A few months ago, I was getting my haircut, and my stylist, Gina, brought up one of my favorite subjects; of course, it was dogs.
She was struggling with obedience issues and had a few questions.
Gina has two two-year-old Goldendoodles that have not undergone any formal training, so they were a bit overwhelming to bring places. Gina mentioned she would love to bring them to an off-leash dog park, but she’s afraid they would run off never to be seen again.
After listening to what was going on, I knew that she needed more than just verbal advice, so I proposed a trade: dog training for haircuts.
After nailing down the details, we decided to start in on training right away.
Although Fred and George (think Harry Potter) are brothers from the same litter, they have different learning styles.
Fred is more outgoing and confident, whereas George is the quieter, more reserved of the two.
So, I had to employ different training techniques when working with them.
Key Things You Should Know Before Starting
There are a few key factors that need to be in place before working with your dog off-leash.
Training dogs is a lot like building a house:
You need to make sure you have a good foundation to keep building higher.
Below is a list of things to keep in mind before getting started:
Start with the Basics
Your dog needs to be able to walk on-leash reliably, which means no pulling, lunging, etc.
If you are struggling with training this, check out our article: How to Leash Train Your Dog.
Be sure your dog is a pro at recall.
If you can get your dog to come back when called 3 out of 5 times, you will want to keep working with them until they are 100% consistent.
Additionally, when you call your dog, you need to be able to take hold of their collar.
When I first met Fred and George, they would come when called, but then would take off as soon as you made a move to grab their collar.
Know Your Dog’s Personality
I’ve not, nor do I plan to train Ginger to work off-leash.
Ginger is a fabulous girl, but she is also aggressive towards men, fearful of new environments, and has no impulse control (Yes, we are continually working on this).
If your dog loves chasing squirrels and ditches the whole time during training when they see their furry nemesis, you will need to work on impulse control first.
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And if your dog doesn’t want to go on walks, you can read this post we did recently.
Finally, if you have a dog lacking in confidence and scares easily, that needs to be addressed first.
You get where I’m going with this.
What You Need for Training
For successful training, it is essential to have the right tools on hand.
Brightly Colored Long Lunge Lead
If you’re dog takes off after a squirrel, a brightly colored leash can help you easily spot them.
The long lead gives your dog plenty of room to learn without giving them complete freedom.
This is optional, but it’s easier to grab hold of your dog with the harness’ back handle and quicker to leash your dog on the back ring.
I’m sure many of us have seen the dog that somersaults at the end of the lead when their owner stomps on the dropped leash.
That can cause significant injury to your dog.
However, the bungee extension allows for a little give instead of an abrupt stop.
If you clicker trained your dog, this is a great tool to mark the behaviors you want.
If you didn’t clicker train your dog, ignore this.
I love the Leash Boss Training Pouch for outdoor/away from home training.
It has little pockets for poop bags, keys, and money.
I find it easier to leave my purse behind when training out in public.
SUPER High-Value Treats
You need to give your pup plenty of incentive to do well so make sure that their
bribes treats are ones that they LOVE.
Find a fully fenced-in dog park.
You will eventually graduate from this, but it’s the safest way to start.
Be certain tags and microchip information is updated.
Silly maybe, but accidents do happen, and you want to make sure you have the best chance possible to get your pup back.
A Bit of Knowledge
You should be familiar with dog body language and how to break up a dog fight safely.
People can easily get bit when trying to separate fighting dogs.
Even if your dog has been nothing but happy go lucky, it doesn’t mean everyone’s dog is that way.
It might sound a bit extreme, but if you have ever had to deal with this, you will be happy you were prepared.
Unfortunately, this is something I’ve dealt with.
According to Dr. Sofia Yin, you want to distract the dogs (such as bopping them with an unrolled newspaper) rather than trying to forcibly separate them because that can redirect their aggression toward you.
If you do need to pull dogs apart then pull from their rear half, push the other dog’s rib cage with your foot, and avoid the fighting dogs’ faces as much as possible.
Off-Leash Walking Training Techniques
Once you have your tools and a well trained on-leash dog, you’re ready to get the party started.
One thing to note, most dogs act a bit crazy and wild when they first realize they aren’t on-leash.
So, be prepared for your dog may take off for the hills and possibly forget their recall training.
If your dog does run off, take a deep breath, and remember: You are in a fully fenced in area and dragging a 30-foot leash, it will be okay.
Remember, your dog is faster than you; yes, even if you have a tiny dog, so the added leash length gives you the buffer you need.
- Attach the leash to the bungee extension, then attach the extension to the harness or collar.
- Go to an area of the park where there are fewer distractions and start to let out the leash slowly.
- While doling out length randomly call your dog back a couple of times before dropping the leash. When they return, touch their collar and reward them.
- Once you know your dog hasn’t entirely forgotten you, drop the leash.
- Allow them to meander and sniff. Do not allow them to play with other dogs at this time since the long lead can easily trip or tangle other dogs.
- Every so often recall your dog. Again, grab their collar and reward them, then release them. I use the command “release” for off-leash time.
- Repeat this exercise until you feel confident your dog responds quickly and dependably to recalls.
- When you are ready to move to the next step, take off the leash and repeat the steps above.
- When your dog is reliable, you can venture to other off-leash areas that are more open and not fenced in.
There is no timeline on this. Some dogs learn faster than others.
Be patient and don’t rush the process.
As previously stated, some dogs learn differently and require training modifications.
For less confident dogs that are velcroed to you leashed or unleashed, you will need to get them away from you to work on training.
I know this sounds odd, but it’s critical to work on recall off-leash in high distraction environments.
Even the stickiest velcro dog may take off unexpectedly, for example, if they get scared by a loud noise or local wildlife crosses your path.
One method is to begin walking with your dog off-leash with no long lead.
Eventually, your dog will get distracted by a smell. When they do keep walking.
Give your dog a bit of time to explore on its own as you slowly move away.
Eventually, recall your dog, then re-release them.
This exercise will help your dog build confidence and, at the same time, work on off-leash training.
High Energy Dogs
For the hyper high energy crazy dogs like Fred, you will need to burn some of their energy before working on off-leash training.
We would let Fred play with his furry friends at the park first, then move to the other fenced area to start training.
If you attach the long lead and it scares your dog (Yes, this can happen!) then either help them work though their fear by using positive reinforcement training or skip using the long lead.
If you skip the long lead, you will definitely want to start in a securely confined area.
Though there are some risks associated with off-leash training, there are also several benefits to it as well.
For families that live in an apartment, townhouse, or simply lack a yard, being able to allow your dog the freedom to be off-leash will open up their world.
Also, walking off-leash can burn off more energy too first because it allows them to run or, at least, move at their own pace. And second, it can increase the overall distance traveled.
For example, my first Brittany, Hershey, practically doubled the length of our walk because he ran back to me several times while on the trail.
Third, I find training off-leash strengthens the bond between humans and dogs. The communication and trust between the two of you to work off-leash has to be solid.
Finally, even if you don’t do a lot of off-leash work after training, it is a useful skill for your dog to know in the event they get out of their collar, or a leash is dropped.
Accidents happen every day, and teaching off-leash training can help prevent an accident from turning into a tragedy.
I love allowing my dogs the freedom to be off-leash; it is truly amazing to see their joy when they are off exploring.