and that’ll do), I became more confident, and that confidence spread to other areas of our life, such as running to the mailbox off leash, and even chasing squirrels and rabbits. He’s totally reliable off-leash now – which he would have to be to work sheep at a distance. But my husband, who didn’t do much training with him and no herding, doesn’t feel as confident as me, and I wonder if that’s because he hasn’t experienced the “magic” of being able to call him off or control his movements around prey animals.

    I do think the breed makes a big difference in training recall! Beagles are supposed to keep following their nose regardless of sounds, and greyhounds are supposed to run after what they see – the faster the better.

  26. liz says

    Quick note I find usually helps to keep my cool:
    An off leash dog is neither immediately 100% doomed nor 100% safe.
    As a volunteer, dogs at this semi-urban shelter were regularly loose. Everyone there acknowledged that the number of escapees was not ideal, but it was the reality. Reacting without emotion, and with creativity, seemed to ensure the fastest, most successful return. There were plenty of places for blame/anger, but those didn’t help, and neither did panic or worry. So know in addition to knowing the dog, knowing yourself- what your tendency is, what to do, or what not to do- helps to have confidence in any situation.

  27. Alexandra says

    I know what you mean about breed differnces! My lab has a very solid recall, butthere are situations where I don’t completely trust his recall such as at dusk when bunnies & deer are very active or when we hike by the river at flood stage (risk of him getting clipped by a huge tree is not even worth a 0.001% chance!). On the other hand my border collie was ridiculously easy to proof a recall. Other than near traffic, I could have him off leash anywhere.

  28. Susan G says

    It took us a long time to try off-leash. Well, not that long really, but it seemed like it to a dog who obviously wanted and need to be off-leash. Like Jane’s comment above, I cease to exist at times. I could carry a steak, and he wouldn’t care. We balance the environment vs. risk vs. reward but will never have a complete trust. His stop is okay, but his recall is average at best. He had cancer, and we almost lost him so we take his foibles and give him autonomy as long as it’s safe. I no longer worry about him running away, as I did at first. To me, that’s the #1 thing: if the dog doesn’t listen, will he/she at least come back? Tootsie is a lucky girl!

  29. Mireille says

    I’m aising Siberian husky three and four at the moment. Nr 1 was rehomed at age 4 (to us) and could not betrusted off leash, except in unfamiliair terrain with not much wildlife or livestock (read Norway in winter). Number two was pup, could be trusted off leash, recall from chasing ducks till age one, then he decided to go off on his own… After that we occasionally had him off leash based on etsimating his moods and the chance he did see something running. In 11 years, he has been ‘lost’ twice, once in Austria while snow shoeing and once at home. Both times he was gone about two hours before finding us. Scary moments, that had to be balanced against the joy of him running…
    Anyway, I now have number 3 and 4. Littermates. Both have been off leash from 8 weeks old, we have taken them for short runs in de woods which were so funny because they were glued to my hubby’s feet (he kept tripping over them) until one day at six months Spot decided he would not come back but instead explore the field with the yummy rabbit droppings. Spot has extreme hunting modus, for the past year I have been working on getting some attention whenever he ‘Spots’ something. Slowely we seem to be getting somewhere but off leash… No way. Otoh he escaped from a fenced yard at a house we rented in France, in a wooded area teeming with wildlife, just to find me?!
    Shadow, his littermate is much more reliable, more likely to stay close and fully trained to come back to the sound of a ziplock bag being opened :-) , but he will not always come back when he sees another dog…
    The point is, they do not have a reliable recall when they see or smell something desirable, but they do have a strong sense of the pack being and belonging together. So I can only have them unleashed in places where it does not matter if they stray a bit from me and where there is nothing really to chase. And then they have to be satisfied with my snails pace. I sometimes go running through an orchard near the river. If i uncl the leash there I can predict where they will go (there are some places with rabbit holes) and they will keep an eye on me and join me at the end of the orchard to be leashed again. Occasionally, I take this risk…

  30. Beth with the Corgis says

    I wanted to share a story of one of the events which led me to mostly leashing the dogs on the wooded trails in “our” park.

    One day we were headed down to the stream to take the dogs for a swim. Maddie was ahead, as is her custom. Jack was lagging behind sniffing, as he often does. We went some little way before I realized I had lost contact with him. I called Maddie and leashed her, then called Jack by name. Nothing. Used “come come come!!!” Nothing. Headed up the trail the way we’d come and realized we’d passed a “Y” in the trail. Stood at the “Y” and shouted various words for “treats.” No response.

    Then I used my emergency recall word, which I was reluctant to use because that DOES have a 100% response in all circumstances, but I did not have very good treats with me, nor very many (emergency recall gets a jackpot reward every time). Still no Jack. At that point I started to feel slow panic rising. Had he gotten stuck by the collar in some bushes? Had he run back up into the main part of the park and onto a road? It was evening and I had visions of spending the twilight searching for a lost dog through a couple hundred acres of parkland.

    I went all the way back up to the top of the trail, and there was Jack, being held by the collar by two nice people who thought they were being helpful, while Jack’s expression clearly said “Oh my gosh, I heard you calling and calling and I tried and tried to get to you but these people were holding me hostage!”

    I believe that he got out of sight before the Y in the path, reached the Y and didn’t know which way we’d gone, and without thinking of using his very good nose for some reason, he decided to head back to where we’d started from to see if he could find us. Once there, he would have gone right up to welcome the nice new people who’d arrived (we call him “The Mayor” for his fake obsequiousness when greeting strangers). And they, thinking he was a dog who got loose by accident, did what they thought was the best thing and grabbed him by the collar. They would not have heard me calling, but of course the dog would have (hence his expression of bewildered frustration).

    Fortunately I arrived before they carted him off, and heaven knows what would have happened if someone tried to haul him away. He is a sweet friendly dog who is normally bombproof with people and dogs alike, but he is also intensely loyal and feels his most important job in life is to keep an eye on us, so I’m sure some sort of struggle would have ensued— I envision foot-planting on Jack’s part, followed by some sort of panicked fit if the matter was forced.

    Anyway, things can go south in a hurry, and from things you would not expect. On the other hand, I feel that dogs really do benefit from being off-leash; the two trails that we can still do off-leash because of their natural barriers are Jack’s favorite by far, and you can see the clear joy in both dogs’ eyes and the extra bounce in their step very clearly when they know they are going to one of these trails.

    So for the beagles of the world who are not safe in a smaller area off-leash, it can help to try to find just one small corner of the world where it is safe to let them run (gamelands, your friends huge farm, even a ball field). Plan on staying awhile, show them where the car is and that you have real meat in it, make sure they are safe and trained to a whistle and maybe wearing a GPS, train them like crazy and hope for the best. My grandfather had Beagles when I was a kid and while they did get lost in the woods more than once (sometimes for days a time), I’ll bet if you asked the Beagles they would have told you that those outings hunting in the woods were what they lived for. In much the way we can remove most risks from our own lives but we would be bored to tears if we did so, I think sometimes we need to weigh the risks for the dog against their overall emotional well-being.

  31. says

    Someone above mentioned a criteria of having the dog during the puppy “follow” period. I guess I can’t agree with that totally. Sure that would be helpful. But that would mean anyone who got a rescue dog could never allow their dog to have any off leash time. I got my dog when she was about 2 years old. We only had her a month when she was first allowed off leash with us on an little used short trail. She stayed on the trail and stayed close by us. She might fall a short bit behind while sniffing but would quickly catch up (or we stopped to wait for her) and would try to herd myself and her “Daddy” together if we got too far away from each other.

