Off-Leash Training a Dog: What it is, Why it’s Important, and How to Do It
Off-leash training is a step above advanced obedience training. It requires your dog to utilize the skills they have mastered in advanced obedience while maintaining control of their impulses while off-leash. There are many benefits to off-leash training for both working and non-working dogs and their owners.
What is Off-Leash Training?
Off-leash training is training your dog to follow commands when off-leash as obediently as they would when on-leash. This requires your dog to not only recall commands that they have already mastered, but it requires them to control themselves in light of distractions and stay focused.
Most often off-leash training is used to teach working dogs specific skills, for example, herding a flock of sheep into a pen. Off-leash training can also be used for general commands and recall in pets too, however.
Why is Off-Leash Training Important?
Off-leash training is used because keeping a dog leashed during certain commands is simply impractical. Imagine a farmer having to run around with his herding dog on a leash to round up the sheep! This would be ridiculous, but it would also defeat the purpose of having a working dog when the farmer is doing the work as well!
So, off-leash training is a “must learn” command for working dogs like sheepdogs, cattle driving dogs and assistance dogs…but why is off-leash training so important for the “average” dog, though?
Off-leash training is done with non-working dogs to give owners better control of their dogs without a leash. It’s an insurance policy that every dog owner should have. It ensures that if your dog slips their collar and leash or dashes out of the house, that you can get their attention and have them return to you immediately. This action of recalling your dog while they are off-leash is referred to as “off-leash recall”.
Off-leash recall and off-leash training, in general, aren’t only beneficial for emergency or outdoor situations, however. They are also beneficial when you need to take control of your dog in the home or simply have them follow a command. For example, if a young child visits the home and your dog shows too much interest in the child, you will want to recall your dog to you. You may also use off-leash training to teach your dog to run upstairs for you to fetch something and bring it back to you. Without off-leash training you can request your dog do any number of things like this, however, the chances that they will do it rather than finding something more interesting to do, are slim.
How to Off-Leash Train Your Dog
It’s important to ensure your dog is well-versed in all basic commands before you chance taking them off their leash. This means that off-leash commands are taught while your dog is on-leash.
Once your dog has mastered their commands, you want to begin working with them while they are off-leash. Do this in a confined area like a gated ballfield so that if your dog is distracted by being off-leash, you can still manage to wrangle them without risking injury or death.
Begin working off-leash with your dog at a short distance. When your dog shows an understanding and ability to follow your commands, increase the distance between you and your dog and repeat the commands. Continue to practice and repeat commands as you increase the distance between you and your dog until they are capable of following commands at any distance.
Off-leash training should begin with on-leash training. Before your dog can complete commands without their leash, they must have those commands mastered on-leash.
Once your dog has their advanced obedience training down pat, buy a long leash (recall leash) to give your dog a little more freedom. Go through obedience commands in a familiar place like home while you have your dog on the long leash.
Enclosed outdoor space
When your dog shows mastery of their commands on the long leash in a familiar space, take them to an enclosed outdoor space. With the long leash still in play, go through their commands again. Once those commands are mastered, try working through the same commands with your dog off-leash. Just be sure that the enclosed space you are in is a safe one.
From here, you want to gradually work up to giving your dog more freedom. Go through their commands on the long leash in a larger enclosed space and then repeat them off-leash.
Only once you fully trust your dog should you take them to a safe open space and work through commands on a long leash. From here work your way up to off-leash commands in an open space.
Top 5 Commands to Practice When Off-Leash Training
Come is an important command to teach any dog when working on off-leash training to ensure that your dog can be leashed or taken to safety when necessary. A dog that does not know and strictly follow the “come” command should not be allowed off-leash in an unconfined area.
Sit is a good command for all dogs to know, but when working off-leash it’s crucial that your dog knows how to sit so that you can approach them or keep them safe from things like oncoming cars.
Stay is a “must know” command for every dog working off-leash. This command will keep your dog in one location no matter what is going on around them.
A command that will capture your dog’s attention no matter what they are doing off-leash. You can use this command to simply get their attention to “check in” or you can use it to give your dog another visual command.
Even dogs that are well-trained off-leash may show interest in items that they shouldn’t. Whether it’s dog poop, a dead animal, or a dropped ice cream cone, you need to teach your dog the “leave it” command to keep them from getting into forbidden items.
Dos and Don’ts of Off-Leash Training
When working on off-leash training with your dog, there are a few dos and don’ts that can help the process to move much more smoothly.
- Do make sure to practice off-leash commands in a safe area that is enclosed, free from distraction, and quiet enough for your dog to hear your commands or see your hand signals.
- Don’t chase after your dog if they take it in their head to run while off-leash. You are in an enclosed area while working on off-leash commands, so your dog is safe and chasing them will only give them the impression that you are playing together.
- Do remain calm if your dog doesn’t obey commands while off-leash that they know while on-leash. Like young children, our dogs tend to feel out their boundaries when given extra freedom. Stay patient, put your dog back on-leash, practice the command on-leash a few more times, then try off-leash again.
- Don’t scream commands at your dog. If your dog is not following your commands off-leash, screaming at them is not going to increase their understanding or give them the desire to listen to you.
Off-Leash Training is a Gradual Process
When you undertake off-leash training with your dog, remember that it’s a gradual process. Begin slowly and work your way up to full off-leash training in larger spaces. The speed of training should never be the focus when doing off-leash work, rather, you should always keep your mind on safety.
Can All Dogs be Off-Leash Trained?
The answer to this question is as varied as the answer to the question “can everyone swim across an ocean?” Everyone has the potential to swim across an ocean, however, that doesn’t mean that everyone should attempt it.
The same principle applies to training dogs off-leash. Every dog has the ability to learn to work off-leash with a good trainer and dedication, but that doesn’t mean every dog should.
For example, just like some people are afraid of the ocean, some dogs are afraid of things found regularly in their environment (other dogs, children, strangers, etc.) Before these dogs can be trained off-leash, they must first overcome their fears with professional assistance. Without this training, they will be unable to focus on training, may run away, or may act aggressively out of fear.
Another good example of dogs that may not be best suited to off-leash training are dogs with hardwired hunting instincts or a strong prey drive. These dogs require rigorous professional training before they can be trusted off-leash without chasing or hunting down prey. Some dogs, in fact, have such a strong drive to chase smaller animals that they can never be trusted off-leash even with the best of training.
It’s best to consult a professional training facility or practice off-leash training in an enclosed space to determine how well your dog will do with off-leash work.