Ask K9 Etiquette: How do I train my dog to be better “off leash?”

Posted on 29. Aug, 2012 by in Got a Question?, Pet Safety, Training Tips

My dog Lucy is a little squirrel hunter hound. She just likes to tree them and let me know with an adorable squeaking bark. Luckily, she does not seem to have the desire to kill. Well, off leash in the woods she has been pretty good. I let her hunt. But ever since we fenced in her back yard, she seems to have this new sense of freedom. We have been to the woods a couple times since she’s had her new fenced in yard and things have changed! Now she runs much further away from me and does not come back for a while. I have had to leash her in the woods, which means less exercise for her. 🙁 We still have been taking leash walks in the neighborhood, but why has she stopped listening and staying near me in the woods?

Submitted by Deana Cavan

What a great question. Fenced in yards, while being a blessing, can also teach your dog several things such as independence, territorialism, and that you are not needed to provide all the fun.  We may never know the answer to your question of why Lucy has stopped listening and will no longer remain near you in the woods. That doesn’t matter.  What is important is how to get her to stay close by when she is off leash.

Dogs should not be off leash without professional training. There are too many unknown factors and it is much harder to control your dog when you can’t catch them.  So my first suggestion is to find a good local trainer who can teach you how to train your dog to have an immediate recall response as well as several impulse control exercises. In the meantime, I will discuss some tips for off leash walking. Just like with leash walking, when your dog is off leash the idea is to make sure that your dog wants you to go on a walk with them and experience all the fun as a team.  Once that occurs the two of you will have a wonderful time together.  The key word is “together” and there are several exercises to remind your dog it is better to work as a team than alone.  Remember, dogs are pack animals so this is not a foreign concept to them.  Although the list could go on and on I will discuss three simple ideas that will be helpful in establishing a bond.


The first is teaching your dog to check in. I call this attention.  It will never have a verbal command or a hand signal. The key is for your dog to want to check in on his or her own to make sure you are coming along. I teach this inside first. I carry my clicker and treats around for a few days. Anytime the dog looks at me they get a “click” and a treat. I repeat this until the dog is “creepy” staring at me in the house.  Then we start to work in the yard. Every time the dog turns their head in my direction I click and then treat. I do this even if the dog isn’t completely looking at me. Once the dog seems to be looking in my direction often I will then hold off until the dog is actually looking at me before “clicking” and treating. This may take several days to a week to accomplish.  Once the dog is good at giving me his attention in the yard I’ll try it on my walks. Anytime the dog does a head turn my way I “click” and treat.  Dogs have 70% wider peripheral vision than us so even if it is just a ¼ head turn in your direction they can still see you.  I will “click” and treat anything in my direction for a few days and then hold off for them to actually look at me. After that you can go to what is called “slot machine” mode.  Sometimes “click” and treat for them checking in and sometimes just say “good dog”.  Once the dog gets good at checking in “on leash” don’t forget to reward them for it when they do it in the woods “off leash”.

Find It

The second game I often recommend to owners is “find it.” The concept behind this game is that you always find something better then the dog does.  First I teach them the command in my yard or house. I will use a really delicious treat that they rarely get or a special toy.  I will drop it on the ground and as they go for it I say “find it” and click. I then let them eat the treats or play with the toy.  I will practice like this for a few days and then start to ask them to “find it” from further and further away.  At some point, when they are not paying attention to me, I will drop some treats on the ground and say “find it.” If they turn around and come running and search on the ground for their treats I know they understand that “find it” means I have found something pretty cool.  When we are getting good responses inside I will start doing this in the woods. I will see the dog running ahead and put some treats off the trail or on a fallen tree.  Then I yell “find it” and watch the dog coming running back to see what I “found.” Your dog will want to stick with you, their pack leader, more and more often because you always find something more fun or delicious.  I will also do this with toys if a dog is more toy than food motivated.  It sounds like Lucy prefers running to eating. You may want to teach her that “find it” means to fetch instead. This would be done the same way. You would start with a toy she loves. Toss it, and as she is running say “find it”. When she retrieves the toy, “click”.  You should gradually make her chase the toy further and further away.

In the beginning you will do this while she is watching but remember the key to the “find it” command is that the dog turns around and comes back in your direction to find it. At some point you will want to say “find it” and toss the ball the opposite way Lucy is facing to see is she will turn around to chase and “find it.” Once she is capable of doing that you then can start using it in the woods. Remember, this would have to be a very special toy so that she thinks it is more exciting than squirrels. I often recommend using a “Chuck-It” and cutting the tennis ball open to put treats inside. This way she gets to chase something really far and fast as well as eat a special treat when she brings it back to you.

Okaaay, Go!

The third bonding game you can play to teach your dog you are a team is based on the on the premack principle.  The concept behind this principle is simple.  If you reward a lower desired behavior with a higher desired one, the lower desired behavior will be reinforced.  What does this mean? If you reward Lucy for staying with you by allowing her to chase squirrels that are close to you then she will want to stay with you more.  How do you make this work? First she needs a good release word. I use “Okaaay Go!” I taught this simply by tossing treats or toys for my dogs to chase. When they were running after them I’d say “Okaaay Go!” then click. After a few weeks of this I started asking my dog to focus on me or walk with me on leash in the yard. I would then say “Okaaay Go!” and toss the toy, dropping the leash and allowing them to chase it. When I knew my dogs truly understood that “Okaaay Go!” meant run free I started making it more challenging. I would toss the toy while requiring the dogs to stay with me. If they did without protest I would say “Okaaay Go!” and let them run to go get the toy. Sometimes I’d even run with them since we are a team!  As my dogs became proficient at this with their toys in the yard I then started practicing with the squirrels in my yard.  This was safer then loose in the woods.  When I was confident that my dogs would reliably stay with me at the site of a squirrel in the yard unless released, we started practicing in the woods. If they failed and took off they would then be leashed again for the remainder of their walk or at least until they did not tug on the leash to chase several squirrels.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I personally believe dogs should not be off leash unless they have had significant training. Even then, some dogs just are not meant to be off leash.  You mentioned in your question that the reason this is bothering you is because Lucy is getting less exercise. There are plenty of other safe ways to provide her more exercise.  You can still let her go in the woods on a long line.  This will also allow you to practice “find it” and “attention” while letting her get her sniffing and mental stimulation in.  You might walk her with a weighted dog backpack.  In this pack she can carry 10-20% of her body weight.  Teach her fun games in your back yard such as treibball or agility exercises and train her to run or bike with you.  She may love playing “scent” games in your fenced in yard by buying “animal scents” and setting a trail for her. At the end of the trail she can have a special treat like a Kong.  She gets to run around searching her yard to find a Kong just like she would run around the woods searching for squirrels to tree.  The possibilities are endless.  The key is to find ways to work with your dog as a team, encourage them to think, and let her play safely.