    We never ever let her out of our site. If she heads into the woods to explore (on command, basically) if she starts going to deep in, we call her back. We have a couple different recalls (one that means “come back closer to us” and one that means “Get your butt back right to me NOW”) and use both to keep her with us. I’m super thankful she can be allowed off leash. It makes our hikes so much more fun!

  32. Sarah says

    Dogs are ready to be off-leash in public space when they have a reliable Stop and a decent Stay, and when their owner has a reliable understanding that off-leash doesn’t mean off-duty for the owner. Too many owners get very passive when the leash goes off, and when that happens, it doesn’t matter how well-trained the dog is, the team isn’t ready.

    I think the Stop command is key. I taught my dog “Stop” by accident. I wanted to give her a brake, in the event she got loose and went running toward the street. Each walk, when we got to a curb, I said stop and we stopped. Big streets, she had to sit. I don’t know if it gave her the stopping-at-curb habit but it incidentally taught her the word “Stop.” She went from being a very wild, wild baby to an adult dog who, while still very active and energetic, will stop even when a deer pops up out of nowhere and takes off running. Such a good girl.

  33. Annie R says

    I have only had one dog that could never be off leash except at a totally fenced dog park — he was a stubborn Rott-Lab mix who just would follow his nose away and turn a deaf ear to being recalled. He loved me but he just was not a pleaser; what was important to him was to investigate everything out in front of him. I got him in middle age; he had been at Best Friends’ Dogtown in Utah for years, and I think he just had his way for so long that his “trainability” neurons had atrophied. So he was always on a Flexi-Lead and we had lots of great walks together. When I took him to the football-field sized dog park I had to have at least an hour to spend there, because that’s how long it took me to get my hands back on him, and he LOVED it there.
    I once asked a “pet communicator” doing demo sessions at a local store, about why he was so hard to recall, and she said he just had a one-track mind, a huge interest in investigating the world, and he didn’t exactly forget all about me but just couldn’t pay attention in the moment. She was a wise woman, basically advised me to just not try letting him off leash by saying “if he ever lost you, though, it would be much worse than the sacrifice of not being able to explore whenever he wants to”. I don’t know how really psychic she was but she had a good way to getting to what was important!

  34. Frances says

    I am fortunate – I’ve had my two from pups, and started them off leash from our very first walks on a safe path across fields. Poppy is velcro-poodle – if she gets more than 100 yards away she gets anxious and rushes back to me. Sophy shows that Papillons are still spaniels at heart – she will roam further looking for rabbits and other game, but checks me regularly, and is extremely good at remembering the route back to me if she gets the wrong side of a hedge or fence. But she has got slipshod on recall of late (my fault for not practicing and reinforcing enough), so walks now involve a pocketful of treats and plenty of practice. There are few dangers from predators where we live – the biggest risk is traffic on the roads (where they are always on a lead) and bicycles on the shared use cycle track (where they are off leash). I taught them a pretty solid Wait early on, and use it multiple times every day, with a special Wait for Bicycles.

    The one I struggle with is my neighbour’s Border Terrier, who goes off into a state of terrier-zen when scanning the fields for rabbits. No amount of calling gets through to her – I’ve actually called her name when standing right beside her, then had her start in surprise when I touched her! She has also been known to wander back to the road when she does eventually come out of her trance, so I can’t risk it – during the main rabbit season she stays on leash when out with me. Other times her recall is improving though – despite the best efforts of her owner to poison the cue by regularly scolding her for taking so long when she does eventually respond! The sight of the other two getting treats acts as an excellent reminder of what the recall game is about!

    One thing I have noticed is how much my dogs love unfamiliar walks. I’m making a big effort to walk them a bit further – the weather last year was so unremittingly foul that I’d fallen into the habit of “just long enough” walks. It means we have been going along new paths, and finding new places, and Poppy in particular seems to find them much, much more fun than the boringly familiar ones.

  35. Kerry M. says

    A good off-leash dog is my goal for someday. Not sure when, if ever, I’ll get one.

    My two current dogs aren’t good candidates. One I’m puppy-raising and if my group even knew I typed off-leash in the same sentence as her, they would probably freak. So, she will never be off-leash. My other dog is a stranger danger dog, and his first impulse to something truly scary is to run up to it and try to bark it away.

    But I won’t give up hope that someday I can have a great off leash dog. I am now the proud raiser of an actual frisbee dog and I have been waiting over 20 years for one of those. Sadly, it’s the puppy and I only have her for another year but I plan to enjoy her frisbee ways while I can. And, possibly more sadly, I call her a frisbee dog when she hasn’t ever actually caught a frisbee in air, but she is only 5 months old and I think she will. I just need to give her time and practice. For right now, she will chase a frisbee whenever I throw it and with that as her standard, she is the best frisbee dog of my life.

  36. 001mum says

    I finally have my own pup. i have waited a lifetime for this dog.
    I believe he is mostly Lab-but I see hints of collie,the lady who clipped his nails for me thought hound? GSD? orBC. This is my 6th dog in 6 years. The difference is this one is MINE. At 7 weeks he had a perfect 3 whistle re-call (when around a corner inside the house or the yard) The 2 whistle re-call is for when he is on a long leash (lunge line)and i want him closer. I know that like all youngsters he will find someone/something/somewhere irresistible and I am “banking” for that day. Lots of hide and seek. My yard is not fully fenced (hedges have holes !) so a long leash gives him lots of freedom and me the opportunity to practice over and over (note i say for ME to practice*lol). This weekend after reading your blog, I have started him on “stop”. I LOVE the “stop”- it is quick, a non-messy word, it has sharp letters in it (aka consonants) which allows me to use it in a ‘do not ignore me” tone. “Stop” certainly could save a dog’s life. To me traffic is always a concern, but so are other dangers, such as glass,downed power lines,a dead animal,open water (esp Spring floods)or a partially ice covered body of water,the threat of another animal(wild or otherwise),muddy paws about to enter the house, a car making a sudden,un-expected turn right in front of us. I felt very pressured with the first 5 dogs and somehow with my own boy (I am following all the same socialization/training protocols) I am having much more success. ? combination of experience and being less tense. My pup is from a lab rescue group but the chances of him being 100% single breed is slight. Since I believe in knowing your dogs genetic background can give a lot of insight when training,I do plan on doing a buccal swab in the near future to find out his breed mix. This pup’s ability to retain new lessons puts me to shame. He is VERY intelligent. I use praise EVERY single time he comes and have a delish mix of treats. I praise with sheer delight and love that he came running full tilt to ME (even from a friend’s lab that he adores) or his newest best human friend from the neighbourhood. So we arn’t doing too bad for an 11 week old pup and an “in love” puppy mum!. ps I now remember that “timing” is everything.

  37. says

    “Whoa” and “stand” are both words you can drag out. “Staaaaaand” is used in training obedience because it’s slow and calming. “Whooooooa” famously works well that way with horses. When I walked my Weimaraners off leash in an older residential city neighborhood I needed what I called “sidewalk square control”, in case someone was turning into a driveway ahead of me and my dog would be exactly there. “Whoa” sounded too much like “no” to me. I’ve always said “hold it”, drawing out the ooooo. Still, if it was an emergency situation I automatically said “wait” because it was staccato. (I have never taught “stop”.) Which is best to use consistently, Tricia, a sharp command-like word or a more calming word?

