Off-Leash Adventures With Your Dog | Blogs

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Off-Leash Adventures With Your Dog
Off-Leash Adventures With Your Dog

 

Off-leash adventure is what your dog most craves.  The exercise is hard to beat (for dogs and humans alike), and the freedom just plain feels natural and good to your dog.  Getting comfortable removing the leash and trusting your dog to stay with you can be frightening and anxiety-provoking for most owners.  How do you get to a place of trust and relaxation in the great (off-leash) outdoors?  Here are some tips for getting started.

Tip #1:  Walk in safe places with another owner who has an experienced off-leash dog.  Dances With Dogs (my puppy nursery school) just started a hiking program for dogs.  My two adult Labrador Retrievers serve as canine Pack Leaders to the youngsters and less-experienced in our pack.  When training my own dogs to hike without leashes, I enlisted the help of friends with older dogs who had lots of experience.  My dogs naturally followed the example set by the savvy off-leashers.

Tip #2:  What’s in your pocket?  It better be good!  When training your dog to return to you for check-ins, you have to be able to answer the dog’s FIRST and most important question:  “What’s in it for ME?”  So...arm yourself with a motivator.  Treats work best with my Labs.  I always wear a waist-mounted treat pouch filled with small bits of their favorite morsels.  Something small and moist works best, as you’ll be giving lots of rewards.  For other dogs, perhaps a tug toy will draw them back to you.   For others, it may be a tennis ball.  By all means, use what works best for your particular dog. 

Tip #3:  Check in OFTEN!  On off-leash hikes, I call my dogs back to me as often as every 2 minutes or less, especially at the start of the hike.  Because voice commands can often go unheeded in exciting or distracting (for the dog) situations, I have always used a squeaker as my recall device.  Since my Labs have always loved shredding their stuffed toys, I’ve collected a whole basket of those little plastic squeaker pillows over the years.  I simply squeeze the squeaker a couple of times and this signals the dogs that a reward is in it for them if they come back to Mama.  Perfect!  This worked extremely well for the new hikers in our program as well.

Tip #4:  Start at the beginning.  Don’t hit the trail and release your dog without a leash until you’ve done some training first.  Start by wearing a treat pouch during ALL your leash walks for at least a few weeks.  Those of you with puppies should be wearing this 100% of the time for many months.  You want your dog to clearly understand that you have the delicious stuff.  You want the dog to be accustomed to the routine of walking on a loose leash or in heel position.  You want to develop a relationship that’s reliable....and THEN move forward to next steps from there.  Try a long (20’) cotton lead next.  Take your dog to a field or open space and let them wander the 20 feet the lead allows and then use your recall device or word (come or here, for example) to alert them that it’s time to check in.  If they don’t react immediately or very quickly, begin to reel in the line.  Praise and give the treat/reward when they are reeled in all the way (as if they did it on their own) and send them back out for more exploration.  Repeat repeat repeat.  The goal is for the dog to get used to coming back to you for a check-in often so that you can establish trust and reliability.  Next step would be to have them drag a regular length (4 to 6’) leash while you practice the recall sequence in a fence--in or other safe area.

Tip #5:  Don’t panic, don’t yell, don’t over-communicate.  If your dog fails to check-in when signaled, by all means, don’t start repeating your command over and over again.  All that this does is teach the dog that they don’t have to listen the first time....and dogs tend to tune OUT our needless chatter anyway.  Your irritation and/or anger has no place in training the dog to come BACK to you either.  Who wants to come for a crazy/angry person??  Stay calm and confident and be willing to wait a moment and try again.  And ALWAYS give your dog a happy voice and a reward when they check in.  If your dog is failing to check in, then you may need to try something different (higher value to the DOG) as a reward.  It’s not a bad idea to bring 3-5 choices for rewards when working on recall.  This way, you can switch it up and may find something your dog IS willing to come back for.  If your dog continues to be slow in coming back or is not obeying consistently, then you need to fall back to what worked previously (the 20’ lead or leash-dragging, for example) and work more at that level before moving up to greater freedom.  Let your dog’s success and reliability dictate moving to the next level of freedom.  And remember, freedom is earned by behavior.  Put your dog back on the leash for a while and try again.  

Friend me on Facebook (Julie Bernier) or join my FB group for Dances With Dogs to watch our hiking videos.  Great adventures, great dogs....and lately, great weather, too!  Maine has so many wonderful places to hike, and dogs are welcomed to join you at numerous locations.  Get out there and enjoy the great outdoors together, won't you?

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