Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Ian Dunbar Seminar: Off Leash Reliability

Who doesn’t want a dog that’s reliable off leash? From hiking in the woods to running agility courses to simply hanging around the house, you would be hard pressed to find someone who isn’t interested in having a dog who listens to them no matter what the circumstances.

Ian Dunbar agrees. A dog who is reliable off leash will have a higher quality of life because he'll be able to go more places with his owner. In fact, Ian thinks it's so important for dogs to be reliable off leash that he spent a lot of time discussing how to achieve this elusive goal. Here are his seven steps to off leash reliability:

1. Define the rules.
You can’t achieve a reliable performance if you don't know what you want, so the very first step is to figure out what the rules are for you and your dog. You need to consider how you want your dog to act, both at home and when out and about. Is he allowed on the furniture? Where can he sleep? Does he need to do anything before you’ll open the door or set down the food dish? The answers will be different for every dog-human pair, and that's okay. You simply have to know what you expect from your dog.

Next, make a cue dictionary. Write down what your dog knows- or what you want him to know- including both the spoken cue and the hand signal that goes with it. Define what that cue means, and when he is to perform it. Doing this can help you set goals, identify holes in your training, and help you remain consistent.

2. Teach off leash from the beginning.
Now that you’re ready to teach new skills or brush up on old ones, think about how you’re going to approach training. Ian believes that leashes are crutches that do nothing more than handcuff the dog to you. They can be hard to phase out, and right from the beginning, they prevent you from obtaining off leash reliability because you depend on them to control the dog instead of establishing verbal commands. Of course, this means that you need to set up your training sessions carefully. Train in low distraction environments first, and gradually build up to more difficult situations

3. Centripedal attraction.
Next, you want to teach your dog to pay attention to you. The goal is to create a dog that is drawn to you, that wants to be near you. When you’re training at home, use “stay delays” where you draw out the length of time between the time the dog does a behavior and the time you give a treat. Since he'll be expecting a treat, he'll stay near you after performing a behavior instead of running off to do something else.

For a puppy that is between 12 and 18 weeks, Ian recommends the following exercise: Take your puppy somewhere safe and let him off leash. Don’t try to keep him near you by calling him to you constantly, just enjoy a little time together. If the puppy goes more than 10 yards away, silently turn and walk away. If it’s more than 25 yards, hide and let him look for you. You can give hints, but make them brief. The goal is to teach your puppy not to let you out of sight or you may disappear. Ian says this may be stressful, so only do it once.

For adult dogs, hiding may or may not work, so Ian recommends doing off leash following exercises instead. It’s best to do these on a trail, since dogs naturally follow the strong scents present there. Don’t try to call him or keep him near you artificially. Instead if he gets too far away, simply turn and walk in the other direction until he notices and catches up with you. You can also do this in an open field instead of on a trail: just keep moving away from the dog. Require him to stay close to you, and don’t compensate for his mistakes.

4. Practice body position changes for generalization.
Ian wants his dogs to be able to both discriminate what his words mean, as well as to understand that sit always means sit: sit means sit when you see a cat… when we’re running… when a child is jumping rope… As a result, Ian practices a lot of position changes (sit to down to stand). He practices them randomly, so the dog isn’t simply learning a pattern, but rather, listening to the words, and he does it in many, many environments. There are infinite training opportunities, and you can easily run through three or four position changes while you’re waiting to cross the road or to check out at the pet store.

5. Work on distance cues.
In off leash situations, Ian generally prefers to have the dog sit and wait for him approach the dog instead of using a recall. He feels that, in general, it’s safer to do this. As a result, he works on adding distance to his cues early on. He also feels that this makes it easier to proof stays, because you can then easily use instructive reprimands/RRNR when the dog is simply thinking about breaking his stay.

6. Proof stays.
Ian proofs stays the way most trainers do: by adding distance, duration and distractions. Proof in small sequences, work both in and out of sight, and use a low key release word. Don’t forget to give periodic feedback, but remember that your dog needs to be able to stay even if you’re silent. As mentioned above, use instructive reprimands/RRNR when needed.

7. Walking on leash.
Finally, teach your dog to walk on leash. It might seem funny that part of developing off leash reliability includes walking on leash, but a dog pulling on leash is simply a dog who has been prevented from running away. Therefore, teaching loose leash walking helps develop off leash reliability despite the presence of the leash. It’s also the hardest thing to teach: the criteria isn’t as clear as heeling, and makes no intuitive sense.

Ian recommends teaching a dog to walk nicely on leash by starting with the off leash following exercises discussed above. Then he teaches the dog to heel off leash. Then, finally, he puts the dog on leash, but he drapes the leash over his arm or his shoulder instead of holding on to it. Finally, the ultimate test: hold the leash and a very full cup of coffee in the same hand.