  38. Trisha says

    Great question Susan: Use short and sharp if your dog is already moving away or you need an instant response. The best words have a stop consonant (like a t or a p) that create a broad band sound that stimulates more neural receptors. If you want to slow or soothe, use looooooong, drawn out notes. So, if your dog is running toward the road, bark out a quick single word with an instant onset. If you want to calm a wild-eyed horse or a nervous dog, use one long, drawn out narrow band sound, like Whooooooooa or Eaaaaaaaasy”. Of course, none of these work without training, but why not get everything on your side?

    And congratulations 001mum! Sounds like you are having so much fun with your super pup! We all wish you well.

  39. Kat says

    Being able to control your dog on or off leash. Oh how I wish people around here trained to that standard. I seldom let Ranger off leash just because I refuse to be one of those people who think being friendly and willing to come back is enough to make a dog OK off leash. I meet so many people letting their dog run around off-leash that have no control over the dog. As their dog bounds eagerly toward us I hear them calling fruitlessly for the dog too come back or stop. Either that or they’re yelling at me “it’s OK he’s friendly,” which I’ve learned is actually code for I have no control over my dog. If your dog doesn’t listen to you your dog has no business being off leash. Ranger is great at coping with rude off leash dogs but Finna probably never will be able to cope with rude off leash dogs when she’s out for a walk.

    Ranger has an excellent emergency stop which I confess to having trained more with adversive methods than I typically use. Our yard was not fully fenced when we adopted him. While we worked on building fence he was on a tether. When he tried to chase something I shouted “stop” just before he hit the end of the tether. It happened a couple of times and after that stop meant immediately so you don’t get hurt. We practice often on leash where he’s wandering ahead of me distracted and I stop, plant myself and shout stop. He’s only hit the end of the leash once before stopping. His recall is less reliable than his stop and while I know I can stop him when he’s running to greet people or dogs I’m not certain he’ll listen to me and come away from them. He gets to be off-leash in fenced dog parks, fenced yards, and on the beach. He doesn’t get to be off leash in the woods as we have bears and coyotes. I won’t put him at risk.

  40. Alexandra says

    I take a lot of risks with my dog. He is my first, and every behavior I trained in him in the first two years, everything I learned with him, I learned by trying it the hard way before discovering the easy way, by reinventing the wheel.

    He is a beagle or beagle mix, adopted from a shelter as a young adult with no history other than that he had been picked up as a stray and then transported by a rescue to our shelter. He is atypical in many ways for his breed, in that he is typically silent (the first year I owned him he barked on fewer than ten occasions) and he has no interest in prey animals or following a trail, though he does love to sniff. I have watched him flush rabbits from bushes in front of him and completely ignore them. He is also highly people-oriented, and naturally “checks in” with his pack if he gets too far away from us. Because of this, early on I allowed him considerably more off-leash freedom than his level of training warranted. If I could do it over, there is much I would have done differently.

    I am always training and retraining him. At his best, I would not consider him more than 99% reliable, and there have been weeks where his recall has regressed badly and I had to return to longlines. You ask why I continue to allow him off-leash…

    Because of the sheer joy I see in him. He is a lovely, sweet animal, and he likes to play with toys well enough, likes to go for walks around the neighborhood. But when he hits the trail with me, when we start a hike in a place we have never been before, he is joyous. His face shines. He smiles with his whole body.

    Yet as Beth with the Corgis says, I have to “know my dog.” His recall is close to perfect if he is hiking with the whole family – all of his pack – in an area that is new to him or where he has not been recently. In a new area, he will default to an off-leash heel for most of the hike, rarely going out front or lagging behind. However, if he is hiking with only me, or if we go somewhere he knows like the back of his paw, his recall suffers. Some days he behaves beautifully and recalls joyfully and speedily. Other days, however, I see him look at me, think for a moment, and decide he would rather be somewhere else. I collect him, leash him without fuss, take him home, and feel incredibly guilty. I return to that walk only on leash. I put him back on a longline and train.

    And I continue to take risks.

    When my parents were children, their dogs (and cats) roamed the neighborhoods and got into all manner of mischief and fun. As a child, I rode at a barn where there were a dozen or so dogs who would be loose on the grounds without supervision, and which were sane, stable dogs, low energy and naturally well-behaved. Beautifully balanced animals.

    What Tricia says about dogs needing freedom and the ability to choose is vital. My dog is so, so much saner when he gets an hour or two of off-leash exercise a day. I manage where and how he is allowed off-leash, taking him to parks where there are no leash regulations, that are far away from roads, with a dog-positive culture. I work on his training, and he will sit and stay nicely by the side of the trail when cyclists or equestrians or other dogs go by. I leash him to pass any leashed dogs or families with young children. I reward him with praise and treats for a good recall. We are happy. And I know that I am playing with fire — that he could die or be badly injured. And I will continue to do what I do because a life with the intensity of joy my dog gets is more worthwhile than a circumscribed but safe one. I know many find my position irresponsible and reprehensible, but I cannot imagine what it would do to my dog if I took away his ability to be free.

  41. Heather S says

    YES!! I can’t count the number of times that our reliable WAIT cue saved the day. From going outside and realizing someone had left the gate open, to being surprised in the yard by a loose cat, or the wind blowing the storm door open as the mailman was coming up the drive! “Stop in your tracks and don’t move” is what our “wait” cue means and it is, without a doubt, the single most important and useful thing I teach my dogs! GREAT post!

  42. Nicola says

    Fantastic progress with Tootsie Trisha. I love the picture – she looks like she means business! She is such a pretty girl!

    Sad news indeed about that beautiful deer. Nature is never deliberately cruel, but can be so ruthless at times. You made a brave and humane decision all round but it’s never an easy one.

    I really empathise with Jane and her high prey drive dogs as I have exactly the same issues with my rescue terrier/collie cross. The real understanding of my dog’s behaviour in various environments has definitely been recognising the intensity of her prey drive; managing her arousal levels and learning through trial and error which environments simply get her over stimulated. Then it’s a case of management by avoidance; applying pragmatism by recognising that it’s impossible to control everything and when training ensuring that I do my best to keep her under threshold. I have learned to lower my expectations of her too, despite my committment to lifelong teaching. It just keeps things relaxed and my empathy in check with what she is and isn’t capable of. Being a bit more scientific about compliance rates in training has helped me too – it is very satisfying to see real progress in the form of data by keeping a training log of activity. Equally, it works the same in reverse!

    Having a reactive dog is never an easy situation to manage! Off leash time has to be managed extremely carefully as safety is paramount. But you know what? Despite my dog’s ‘issues, I wouldn’t swap her for the world because she has and continues to teach my so much about canine and human behaviour. Her behavioural ‘issues’ (mostly natural canine drives!!) have encouraged me to formally educate myself in this regard and led me to wonderful places like Trisha’s blog.
    And for that, I thank her from the bottom of my heart.

    Another great blog post Trisha!

  43. jackied says

    Lovely picture of Tootsie!

    I have a stranger danger dog (not thought of calling him that before, it’s great) who I can never let off lead and probably never will, and a happy go lucky working-type Springer Spaniel that I admit I do let off lead in some safe places, away from any roads, even though her recall is not 99.9% . I’ve had her since she was around 12 months old, unknown background prior to that.

