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.