The Myth of the Off Leash Dog

One of the first things students ask trainers to help them with is training their dog to reliably come when called. They dream of hikes, walks on beaches, treks across meadows, trail rides on horseback, all in the company of an adoring dog that wants to walk with them anywhere they want to go, and is guaranteed to never stray. News flash – dogs have their own agenda sometimes. That doesn’t mean that we can’t have great times with a dog, unfettered by leash or long line, but what it does mean is that, as that dog’s caretaker, neither you nor anyone else can assure a 100% certain level of trustworthiness in another animal with a functioning brain.

So, why am I telling you this? Well, for one thing, this is a blog about dog behavior, and a really basic premise every dog owner and trainer needs to understand is that no one can guarantee behavior. The reason this is so very important is because there are unscrupulous, uneducated, or ill-informed people who will try to convince you that you can have “an off leash dog” by purchasing a piece of equipment, or adopting a particular training method, that will guarantee such a result. Most of the people who promise guarantees, sadly, use coercive, rather than positively reinforcing, methods. One downside with those methods is that dogs may form associations the trainer didn’t intend, including wariness of the handler, or learned helplessness. Studies show that effective positive training can get reliability equal to that of punitive methods, and with fewer side effects. One study* by Rooney and Cowan at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom showed “Dogs whose owners reported using more rewards tended to perform better in a novel training task. Ability at this novel task was also higher in dogs belonging to owners who were seen to be more playful and who employed a patient approach to training.” But again, regardless of method (even though I am admittedly biased toward positive reinforcement), no method can guarantee that your dog will come to you when called 100% of the time.

Using a combination of classical conditioning and positive reinforcement, I’ve trained “reliable”  recalls on many dogs, as have my students. My go to methods include protocols made popular by folks such as Leslie Nelson, Pippa Mattinson, and Pamela Dennison, all fabulous trainers. However, I don’t rely on any dog’s stellar obedience when it comes to its life. The world is full of perils, and the “insurance policy” of being in a remote area, within a fenced yard, or on a leash or long line can help prevent disaster. So, I urge people to be very selective about the areas where they allow off leash activity, and I suggest that they heavily reinforce, and be eternally grateful for, each time their dog returns to them on cue, always mindful that the dog can always make a mistake or another choice if no barrier or leash is present.

No dog, no matter how well trained, or by what method, is an automaton.  Therefore, just as we are never 100% safe in this world, neither are our dogs. The off leash fun that so many dog owners dream of must be tempered by the knowledge that no matter how reliable a dog’s recall is, there could always be a “first time” that proves disastrous. I’m a really good trainer of recalls. My dogs are very reliable.  I’ve successfully called my Australian Shepherd off running prey, and my hound mix willingly leaves his doggy playmates when I whistle for him. Even so, while I’m not particularly risk averse in other aspects of my life, this is one area where I employ caution to a fault. Whenever I allow my dogs to be off leash, I try to insure that they are far from roads or other hazards, and I am acutely aware that it is my responsibility to protect them, no matter how reliable they normally are. Weighed against their lives, doesn’t it make sense to train AND protect?

*Rooney, N.J., & Cowan , S. J. (2011). Training methods and owner-dog interactions: Links with dog behaviour and learning ability. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 132(3-4), 169-177.

Dog Behavior Sites of Interest

Professional Organizations

Academy of Veterinary Behavior Technicians
American Association of Zookeepers
American College of Veterinary Behaviorists
Animal Behavior Management Alliance
Animal Behavior Society
Association of Animal Behavior Professionals
Pet Professional Accreditation Board
Pet Professional Guild
Society of Veterinary Behavior Technicians

Educational Opportunities in Animal Behavior

ABS Guide to Programs in Animal Behavior
AVMA Accredited Colleges of Veterinary Medicine
AVMA Accredited Programs of Veterinary Technology
Academy for Dog Trainers
Behavior Works
Companion Animal Sciences Institute

A Paycheck Not a Bribe

It’s hard to understand the almost pathological reluctance some people have to using food in dog training, when we have decades of research telling us that it is incredibly effective when done correctly. Much the same way that people would not expect to be paid before the completion of a job, we “cookie pushers” expect our dogs to perform a desired behavior before the food is forthcoming. In that way, we are reinforcing, rather than cueing a particular behavior with food. When food becomes a cue, the dog doesn’t do the behavior without seeing the cue. Hence the common beginner trainer lament, “He only comes when I have cookies.” But the dog that perceives food as a reinforcement will perform a behavior on a verbal or hand signal cue, hoping for the eventual reinforcement, which if the training has progressed correctly, isn’t always given after each and every behavior. Over time, we use variable rates of reinforcement versus continuous reinforcement to keep the dog’s motivation to perform strong.

There are some terrific resources online to help you understand the benefits of training with a paycheck (the paycheck can be food, toys, a game, but should be something the dog is interested in, versus something you;d prefer to use). Our friends at 4PawsUniversity have a page on training dogs with food that dispels some common myths. The Pet Professional Guild’s handout on the use of food is very useful in understanding the process, too. The most important reason, however, for using motivational training methods is that it saves your dog from living a life where “mistakes” are “corrected” (and keep in mind the dog is just being a dog), versus a lifetime of learning new things and gaining pleasant consequences from YOU. What could be better than to have your dog be unafraid in your presence and seeking your approval, rather than being just “obedient” and wishing you were nicer sometimes?

Roo, owned by trainer Jamie Popper, a dog that was trained using clicker training, with food and toys as motivators, is shown practicing a dumbbell retrieve. Why would anyone want to train using the very old-fashioned “ear pinch” method after seeing that? Plus, a dog that is joyfully retrieving in this way can easily be shaped to a more precise retrieve for competition purposes without dampening his enthusiasm, just as the late Dr. Yin shaped her dog to a more precise behavior of putting two paws in a box in this video.

The possibilities for fun with your dog are endless when they’ve been exposed to a learn to earn strategy! Training by using successive approximations can result in some very cool tricks, as well as a way for your dog to get some mental and physical exercise on those rainy or snowy days when you just don’t want to take a long walk.

At home, you can use your dog’s dinner to train with. Or you can use some healthy treats or real meat, depending on how distracting the environment in which you are training is. Just don’t be afraid to use food and don’t be stingy! Just learn to use good timing, proper mechanics, and go forth and train with joy. #usefood

Sioux gets a liver treat for correct behavior.
Sioux gets a liver treat for correct behavior.