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!