    If she is not allowed to run free regularly she frankly goes nuts. What I have managed to train her is to recall fairly reliably and, crucially for my sanity, to check in with me very regularly, usually every minute or so. Whenever I see her coming I add a recall cue and sausage is always forthcoming on arrival. Jackpot sausage if I’ve recalled her from something distracting. I also put a bell on her so I know where she is and that she isn’t getting too far away, I find that very reassuring.

    However it sounds to me like she is a classic kind of dog that would benefit from stop training! I’ve done distance ‘downs’ while coming towards me but that’s not really the same is it? I don’t think she’d generalise it to going away from me. Thinking cap for a good cue word that isn’t something I use already, and then I’ll have to start working on it.

  44. Lisa W says

    I agree that you need to “know your dog.” Our last pair of dogs were great off-leash. The golden would stay close and herd the shepherd mix back to us if she strayed too far. They spent a lot of time off-leash in woods or fields or swimming. The shepherd mix had a high prey drive and some run ins with porcupines (not good) and the occasional woodchuck. While she had a very reliable recall as she grew older, there was always a risk (both to her and to the local fauna) of her prey drive overriding her recall, and it was a calculated risk we took because they both loved wandering the woods with us and going to new places more than almost anything. We tended to go to remote places because we liked it better and she was reactive to other dogs. They were as happy and as reliable as any of us.

    Our current pair of dogs are not off leash much. One dog spent her first four months in a box, and the first time I took her leash off (not the smartest move, I know) she bolted like the wind. Her hind legs were going so fast they almost passed her front legs. It took years of work and risk to train her not to bolt and to come when I called done in places not near roads or lots of people. I had to weigh the risk and make sure we had more odds with us than against us to try it. There were many times when I thought she would not turn and run back, and she did! However, the other thing about knowing your dog is their physical limitations. Once we were told she has severe hip dysplasia, the off leash work was reduced. Running through the woods is not good for her. Moderate, controlled exercise is safest for her and off-leash injury is not a risk I want to take.

    I think both of our current dogs would like more freedom to run and explore and know the joy of a good run through the woods, but due to joint and ligament issues, they would also run the risk of hurting themselves. It’s a hard balance to reach.

  45. says

    Terrific post and a great reminder to dog owners not to take off-leash time lightly. It takes work to have a truly reliable recall and even when you do, it’s not always safe to allow your dogs off leash. I especially liked your “context” section and its note to consider location when you let your dogs off leash. The only thing I wish you’d addressed, in terms of factors to consider before you unleash, is knowing the law. If the area you’re in has leash laws, it doesn’t matter how awesome your dog’s recall is…you still need to obey the law and keep your dog on leash.

    My dog is reactive and so we search out on-leash areas for walks and hikes. I constantly run into off leash dogs and their people seem to think that as long as they can call their dogs back, it’s ok for them to disregard the law. When I see a loose dog on the trail/sidewalk, ahead of his owner, I only have a second to decide what to do before our dogs meet (mine on leash, yours off) and I can’t possibly know how reliable your dog’s recall is, so I often have to abandon walks/hikes because of all the loose dogs. It leaves me with few locations to go with my dog where I know people are respecting the law. Please, no matter how perfect your dog’s recall is – obey leash laws. There are other dogs and people who don’t want to/cannot interact with a loose dog and are frightened when they see a loose dog.

  46. Frances says

    Rejoice! Today I called Jilly-dog off a rabbit! I had not realised they were out this early in the year, or she would not have been off leash, and the rabbit had vanished down a burrow by the time she caught up with it, but with more fields and hedges and burrows beckoning, she still came back! It helped that all the dogs knew I had chicken in my pocket, and that my two came back at once so that I was able to make a big, noisy deal of giving them their rewards, but still! I wish I had had enough treats on me to have given her a really huge jackpot, because she deserved it, but she got chicken and lots and lots of praise. And then *sigh* got put back on her lead until we were safely past the rabbit fields…

  47. Mireille says

    Sorry, just had to share. We are currently on holliday in the snow, skijoring with the dogs. But since sooo much is new, they are a bit , well let’s say ‘insane’ :-). What they (15 mo old siberians) needed was playtime. Just some off leash running and bodyslammng each other ;-) so we found an area semi enclosed sportfields covered in snow and unhooked the leashes. They ran off, wresteld, played and ran off again and… Did four perfect recalls! So funny to see the somewhat gangly Spot ‘hit te brakes’ , slide and come running back to me with this huge grin on his face. Whew, I was sooo proud. ;-)
    (And I forgot the super cookies and had only ordinary kibble with which they luckily love!)
    Mireille

  48. Trisha says

    Yeah Frances and Mireille! Great jobs getting your dog off rabbits and snow play, blue ribbons for you! And thanks Jessica for the reminder about leash laws. You are absolutely correct that that’s an important factor, I’m glad you added to the mix.

  49. says

    For dogs that really, really love to run I disagree that Stop is easier than Come. I do think it’s useful, but in my case it would be much more difficult to achieve reliability of Stop than of recall. I have two whippets and recall is always going to be more fun for them than a stop – after all when recalled they still get the thrill of running, just in the other direction. Even if I trained a Stop I would have to reward it by letting them run to make it worth their while, so it wouldn’t be much different from training a recall.

  50. says

    It looks like your girl was loving the snow! I love the look on her face: she is on a mission!

    While we live across the street from a dog park and within walking distance of an even larger off leash area, our fellow isn’t a dog park dog at this point in his life – we’ve had him for almost 6 months and we think he was never properly socialized with other dogs as he is fear aggressive with dogs his own size or larger. I think he would run into traffic without looking to avoid a dog that scared him. As you can probably understand due these safety issues and because we live in the city and don’t have a yard, Ginger spends a lot of time on-leash.

    As a result we focus on taking longer walks, doing more training and playing tracking games a lot in the house We also use a longer leash when we go to places like the beach when it isn’t busy (we like to go when the weather is rainy or overcast – that way our fellow can have more space). While few things would make me happier than seeing him run off leash more, we are all safer because we make sure we take care of him and keep him close. The few times we’ve been able to go “off leash” it has been amazing – Ginger is so fast and his personality really comes alive as he zips around.

  51. says

    I think it’s important to add that Stop or some attention-getting cue to pause because it helps you break through the noise of the situation. Just like you can’t tell a dog who’s not paying attention to you to Sit and expect it to happen. Plus, there’s just some amount of physics involved. You have to get his focus and end his current action before you can expect a new opposite action. It’s taking a relatively difficult activity for some dogs and breaking it down into rewardable steps. Plus if he’s running away, he has to stop anyway to come back, so why not capture and cue it?

  52. Angella P says

    Hi Patricia,

    Love your work. Yes agree with most of all that you say but I have a greyhound (retired racing one) and we only ever ever ever let her off when there are two of us around, never in unfenced off leash parks, as most of our local ones are near the road. Unfortunately we don’t have a fenced off leash area locally. Boohoo to our local government.

    I am 95% sure that she will come back but has on two occasions, set sail for the blue yonder luckily not running & getting hurt but nonetheless.

    So I don’t agree that you can train a greyhound for recall.

    We also foster GH’s and never even think about letting them off leash.

    And, most people that use an off leash area *SHOULD NOT*, they usually have no control over their dog.

    Anyways, that’s my two cents.

    Keep up the good work. Angella

  53. Nicola says

    Great point Jessica – here in the UK we are pretty fortunate in that there are no real laws regarding leashing our dogs. We are expected to keep our dogs leashed around livestock, on private land and roads etc. and use our common sense! However, how long this privilege will last remains to be seen.

