Oh, the dream of taking your dog to the park, taking him off the leash, and playing fetch without him running away. For some dogs this can be a reality. Unfortunately, for others, the instinctual desires to smell and track will make it difficult to trust their “off-leash” freedom. I tell customers that off-leash obedience is NOT for every dog, so be sure that your dog has mastered the “come” command before attempting any off-lead work.
Off-leash obedience takes time, repetition, and your dog’s awareness that YOU are the pack leader. Through daily exercises and by using a stern-voiced recall, followed by a treat and strong praise/affection, your dog may have what it takes to play fetch unleashed. To see if your off-leash dream can become a reality, follow the simple tips below:
1. Off-leash at your local baseball diamond. A great way to get your dog prepared for off-leash obedience is to work with him at an enclosed baseball diamond. Find a local ball diamond and arrive early or late in the day to ensure you will be the only ones there. Go prepared with a leash and poop bag to pick up after your dog. Enter the ball diamond and be sure ALL gates are closed behind you. Release your dog from the leash and begin to walk the perimeter of the park. After only a few times of this routine, your dog will begin to follow/come to you. You can also practice running backwards combined with the “come” command in the ballpark. For a local ball diamond near you. check out http://phoenix.gov/parks/parks.html.
2. Fifty-foot lead. Next, your dog must link the off-leash connection at the ball park to the eventual freedom in an open park/field setting. To achieve this, purchase a 50-foot training lead and go to your local park or greenbelt and tie one end of the lead to your dog and the other to your waist. The purpose of this long lead is to teach your dog that he has a 50-foot radius in which to roam. If he goes straight right, you go straight left. Just as the lead is about to get taut, you will command “Come!” and continue walking in the opposite direction as your dog. In time, a boundary will be set, and your dog will not exceed the 50-foot radius. Practice this exercise often until your dog no longer exceeds the entire length of the 50-foot lead.
3. Playtime with dogs already off-leash trained. With your dog now familiar with a 50-foot boundary, it’s time to acclimate him to a play environment with dogs already trained to be off-leash. I often help customers with this by bringing my two Australian Shepherds. Having dogs that stay close to the handler off lead will keep a new dog close to the pack 90 percent of the time. If you see any oncoming passersby with or without dogs, leash up your dog to ensure they don’t run. If your dog begins to stray from the pack on this exercise, you may want to have a 4-foot lead attached just to stop your dog. If your dog roams and doesn’t stay with the pack, repeat tips 1 and 2 for a few more weeks.
4. Finally, off leash with lead still attached. You’re almost there. Now that your dog knows its boundaries and has run with an off-lead trained pack, you now can do the final test. Pick an early morning and go to your local park/field. Take some tasty treats and a ball with which to play fetch. Be sure no other passersby are near and drop your lead. Have your dog explore with the lead ON to be sure you can stop him if he strays. After you’re sure the boundary is being obeyed, you can then remove the leash and your dream has come true.
Off leash obedience can be achieved with time and patience. As stated earlier, this is NOT for every dog. After you have tried tips 1 and 2 you will have good idea if your dog will have the capacity to achieve off-leash obedience. Please also be aware of your local OFF LEASH LAWS. I’d recommend off-lead work ONLY for exercises like fetch or general retrieval. Otherwise, for safety and dog etiquette, have your dog remain leashed.
• Mark Siebel is owner of DOGGIE STEPS Dog Training, LLC. He has trained more than 400 Valley dogs, speaks regularly at local schools about the importance of dog safety and ownership, and donates time to youths wanting to learn more about dogs. Siebel is a member of the Arizona Professional Pet Sitters Association and Australian Shepherd Club of Arizona. Contact him at (602) 318-0122 or www.DoggieStepsDogTraining.com.