And those are the seven steps that Ian identified to off leash reliability! I love that Ian emphasizes knowing the rules and making a cue dictionary. I’ve never done that, but maybe I should. I also like the following exercises, although I’m not fond of the hiding component because I’d rather avoid causing stress if possible. I’m not saying I’d never do it, but I’d be cautious about which dogs I do it with. I do absolutely teach skills off leash first (mostly because I have horrendous leash handling skills), and I think that contributes to Maisy’s off leash reliability.

How about you? Is your dog reliable off leash? If so, what did you do to achieve this? How many of the exercises that Ian recommended did you do? Or did you do something else instead? Do you avoid any of these exercises for any reason? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

16 comments:

Ninso said...

We do almost nothing on leash. In fact, I've been known to forget to bring a leash when I go places with my dogs that I will need to use one. But I don't really think off leash reliability is much of a brag for border collies and other herding breeds. They have such a natural inclination to stay close.

So, what does Ian suggest for the "following exercises" if you have a dog that is more likely to take off running for a few hours than ever look back for you?

Am I understanding right that Ian teaches LLW by first teaching off leash heeling and then clipping a leash on? Jun and Lok heel on or off leash, but neither just walks nicely on a leash. I've worked and worked with Lok on it and we were never able to get it. He's much better though now that he's blind and pays more attn to me for directions. Jun just walks so nicely on a GL I never bothered to teach it. Elo is learning LLW, but its really more of a loose heel, shaped with the clicker.

Laura, Lance, and Vito said...

I missed this day of the seminar and it's interesting to read his ideas. I find it odd that there is no mention of how to train a recall, properly. Or maybe that comes later?

I don't think I would ever take an adult dog being retrained to a field or trail off leash. Even if they were doing fabulous with the training it is a huge leap and a very big risk. I think there are MANY adult dogs who could care less if you turned and walked/ran the other direction.

I also find it interesting that he puts stay training as key to off leash control. I don't really see how it relates... I can kinda see how teaching LLW can help, but they are still very different and many can have great off leash control but still pull on a leash.

I think my dogs have great off leash control mainly because of attention training. I think doing everything off leash also helps the leash doens't have any special meaning to the dog about whether they are free or not.

Lauren said...

Frodo has NO recall.

This is one of my goals that I'm not calling goals, for 2011. A better recall.
I follow the manymuddypaws.blogspot.com blog and she just posted how she teaches recall. It looks really straight-forward and I think I am going to try that this time.

As for the hiding from a dog, I would probably do this with Frodo and I don't think I would have to do it more than once. When we are home he has to know where I am AT ALL TIMES, OMG! and will start barking if I move out of his sight range, but when we go out he could care less about me (unless he is in a completely foreign environment, then he's like white on rice) and I think having to find me might keep him closer. It would cause stress though, which is why I haven't done it yet.

Crystal said...

NINSO- I once loaded Maisy up in the car, drove an hour and a half to meet a friend for a hiking date, and realized that Maisy had neither leash NOR collar. Oops!

It does sound like Ian teaches heel first, then LLW, an approach which makes sense to me. I struggled to teach Maisy how to walk nicely on a leash, and didn't even have much success with the front clip harness. It wasn't until we started working on heel that we made any progress with LLW.

As for following exercises... I think they would work for dogs who have bonded to their owners, but I'm not sure that it would do much for a brand new rescue, especially one who is more independent and aloof.

LAURA- He didn't really talk about recalls at all, or if he did, it was so brief that it didn't even make it into my notes. It is a bit odd that he emphasizes stays over recalls, isn't it? I think this has to do with his preference to ask a dog to sit and stay over calling a dog in an emergency. He actually spent quite a bit of time discussing why it's better to go to the dog than to have the dog come to you in an emergency. I can see some of the benefits, and I think I'll work on more distance sits/downs and stays, but personally, a good recall is a must for me.

LAUREN- I saw that post- it looks like a pretty good way to teach a recall. I think it's a good not-a-goal for you and Frodo! I should work on it, too. Maisy's recall is good, but not foolproof.

As for the hiding thing- I don't think a little stress is necessarily a bad thing. Life is inherently stressful. I just have an anxious dog, so what might be a little stressful for other dogs would be a bit deal for her.

Ashley Hiebing said...

Humphrey will probably never be allowed off leash because of his issues, but that doesn't matter much since he would take off at the first interesting scent and not stop until he was falling-down tired.

Ninso said...

Possibly with bonded dogs, but it seems like a dog that is likely to come back and look for it's owner is a dog that already HAS good off leash reliability and is also not particularly independent. I know of plenty of pet dogs who have been in their homes for years who would not give a second thought to taking off if let off the leash and never looking back. It seems like it would take a certain type of dog--one who maybe had never considered the possibility of "losing" his owner but would be devastated if he did--in order for that technique to work.

Crystal said...

I could maybe see it working with a younger puppy. It would definitely work with Maisy, but I'm not sure if that's because she's already pretty good off leash, if it's because she's anxious about being left alone, or if it's because we're bonded.