    Alas, a lot of problems with reactive dogs can occur when they are leashed and loose dogs bound up uninvited into their personal space. In these situations, I translate ‘It’s OK, my dog is friendly!’ into ‘ It’s OK, I have absolutely no recall control of my dog’. We have to remember that socialisation of our dogs includes teaching our dogs when it is and isn’t OK to approach another dog or person, no matter how friendly we perceive them to be. Another good reason for continually proofing the recall and stop cue.

    ‘It’s OK, my dog is friendly’ is rather a naive statement and rather than put me at ease, it simply does the opposite. As no matter how much I love my pet dog, or how well trained, socialised or habituated she is I would never 100% trust her. This keeps expectations of her realistic and her (mostly) out of mischief!

  54. Jessica J. says

    What a great post to come across and all the comments ease my mind a little! I’ve had the pleasure of having four dogs in my life so far, I started with an elderly companion doggie and with her had two ‘companion’ males. I call them that because the one was a pinsher/chihuahua mix and the other has a little corgi him. The lady and the pinsher passed away and now I still have my corgi but a pointer has been added to the family and boy, do I learn a lot around her! She has been with me for three months now, she is about two and a rescue.

    If I’m honest (mostly to myself) she has a too high energy level for me, but sometimes dogs find you and it is impossible to say no, so now we are on a track of discovery together :). All the others have been more than fine with off-leash walks, but I’m much relieved that other people share the experience of being totally left out of the equation! A friend of mine who trains with hunting dogs described it as ‘not not-listening, but not-hearing is the issue’ and I agree with her, as soon as her nose switches on, her ears switch off – at least for now!

    We will go on training with her but she’s on leash permanently now and that gives me peace of mind if nothing else, too much wildlife around my village to risk her getting on a road or breaking bones chasing. This is a whole new area for me to get into and I’ll learn as we go! I’ll stay glued to this blog though, to keep my spirits up :)

  55. Donna B. says

    I am envious of all the folks that can have off lead dogs! There is nothing more fun than watching them run. I used to be able to take a pack of Irish Wolfhounds out off lead and feel like I had good control of them. However, deer have gotten so plentiful here that now that they caught and killed a couple, they are now so keen on deer that unless I trained each one as the owner of the deer-keen Great Dane Otis did, and then walked them individually, it would be difficult to stop them if they saw a deer, and we see many deer every day. So now the IWS must stay within a large fenced area. I can at least rotate small groups to have access to the acre fenced area, and walk with them. I miss being able to walk them loose around our 17 acre property which is perimeter fenced, but they have caught and killed deer within the perimeter, and can jump a fence that deer can jump, if they are chasing them. But that is what IWs were bred for, to chase and bring down large game, so I accept that aspect of their nature, but I do not allow them to do so as I do not care to have them killing the deer, and perhaps escaping and getting hurt if the deer jump the perimeter fences.
    I do foxhunt and marvel at the control the huntsman has over 30 foxhounds, usually ending up with the same number we started with! But they all wear GPS collars, the huntsman has two or three “whippers in” on horseback to help control the hounds, and they do use some aversive methods to teach the hounds not to run deer. It is fascinating to watch the communication, and see the response of the hounds to the various calls on the hunting horn. They are really amazingly well trained, and certainly love doing what they do! BTW they very rarely kill a fox or coyote, the foxes go to ground and are not dug up and killed, but left alone to chase another day. The coyotes are generally too fast to catch.

  56. says

    At kerry M.
    you’re puppy-raising, great for you. As a service dog user, it’s your raiser’s dedication and training of good habbits that are responsible for such well mannered dogs. Mine is lying under my desk right now, drifting in and out of naps, and I just wanted to say thank you. also, just cause you can’t have your puppy off leash, doesn’t mean you couldn’t teach a solid recall inside, like in your home. I told my school that I wanted the dogs to have a solid off leash recall. It was because I wanted our dogs to be safe if they somehow got away from us. After all, I’m blind and if my dog goes 6 feet away from me I can’t see him anymore, so I wanted to reliabily call him back. I’ve had 3 dogs so far in my career of using them and Seamus is the only one that has a good recall. My first, Marlin, was reliable in the house, but oblivious outside or off leash in a fenced in area. Torpedo was even worse. Even in the house, he’d be lying on the floor, 2 feet from me and I’d call him to come. He’d just stare at me, not moving an inch. It was the equivalent of the finger. Seamus is very obedient and will reliably come to me. I don’t panic anymore if the garage door is open and he gets out of the house. All I have to do is call him and he’ll come in. So, all of this is to say, if you can Kerry, please teach a solid off leash recall, even if it’s just in the house. It helps us handlers out more than you know.
    As for the “stop” cue, I’m gonna teach that one. Seamus I’m sure will pick it up quickly and I think it’ll be invaluable if he gets away from me and after something interesting. Thanks for all the great posts Tricia, they really help.

  57. Marion says

    I really love the post and the discussion. It’s something I’ve been thinking of a lot, since we adopted (or rather foster-failed) our collie back in October. The notes that came with him said not to let him off leash as he would run away, so we’ve gone on lots of on-leash walks, and we’ve had the chance to go to a fenced 1-acre area at a dog training school twice for doggie events, which was lots of fun.
    We’ve gone through basic obedience (and are waiting for a class in the next level), and we’ve practiced recall inside the house, but the fact that there aren’t any fenced off-leash areas (except for two large parks, where the fences are not 100% secure and they are big enough that you can lose your dog in there), it’s been hard for us to go to the “next level” so to speak.
    Our instructor suggested a long lead, and we finally got around to buying one, so tonight, when we went to the park for our walk, after Riley was done with his business, I put him on the 30′ lead to see what he’d do. And he was FANTASTIC. He stuck to me most of the time, and a couple of times when he got ahead of me, I called him back and he came right away.
    Of course, this was with practically no distractions, as there was nobody else in the park, and we were away from the side where he can see the road, but I thought it was a great start.
    I think to an extent, it’s a lack of confidence on my part. He is the first dog I’ve had that’s lived inside, and has had any training (I’ve been reading a lot on dog training and behaviour), so in the back of my mind there’s the nagging question of “why would he come, if there’s something fun to chase?”, and I think having confidence that your dog will come when called makes the dog more reliable. Like Yoda would say “Do or do not. There is no try.”
    So, next steps: Working on teaching him a “Stop” command, going on more walks with the long lead – including during busier times on the weekend, working on the barking at cars (he’s been doing much better with that, but tonight he was a bit hyper, so he barked at two:-(), then in the spring work on the barking at bicycles, then take him to the big dog park so he can play with other dogs.

  58. Frances says

    I am intrigued that pups being raised for a career as a service dog are never allowed off leash – I am pretty certain this is not the case in the UK. In fact, I believe that Guide Dogs etc are routinely allowed off leash/out of harness to run and play, making a really solid recall an essential part of puppy training!

  59. Rebecca Rice says

    Tricia, could you address how much autonomy a dog “needs”? Having read through all of these posts, there are many examples of dogs being “off leash”, but not truly autonomous, since they are still expected to obey commands, not stray too far, do distance down/stops, etc. I’m not advocating going back to how my family used to handle our pets (dogs AND cats), which was to let them out in the morning, and hope that they were back by dinnertime to be let back in. That is true autonomy, but also highly irresponsible. It was what everyone did back then (I remember having one friend that I thought was really weird, because her family actually had a letterbox, instead of just letting the cat outside), but doesn’t work much now unless you are way out in the country.

