Saturday, April 9, 2016

Off Leash Training: Expectations

When people consider off leash training  for their dog, often, they have a picture in their mind.  And, often that picture looks like this:

What do we see here?  We see folks strolling in the woods, and the dogs are strolling along side.  The dogs never go too far away.  In this and other pictures, we often see Labrador Retrievers or Golden Retrievers.  These are dogs that were originally bred to work near to their handlers.  That is the nature of any retriever...the dog stays close and then is sent out to fetch and return to the handler's side.

I had a conversation recently with a dog owner.  She was struggling a bit with off leash training.  Her pup's recall is not what she wants it to be.  She expressed her mental picture: going camping with the dog and the dog stays in the campsite with them.

Her dog is a Brittany.  Unlike a retriever, a Brittany is bred *not* to work close by the handler's side.  Brittanys and other pointing breed dogs are bred to run "out there", looking for critters.  Even the closest working pointing breed dogs will still work in excess of 50 yards.

The breed of dog is important when considering your goals for off leash training.

There are two categories of behaviors for a dog.  First, there are the learned behaviors.  He learns that there is a squirrel in one particular tree.  He learns that if he comes when called, he gets cuddles, loving and treats.  These behaviors can be reinforced or these can go extinct if not reinforced.

The other category of behaviors are intrinsic.  These things were bred into the dog or genetic to dogs.  Many dogs like to chase squirrels.  This desire is genetic.  Same with the (unfortunate) desire to roll in smelly things.  This is fun because it is fun.  It is in the DNA of a dog.  Changing these behaviors is much harder because you are going against the very nature of the dog.

How close a dog stays near you is a intrinsic behavior.  Changing it is to change the nature of the dog.

When you do off leash training, you may find you need to alter your expectations, based on the dog.  I run my dog off leash all the time.  I do so in a 700 acre state park and I use a GPS tracking collar on him.  He comes when called, but I need to use a whistle as he is often out of sight and earshot.  If my expectations for off leash training were to have the dog within a 5 yard circle when we went for a walk, I would be working against the grain.  I would be working against his internal motivations.  Possible?  Sure, but definitely an uphill battle, and if the dog likes to range, you'll need to be ever vigilant.

In the weeks ahead I hope to talk more explicitly about off leash training.  But the first step in that training is to evaluate your dog and determine a reasonable expectation based on the dog's own motivations.


  1. Love this!! I have owned Siberian Huskies and work extensively with them. All my personal ones have been trained to be off leash, but they are nothing like my friend's English Mastiff or my brother's sheltie/border collie mix. They love to roam and will chase down and kill anything from birds to squirrels to cats. They do not stay close to me unless I expressly ask for a heel. It is their nature, especially when we are on a trail. Their instinct is to follow the trail. If there is one, they don't need to watch me. They know where they are going, to wherever the trail leads. To help with the roaming, we play hide and seek during walks. I will allow them to get focused on the trail and then I'll take a dive into some brush. I call them and they have a blast trying to find me. It's all about working with the breed and dog you have. Some people think that my huskies are horribly trained because they won't behave like a well-trained German Shepherd. But they are well-trained Siberians. And that is fine by me. :)

    1. Love summed this up perfectly. They are perfectly trained Huskies...or Brittanys...or whatever your choice of breed. Gets challenging with the mixed breeds.

  2. Great article. I agree with you a hundred percent! For example my two Boxers just love to stretch their legs properly so they run at top speed as far as they can, and then just as fast back to me. They just love running. I get very frustrated when parks have strict leash laws. That's no fun for my dogs, and "dog parks" are just frustrating because I like to be able to walk a trail with my dogs running ahead of me, not just stand in a fenced dog park watching my dogs pee...American leash laws are ridiculous....just saying

    1. Running free is a great joy for many dogs. Thanks for reading.