Interestingly, Suzanne Clothier demoed something similar at the seminar I went to last year. It was with an aussie or a border collie- I forget which. I was impressed by how quickly the dog went from being kind of out of control and everywhere to following his mom (who'd only had him for a few months). That said, she recommended doing it on a long line, which seems safer to me.

Kristine said...

We're still working on this. Shiva is pretty good, she has come a long long way. Her recall is awesome when it's just the two of us. But if there is another dog, or something yummy to eat, she doesn't much care if I exist or not. It's a work in progress. I appreciate all the advice I can get however as her selective recall is our biggest hurdle to overcome before we can ever hope to do well in agility. So thanks for this.

Anne said...

I live in the country and my dogs are loose alot, but I am always nearby. I let my pups run loose almost as soon as I get them, as they always follow the older dogs. When we hike, I practice calling the dogs back and rewarding them and the pup learns the informal recall by modeling the other dogs. However, right around 4 to 4 1/2 months, the pups become more independent and the reliable recall becomes not so reliable. At this time, I go to teaching the recall on a long line and then when this is solid, I introduce the electronic collar. I am very careful in my use of this, but I put a high priority on freerunning my dogs in all kinds of cool places and they MUST come when I call them instead of chasing rabbits, porcupines,deer, snowmobiles, etc. I haven't started teaching offleash heeling yet...I guess because I don't know where to start. LOL.

Crystal said...

I have to admit, I'm not a huge fan of the electronic collars because I try to avoid aversive stimuli whenever I can. That said, I totally sympathize with your reasoning behind using one.

It's really cool that you can use your older dogs to help teach the young ones. I've never had the opportunity to teach my dog through social facilitation like that, and it's really cool to hear how it works for people.

Kristen said...

I did the hide-from-the-puppy thing when Griffin was little, per breeder recommendation (and they had been started on this and off leash walks for weeks before coming home.)... I did debate about using R-, but ultimately did hide once or twice.

Griffin is the only of my dogs with decent off leash reliability, probably from his very early training with that and his early start on whistle recall (again, thanks to the breeders!). But he also has a very different personality than my other two.

Crystal said...

Kristen, would you do the hide-from-the-puppy thing again? Did you see immediate benefits? Do you think using it contributed to Griffin's off leash reliability?

Jess and Lola said...

My two are completely different with this... and funnily enough, it's the pup that is *so* much more reliable. I only let Jess off for the sheer fact that eventually, she does return if she knows she *has* to, but if I'm calling them informally she'll only come if she has nothing better to do. That's basically the reason I would probably not get a scent-hound (mix) again; they are just way too independent and interested in everything and anything else.


1. A cue dictionary is an absolutely fabulous idea. It would definitely help with inter-house communications with the dogs; sometimes people in the house say 'down' for getting off of furniture, which I've cued as 'off'.

2. With Jess we couldn't begin immediately, as she was a rescue and four years old when we got her. She's always had extremely spotty recall, no doubt due to her breed mix (Staffie/Beagle) as much as her personality. She's not bred to be a clingy dog that watches me constantly; she just follows the general flow of my movement when we're out and she's off-lead. With Lola, I already let her off-lead sometimes on very empty roads (where cars come along literally once a day, if that), and she sticks to me like glue.

3. If I could get far away enough from Lola to hide from her, I would. I've tried it for Jess, and she will look over at where I was, continue doing whatever she was doing (e.g. sniffing, usually) and then after a couple of minutes she'll amble over to where I was, and sniff around for me. Eventually, if she can't find me, she'll look around, slightly stressed; but once I'm in view again she will check in briefly and then head off once more. I'll definitely be hiding from L when she's actually at a stage where she goes far enough way for me to hide from her, though. :)

5. The only thing I'd worry about with stay over recall is that it is much harder to proof a stay with so many distractions. With recall, if you can get your dog to run full-tilt after you when called away from chasing an animal, then you know you're perfectly fine. However with stay, you're never entirely sure. Plus, wouldn't moving toward your dog while they're staying, from such a distance (and presumably you'd be moving quite fast to get them out of harm's way) seem slightly intimidating to the dog? You'd be watching the dog constantly. Some dogs might back away as you approached, or else do a puppyish wiggling 'catch me if you can!' You really, really don't want to try and catch a dog whilst it is standing next to a busy road, for example.

Lola has a great on-lead walk (which she gets praised for every minute or two), unless we head toward another dog--her Absolute Favourite Things Ever, that she simply *has* to go and see--or unless something big and scary comes past, like a car zipping past and honking the horn or a bus screeching past, in which case she bolts to my other side/away from the scary thing.

Kristen said...

I don't know how important it was...after the hides, he definitely did stick close to me. But he's also SO different from the others and so attached... I don't know if it's from that, other things we've done or if that's just him. Too many variables!

Leema said...

Thank-you so much for your brilliant summary. I've bookmarked and saved, and will be coming back to review.

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