There’s a core skill set that is required for dog’s to be off leash reliable and I believe if you don’t teach this skill set then it won’t matter how much time you spending training your dog to come when called, you’re going to have headaches. To illustrate this, I’ll tell you a quick story about my own dog, Rocky.
Rocky was not always my dog. He was my wife’s dog when I met her back in 2011. One morning after coming off a night shift we met up in the morning at a park outside her apartment building and she brought Rocky along. Back then, Rocky was a troublesome dog: worst leash behaviour I have seen TO DATE as a professional, reactive towards anything while on leash, jumped up on people and rarely did he settle down. This particular morning, Karlynn let Rocky off leash (a bad move) hoping that it was early enough in the morning that there would be no big distractions to make Rocky bolt off.
She was wrong.
Rocky noticed a dog from over 100 yards away and took off, blowing off Karlynn’s requests for him to come back and ignoring both of us for a solid 15 minutes trying to wrangle him back up to finally put him on leash again.
Flash Forward—January 2016
I woke up at about 2am to a draft coming from underneath our bedroom door. I had felt this draft before and instantly knew that our front door hadn’t latched again and it was wide open. I cursed, left the bed quickly and walked into our now FRIDGID living room and closed the door, ensuring it latched tightly.
Just then I heard a familiar sound…
Thump, thump, thump, thump…
It was Rocky, sitting on the couch and wagging his tail as if to say “hey bud! You’re awake!”
Rocky had every opportunity to bolt. Through the front door, and easy-to-jump 2-foot fence and onto the world… but he didn’t.
The same dog that would bolt away at the drop of a dime and make you chase him for 30 minutes while blowing off your recall commands selected, of his own free will, to remain on the couch rather than go outside.
Ask yourself this question: when was the last time me and my dog explored the world together? No, I don’t mean in a high and tight heel walking down a side-walk (or being pulled, depending on your dog and current level of training). I mean really adventured.
You see most dogs have a need and desire for exploration and adventure with their social group and I believe this need is being left unfulfilled in most dogs. Fulfilling this need is simple enough: grab a 20-foot-long line and visit a field, park or large green space and give your dog the full length of the line (you get to put hands on the end loop and that’s it). Let your dog sniff and explore the world using his primary sense: smell. Let him take it all in, sniff the animal pee and adventure with his best friend.
You see, it is my theory that most dogs are not off leash reliable for one main reason. The world and the idea of freedom is so novel and exciting for them that when they finally get it, their first objective is not to give it up. This normally happens at the worst possible times such as your leash slipping out of your hands, equipment breaks or when opportunity allows the dog to fulfill this need on his or her own. A door or gate gets left open and off they go to explore and adventure with you… but it’s not in the way that you would want.
Teaching a solid recall is not enough. You must remove the excitement and novelty of freedom and you must fulfill your dog’s desire to explore and adventure with his social group.
When freedom and adventure become commonplace and something that is done on a regular basis, your dog will be much more willing to give it up when you really need him to.
Dog training is much more give and take than people realize. You want your needs to matter to your dog? Make his needs matter to you first!