    But if we are talking about dogs experiencing autonomy, is it “better” to, for example, go to a fenced in acre field and let the dog off-leash while you read a book for an hour, or to spend an hour hiking off leash on a trail, where you will have to maintain some control verbal over the dog to keep him from wandering too far off, pestering other hikers, etc? The first seems like it would give the dog more autonomy, the second seems to be a better chance for the dog to have novelty. Just wondering what you think.

  60. Trisha says

    Rebecca, what an excellent question. I’ve been thinking about it all day long. Here are some thoughts: I agree that dogs on off-leash walks are often not completely autonomous, given that we expect them to obey our commands, stay on the trail, etc. As I thought about it, I realized that we humans aren’t “truly autonomous” either. In many places we are expected to stay on the trail, obey the rules, not litter, not let our dogs chase the neighbor’s cattle, etc. I suppose what I’ve come to is that “true autonomy” is a rare thing indeed for any of us. I remember feeling an overwhelmingly wonderful sense of freedom the first time that I got to drive a car by myself, but I still had to obey the traffic laws. That said, I think most dogs greatly enjoy the freedom they are given when on a walk and allowed to sniff what they want, and decide when to run, when to trot and when to stop and smell the deer poop.

    One could argue that they have more autonomy in a one-acre field if their owner is sitting quietly reading a book, but then, there are those fences around the field, which greatly restrict a dog’s range of motion, and therefore, his autonomy. Just guessing, I would speculate that most dogs would profit more from an hour long walk, because of the novelty factor that Rebecca mentions, and the fact that dogs need and often enjoy exercise as much as we do. I’ve been in many situations in which the people sat down in an area with dogs free to roam, and after a few minutes the dogs usually chose to come lay down beside the people. I used to do an Advanced Trg class at the farm in a fenced, two acre pasture. During breaks we’d let the dogs run free, and after just a few minutes most of them would come back to their owners and hang out beside them. Granted there are plenty of dogs who would take off if they could after a rabbit or deer, but in terms of “better for the dogs” as Rebecca is asking, I think dogs and people both love to walk along and discover new and interesting things, far more than having an acre field to explore on their own. Anyone else?

  61. says

    When you have a deer like your beauty who is blind, please contact me. We have a beautiful refuge where she can live and thrive with her disabilities. The usual shoot ‘em philosophy of how to handle any challenging wildlife situation should be challenged soundly. Please – if you have disabled wildlife, contact me at Madravenspeak@gmail.com to help. Life is sacred and not just for the human animal.

  62. Kerry M. says

    @Laura, Thanks for sharing your perspective. I hadn’t really thought about how annoying it would be to have a dog who isn’t responsive to a recall in your own home if you can’t see them or easily get to them. We have been working on it because it is a cue we are supposed to teach but also, the pup will be living with me for another year and I do want an in-home recall for all my dogs.

    I actually find her recall pretty amusing. Pretty much within the first week or two, she had a near flawless recall to “Turbo, Huck, here!”, which is of course not her name. If I called, “Cassie, here!”, I got bupkus. Clearly she started by following the other dogs, but by the time I noticed the dichotomy, she was beating them quite soundly. She was first to turn around and first to arrive, but it was never to her name. Since I’m not one to squander a great recall if it isn’t a traditional one, we just worked to transfer it to her own name.

    She is pretty good now at 5 months old, but her biggest issue is if she is laying down and I call her, she seems to weigh the pros and cons of whether or not it is worth it to get up, which I can’t blame her. I’d do the same if someone one was calling me while I was resting. With your story in mind, we will definitely work through this issue. Honestly, I would have anyway, because it does kind of drive me crazy even if I understood the reason, but I’ll do it with more purpose now.

  63. says

    At Kerri M and Frances,
    Kerri, I’m glad you’re already teaching her a good recall. I don’t know what school you raise for, but perhaps the trainers there will reenforce the recall when she goes back for training. Our instructors do and they offer to take us out in a nice area on campus to practice it.I wasn’t ever so much frustrated at my previous dogs raisers for not teaching a recall, as much as I was frustrated with the school for not even bringing it up with the raisers. It was such a crap-shoot. You either had a dog with an excellent off leash recall or you didn’t and the school thought we as handlers would always have the dog on leash, even in the house. Frances, perhaps this is where you got the idea of total leashed service dogs from. If I gave you that impression I’m sorry. It’s not as though we don’t give our dogs off leash time, especially when they’re inside and for some service dogs, they can’t do their job if they’re constantly leashed, but for raisers, I think, and Kerri can correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that the puppies aren’t allowed that much off leash time, especially outside of the house. Also, I’d like to make a distinction between being “onleash” and “in Harness.” For guide dog handlers at least, “In harness” means something very different from “on leash.” When the dog is in its harness its working and it’s behaivor and our expectations are much different. If it’s just on a leash, it’s behavior is much more relaxed and it’s generally not considered to be working. I just wanted to put that here because so many people ask me that.

  64. Beth with the Corgis says

    Trisha, having taken my dogs both to quiet dog parks where they are allowed to do what they want (more or less) because there are only one or two well-behaved dogs, and taking mine hiking where the are expected to stay within easy sight, I can say with certainty that my dogs would prefer the hike with rules to the fenced area with no rules every time. In fact, my dogs prefer ON-leash hikes to being in a fenced area just tooling around.

    A frisbee, of course, changes that equation to some degree. I think one of mine would vote for the hikes and the other for the frisbee, but I’m not 100% sure of that.

  65. D says

    Terrific post, as always, and some really thoughtful input as well. Thanks @Laura for your comments; it’s fascinating to gain some insight into the world of training service dogs.

    Kerry and others have mentioned using your other dogs to help train a new dog, and I wholeheartedly agree. It’s not just useful for the recall. When I got my younger dog, I’d go outside with both dogs and practice the STOP / Running DROP command. As in competition obedience, I’d start with the dog in a sit, walk away, call them, then give a clear LIE DOWN! When the older dog stopped, I’d go to her and reward with a high value treat, and just ignore the young one if he had ignored the stop command. Didn’t take him long to decide he wanted in on that action! She also helped me teach him the sit/stay, wait politely while I open the door (ie, you are not allowed to charge out even if you are allowed off leash), and countless other useful commands.

    Trisha, I also agree with your “never stop training” philosophy. Yesterday my dog and I went for an off-leash walk. I do have that 99.99 percent recall you mentioned. He was reveling in the snow…just loves it, and stopping to sniff the deer poop, eyeball a squirrel, and follow some cottontail tracks. I stood on the trail for a while, perhaps enjoying watching him be free as much as he was enjoying himself, then slowly started sauntering along. I never said a word, and after a couple minutes, he took one last deep sniff and looked up to see how far I’d gone, then took off after me at warp speed. I grabbed a stick, laughed, and we enjoyed a great game of tug when he reached me.

    Someone told me once that dogs love it when we laugh. It seems true. It’s also so easy to reinforce good behaviors when you make it a game.

  66. Marjorie says

    So happy to hear of Tootsie’s new found freedom. I think many people tend to let their dogs off leash long before they should. I too have Cavaliers and they do tend to be chasers (not balls and sticks!) but leaves, birds, snowflakes etc. I worked with my dogs on a long line for at least three to four months before I started letting them off for short periods in safe areas. I trained them to come and to “wait” which I found to be a most helpful command. Now I have no problem letting them off in safe areas (never around parking lots, traffic etc. they are not car smart) such as parks and trails and they tend to enjoy a great deal of off leash time. However, if we are out and they don’t listen they do get their off leash privleges revoked.

