Saturday, April 21, 2012

Stacking the Odds

A few days ago I mentioned that one of the reasons I love the Hunting Grounds is because the open fields make it a good spot to try a dog off leash.  A few people wondered at this- after all, wouldn't a dog just get bored in that open space and book it for the woods?

It isn't a one step process.  To hear all the stages of the process, you can check out one of my earlier posts on Teaching a Reliable Recall.

Today I wanted to post about a few ways to tip the odds in your favor when you are getting mixed results from having your dog off leash.

You should take some time to think through what motivates your dog.  Will they work for hot dogs?  A game of tug?  A stick?  Those are the things you want on your side.  You need to compete with the wide world of fun your dog will experience off leash, so boring isn't exactly the way to go. 

Also think about what your dog has trouble ignoring when out on a walk.  Will he come unless there is a dog in the distance?  Or do squirrels lead her on a merry chase through the woods while you're left on the trial?  Maybe you have the pup that sees you unclip the leash and just book it without a look back.

Skye was a squirrel hunter.  Her once fantastic recall was gone when she discovered chipmunks in the forest.  Our ultimate low was one walk I'll never forget.  Skye ran into the woods within 2 minutes of being off leash.  I saw her twice in an hour- both times she was running hard and didn't have a clue I was there.  When she didn't come back to the car, I had to walk the trail again until I heard her crashing through the woods.  I left the trail and found her digging up a chipmunk hole without a care in the world.  So I started over with her on a long line- if she listened she was rewarded, if she ignored me in a situation that was within her ability to come I would put her on a short leash for a few minutes.


But back to some tips- one reason I like using a long line in an open space is that I can spend a few minutes warming the dog up.  They can run a little while attached to me and I can gauge their focus.  It won't be perfect, but I want to see a dog hearing their recall word/sound and responding to it.  With Shirley, her response can be a little noncommittal; she looks to me, but isn't running over.  But if I have her attention, I will praise her loud and proud, then turn to go in a different direction.  In an open space your dog will be able to tell your front from your back if they are looking at you.  So let them run and be dogs, but make sure you are deciding how far you go in each direction.

As with anything in training, timing is important.  In the early stages I don't call the dogs for at least 5 minutes after I let them free because the odds are they will ignore me.  It can be tough to restrain yourself the first few times you unclip that leash- you immediately have the urge to call them back!  In an open space I know there aren't other people/dogs nearby to call them away from anyway, so this time is mostly spent sniffing and peeing.  I pick my direction and head out with or without them (usually without).  The first dog to catch up gets a little party- treats and praise up the wazoo.  Each dog that comes to me on their own will also get a treat, but only the first dog gets the party. 

I'll play this game every so often to keep a little competition going with the dogs- usually the lolligaggers will up their game after they realize that they're missing out.  I also take time during the walk to play with the dogs, running and dodging, throwing sticks, etc.  I'll ask them to sit for pictures during the walk and reward their good behavior.  Sure, the romping and sniffing and freedom is the best part, but for my dogs it isn't the only fun part.  Being near me is fun off leash and I work hard to make it that way. 

However, every dog has an off day.  Sometimes the environment is too distracting for what you've practiced.  Sometimes your pit bull sees a freshly manured field and her brain turns off until she is thoroughly covered in poo.  It's okay to revoke a privilege for a while as a consequence for ignoring you as long as you don't give up.  So you had a bad day, you were "that owner" chasing your dog through the park.  It happens.  Go home, blog about it, and pick things up tomorrow after a nice cup of coffee.  If one bad day puts your dog on leash for life, then my guess is they'll give you a run for your money the next time they get a taste of freedom.  Just stack the odds in your favor when you let your dog off leash and build up their ability to handle distraction as time goes on.

My last hint- bring along a dog or two with excellent recall.  I would never let Bradie, Shirley, or Cody off leash so soon if I didn't have my dogs to influence the rest of the beasts!


  1. Hi Y'all,

    Just stopped by to say "hi" and see how y'all are doing.

    Hope y'all are having a great weekend!

    Y'all come by now,
    Hawk aka BrownDog

  2. Interesting...we do hear thelong leash training is best. Any suggestions on my Lily barking at other doggys during our walks. She started doing this about a year ago
    Benny & Lily

  3. I have pretty much given up hope that Felix will ever be an offleash pup. His recall is totally non commital. He *hears* me, but about 40% of the time all I get is a goofy grin that says "yeah, I'll be there in a minute". Usually, he comes because Koly is coming. That Koly is a good dog ;0)

  4. Thanks for this! I was wondering how you do this. What I've been doing with Trinity is if she doesn't listen to me to 'wait' or come back to me I step on her rope then call her back. If she doesn't come I slightly tug on the rope then she see's it moving & runs back to me. I brought her to a field once with her rope on and she stayed near me. I kept playing the chase game & call her when she came running at me. She doesn't want to eat or play tug when where out so we play the chase game with lots of praise, which she loves! Every time I read your off leash post's it gives me more confidence that she will be able to be like your pups! Skye's story inspires me! You 3 are an awesome team!

  5. HA! Skye next to the little shaggy pup is just too darling for words! Sounds like scary moment with the chippy chasing... I had a chipmunk scare with Braylon, except this involved her casually bringing a half mangled chipmunk onto the couch. She dropped it when I screamed and looked very guilty and confused like, "Oh, so that's a bad thing, huh mama?"

  6. Any recommendations for long line runs leashes ? Or any long 'string' will do? Zeus doesn't really do well on recall at all =/ He just looks and... well if it suits him, he will zoom over XD

  7. I am fortunate to have a yard with wide open space and woods in the back. When I fist brought Midnight into my home I did the long lead approach. Also it helps when you have another dog (BabyGirl) that is 6 years and is a pro on no lead for me. She helped a lot as Midnight watches BabyGirl. I have had to put Midnight back on a lead a couple of times and she does not like to be on one while BabyGirl walks free. If I am busy in my yard I am not comfortable enough with Midnight being free so I long lead her . (She will watch to see if I am paying attention and go towards the woods) She is learning though and is getting better. Her safety is most important so while I am busy on a project outside I will continue to leash her on a long lead.

  8. I love your reliable recall series. After 2 years I am still not confident enough in my ability to override Fozzie's prey drive on our walks in the neighborhood parks. When we go for a hike that's out in the woods and really has some space--and there are no neighborhood cats--though, he's really quite good. Your tips are great though, and I'm certain that if we really spent some time working on them we could make more progress!

  9. Great tips! Though we live in the city, I practice recalls with Monkey and Petey every day at our local park if there are no other dogs around. I have gotten it to the point where both boys will come bolting back to me when they hear "Monkey! Petey!.....COME!". They love it, because it means high value treats reserved for recalls, and the chance to run super fast. I think one secret of our success is that I make sure to let them go back to what they were doing 95% of the time instead of leashing them up when they get to me. This teaches them that coming to me doesn't mean that the fun is ending. I also treat them if they decide to check in with me without being called.

  10. Oh yes, we know all about a once reliable recall going to the squirrels or chipmunks.

    Stop on by for a visit


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