  67. says

    As to the field vs trail question, I think dogs like linear travel. They also like new things (there’s a term for that which I’ve forgotten), so mine, anyway, go from smell to smell along a trail, always finding something new to sniff. I also think that dogs exercise autonomy when they choose to walk WITH you. Dogs who choose not to aren’t off leash dogs for long. After a period of establishing limits, 100 feet off the trail or path or backroad, 200 feet, you can walk miles with a dog without saying a word. That’s an hour or hours of autonomy for a dog, choosing what to sniff, how long to linger, when to run ahead, & when to check in with you. It’s more exercise as well. With experience most dogs can determine which other dogs to greet & which to avoid, & which people would like to meet them.

  68. Alexandra says

    On the autonomy subject… my dog does not find dog parks particularly interesting or enjoyable any longer. He is happy to greet (and will sometimes play) with other off-leash dogs he meets at dog-friendly hiking spots, but for the most part he is out of the puppy/adolescent play period.

    He is happiest when he gets the chance to explore a place he has not been to before, off-lead. This, by the way, is the time and place where he is most closely attuned to me. In a new place, he will default to heeling slightly behind me, particularly on single-track trails, and if he does get out ahead or a little behind, anything in the least bit worrisome sends him running back to me to “check in.” In general, he pays me much more attention when off leash than when on. In part this is because for a while I didn’t do much on-leash work with him, but even now that I reinforce on-leash obedience heavily with praise and attention, the very act of choosing to be with me (because of his freedom to do otherwise) creates a particular energy in our interaction that is hard to replicate in the house or in our neighborhood on leash. There is a joyousness to his desire to come back to me, to find me, to interact with me…

    I also agree with Susan S. Even off leash, my dog will often choose not to interact or even greet other off leash dogs he meets. Some he greets enthusiastically and joyously, some he greets cautiously, and some he bypasses altogether. I cannot generally figure out why he likes some dogs and not others, though he does seem to like large-breed puppies (if they are still in the submissive puppy period, and not the butthead adolescent period).

  69. Kerry M. says

    @Laura, I volunteer with Canine Companions for Independence. I love it so far. I want to keep raising, but I am not sure if I can turn down a puppy who doesn’t make it, so I have to keep hoping my pups get placed or I develop the will to turn them down if they are being “career changed”. Quite honestly, I don’t see that happening, so they just need to make it. There! That’s decided.

    As for off-leash in an unfenced area – never, never, never. Not as puppy raisers and not as dogs who are placed. At least for my group. They are so serious about this that it is actually in the contract that we sign as puppy raisers.

  70. Annie R says

    Interesting debate between the open field vs. hiking/walking; Trooper, the big Rott-Lab I had who couldn’t be off-leash in the open, benefited from both. Perhaps because he couldn’t be off-lead on hikes, and also just loved people, he reveled in socializing with whoever was in the fenced dog-park, along with being as free as he ever could be allowed to be. But he and I both loved to walk on trails and along bike paths with him on his long Flexi, where he could range ahead a bit, sniff quite a few seconds by the time I passed him and then got to the end of the lead (in fact he learned exactly what that timing needed to be, and would start up behind me again just as I reached the limit of the lead ahead of him). He also could go up or down a slope beside the trail to investigate shrubs, etc. on his own while I didn’t have to follow him, another advantage of the extendable leash. Doing both those activities fulfilled different parts of his personality.
    I presently have a Husky/herding mix (unclear whether she’s part collie or sheltie) and she’s very reliable off lead walking around the neighborhood; today we got away for a fast 30 minute fitness walk while her goofy brother was at the groomer; we had a great time walking in really cold but clear/sunny weather, while working on freshening up her “wait” at the corners. She just loves walking like that, allowed to go out ahead of me and “break trail” as I like to call it; Huskies and mixes just love to take the lead, don’t they?
    @Jessica J., when I first got her 3 years ago I was recovering from a fall and had a badly sprained ankle, and she was therefore “too active” for me while I recovered. I got a 3-wheeled bicycle (used) and was able to teach her to heel alongside it on the right (by the curb, or on the bike trails, near the edge so that “real” bikers could pass us easily) and we did what I called “road work” with her. She loved it and it was a great training exercise. That “road work” option is going to be “in my back pocket” as an option for future dogs, as I love the herding breeds but am getting older myself, and live in a fairly urban setting but one where there are bike trails galore.
    We also have a lot of unfenced “Dog Exercise Areas” in the public parks, but yeah, you’ve got to have a good recall and/or stop/wait, as there’s always a city street fairly close by. Fortunately most dogs take to that pretty well, and tend to stay around “the pack” as it’s fun to hang out together. But sometimes they also take off in the wrong direction or start chasing birds, etc. so I work hard with each new dog to train the recall.

  71. Nicola says

    Classic experience today with an off leash and out of control adolescent Golden, with no collar and no long line. As it charged towards myself and off leash dog I asked my reactive dog for a ‘watch’……and warned the owner that she may nip if the dog gets in her space. ‘It’s OK, she’s friendly’ was the response with her owner chasing after her dog……she also added ‘if she does get nipped, she’ll get taught a lesson.’ When I explained that trying to avert any aggressive response was my immediate concern for both dogs, it became clear tbat there was no comprehension of the immediate and long term consequences of this behavioural response, but I put it down to genuine ignorance. Plus, the poor woman may well have been at her wits end as the dog was out of control.

    My dog ended up air snapping as the Golden was really hyped up and charged her and we were back to square one with her after a great weeks work.

    What do you think is the best way to try to help owners like this without upsetting or offending them? Unfortunately, my experience is that some people (usually the uneducated in canine behaviour) can get very defensive as they can take it as a personal criticism but my issue is always from the perspective of the safety and welfare of the dogs.

  72. 001mum says

    especially for Laura

    getting feedback from clients would have been so helpful to me when I was fostering. Maybe you should start a blog?
    recall training is imperative when fostering a future service dog. My 4th and 5th fosters had recall down pat and I knew it was very important for the client that the dog have this skill.
    Off leash trips were only in fully fenced areas. Lunge line outings were more frequent as we could be out in a field alternating “go play” time with short bits of training. Dog parks are NOT my favourite place and can be super stressful for dogs. Having the responsibility of a pup that was not mine made me very, very cautious. Using a long line (wish someone would make them in bright orange *easier to find) was fabulous. (TRISH???) My training center encouraged as much off leash/fenced play as we could manage & they welcomed the use of a lunge line. In fact, when the client and the dog are learning to work together (in class) they are regularly taken to an off leash areas and RECALL is practiced.
    I hate flexi leashes. with a passion. (have had painful injuries done to lower legs when someone couldn’t control and reel in the dog and my legs got wrapped up). Personally i know of a Doxie who was hit by a car this past Christmas Day as she ran onto a snowy street and her young walker couldn’t retract the lead, in fact in panic, let it reel out instead. Pup is OK, seems not even any spinal injury. traumatic to say the least.
    Now that i have my own dog (though winter weather has put a dent in frequent random sidewalk dog/dog meetings) I will insist minimal/ no touch contact when the dogs are on-leash.
    Boldly, though with sensitivity (ie not rude or brash) I will insist they MUST stay away from me and my dog as I am training. THEY are the ones who are offensive and it’s their fault if they get upset , not yours Nicola.
    IF IT HAPPENS AGAIN TAKE A HANDFUL OF YOUR “POCKET TREATS” AND THROW THEM ON THE GROUND AS THE DOG CHARGES.hopefully he will stop and eat those treats. BACK AWAY FAST WITH YOUR DOG.
    I am much more experienced in distraction, thus placing the pups attention back onto me. If you have a dog for 15 years you are training for 15 years.
    though i do wish it was summer………………… pup and i got caught in a sudden squall yesterday. we went to a field to try him on a long line (wasn’t planning on staying long) and suddenly visibility was next to nothing, nothin’ like horizontal snow eh? :) pup was courageous, a few times i protected him with my body as i crouched down, less than 10 minutes later it had blown by.
    it was good to guide him through it.

  73. JJ says

    Concerning: Dogs in a fenced area vs going for a walk/human moving.

    My dog loves both the dog parks and running free on the beach. One time when I was on the beach, it happened to be a normal work-day and I was the only one on holiday. No one else was around. I normally walk down the beach with my dog off-leash. Duke runs away a block, sniffs things, runs back to check in, then goes off again. Repeat.

    This time, with the perfect weather, I decided to let my dog run and sniff to his heart’s content while I sat on a log reading a book. It was a big sandy area not just paralleling the ocean, but also front-to-back. Lots of logs, a fresh water stream, etc. A perfect place where I thought he would be able to happily occupy himself for some time.

    Within 30 seconds of sitting down, my dog started “harassing” me. He would nudge my book. I would say, “go sniff” all happy and pointing around. He went away for maybe another 30 seconds and was back… I tried to stick with it it to see if he would get bored of waiting for me to get up and then he would go amuse himself. Nope, he chose to lie down by me.

    This trip was for both of us, but I really wanted my dog to be happy. So, I gave up reading and started walking again. And Duke was a happy as could be! He went ranging and wide and went back to his normal behavior.

    I think Trisha is exactly right that dogs prefer to move with their humans rather than have a set area to explore.

    But having said that, I think both are equally important to provide if the only choices are a) off-leash in a large fenced area vs b) walking on leash – even in a new place. Leashed walking is simply never going to replace un-leashed no matter how long the line.

  74. JJ says

    I also wanted to say: I love this article. It is helpful and gives a great place for a discussion on off-leash rules/criteria. I like learning about steps of what it would take to get a dog 99.999% reliable on a recall.

    But I don’t think I will ever get to that point with my dog. I blame me 99.99% for that failure. But that is the reality of the situation. I am willing to accept the risk of having my dog say 95% percent reliable at certain locations. I let him off-leash knowing full well that we are taking a risk – but that the risk is worth it. I can’t imagine imprisoning my dog all these years because we couldn’t get to the very wonderful, ideal goal of 99.999%.

    For the majority of the dog owners out there, 99.999% is probably not going to happen. Do we want to consign the majority of dogs to never being off leash? I think that would be cruel and unnecessary. Thus, I don’t think owners are being irresponsible letting their dogs off leash even with a less reliable recall. To me, the goal is to define this: below what % and in which locations and circumstances does a human become irresponsible for letting their dog off-leash.? I don’t know the exact number and set of circumstances, but for me, the number for a variety of circumstances is smaller than 99.999%.

    That’s not a criticism of the post, which I found helpful. This is just my 2 cents on the topic of discussion.

  75. says

    I got my dog from a county pound and the guy in charge of the facility really liked my dog a lot… the dog been there six months and clearly the two of them had a relationship. So when I was looking at the dog the guy gave me a lot of “selling points”… one of which was that you could let the dog off-leash and he’d come back to you.

    I think the guy was a little bit insane to be doing that where he was, but it was clearly working for them. :D Unfortunately I haven’t had many opportunities to let my guy off-leash at all since I got him, though… he can be dog-aggressive and though he doesn’t seem to want to hurt other dogs (he just likes to hold them down and punch them until they cry uncle), and the aggression is much WORSE when he’s leashed, I also don’t want to impose his insanity on some other person innocently walking their dog. When I was living in a rural area we worked really intensively on his recall and I keep up the training on it, and I’d occasionally let him off-leash while he was helping me check pasture fences and whatnot (and he did run away on me once), but we don’t really have any off-leash opportunities where we live now.

    I did have a pretty perfect setting for off-leash training when we were living in N. California, though. We lived near Humboldt Bay, which has two jetties dividing it from the ocean, that you can drive out onto and enjoy some great beaches. You couldn’t let your dog off-leash there year-round (during certain times of year it was a nesting area for endangered sea birds), but it was perfect for off-leash training otherwise. The roads going out the jetty were pretty pot-holed so people didn’t typically go all the way out to the end; I could drive all the way out and have tons of beach to explore without another human being in sight. If the dog did run off, there was water on three sides and it’d probably take him a couple of hours just to run all the way back to the headland, if he even tried. ;D I started him out there with a long 22-foot training leash so I could reinforce my recall but he did awesome, and once we went all the way off-leash he LOVED playing in the surf.

    I will say, though, as the owner of a dog-aggressive dog, the bane of my existence is owners who go off-leash with an unreliable recall, or who don’t even bother to try to recall their dogs when it’s approaching somebody else’s dog. My guy is probably a shepherd/dane mix and he’s huge… we’re actively working on making him more friendly toward other dogs, but there’s not a lot I can do if an off-leash dog approaches us and my dog is a dick and causes a fight, and it always sets us back in trying to train the aggression out. I usually holler at owners and ask them to call their dogs and am very friendly about it, but the reactions are mind-boggling to me… people act offended like I think their dog is vicious, even when I explain that MY dog is the problem I’m worried about, and I actually had a guy with a tiny puppy call out to me “Oh don’t worry, he’s friendly!” Yeah, he’s also about five pounds soaking wet, man. It’s the 110lb slavering behemoth I’ve got leashed over here that I’m worried about.

  76. Mareli says

    I would be afraid to let a dog of mine run loose in Montana any more with the ridiculous trapping/snaring laws that have been passed there. Trapping/snaring should be made illegal because it is not only cruel but it maims or kills any animals unfortunate enough to be caught. I have heard of too many cats and dogs who have lost toes, legs, and even their lives to traps. I understand that Footloose Montana plans a trap release workshop at one of your locations in Missoula later this month. II hope to be able to attend.

  77. Lori Kline says

    All very good points and an excellent article but I think there is one very important criteria that is overlooked. That of safety. Is it SAFE to let the dog off leash, regardless of the level of training and confidence you have in them? Just a few weeks ago, I thought it was safe to let my dogs off leash at the park when there wasn’t a soul around. Well, I was dead wrong! Some idiot in a car decided to speed around the small dirt circular drive and speed off again. I nearly lost my one dog as he happened to be on one side of the little road and I on the other. We all could have been hurt really bad or killed as just a few moments before we were all in the middle of the driveway. This road is meant to be traveled at 5 mpg or slower and you really can’t get going very fast. Never thought anyone would be stupid enough to do that.
    The other piece is other people/dogs. I really don’t mind seeing dogs off leash in a public area as long as the owners are responsible. When you see other people and dogs, you should leash up your dog. It’s a courtesy to others in the area and as you say, there is no 100% solid obedient dog. They are animals after all and subject to flaws just like people. It’s irresponsible and unsafe to do so.

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