Do You Trust Your Dog Off Leash?

Scientific Training Concepts Made Simple

Note for aspiring dog trainers: The below article by CATCH was originally written for NYC Central Park’s eBarker Magazine.  As you read it, note the use of many key “learning theory” concepts, such as reinforcement schedules, deprivation, desensitization, and raising criteria.  This is a great example of turning scientific training concepts into simple methods that everyday dog owners can understand and use.

Imagine you are bringing your new puppy…

to Central Park for his first ever play date during off-leash hours.  As you walk your pup towards a group of frolicking hounds, he is pulling at the leash like crazy to get to the other dogs.  He is choking himself and yanking your shoulder out of the socket.  You want to let him play off leash, but you’ve never done that before.  Will he come back?  Is this safe?

If you want to let your dog off leash, or if you ever drop your leash by mistake – you can’t be totally comfortable without knowing that he will come when called.  In the world of dog training we call this a “recall,” and a reliable one is nothing to sneeze at (or lift your leg at).

The number one reason people cherish a reliable recall is for safety.  If your dog will come every time, you can get her out of any trouble.  The nightmare scenarios for off-leash dogs in the park are plentiful.  For dog owners, they range from total embarrassment (stealing sandwiches from kids, knocking down the elderly) to annoyance (playing keep away when you reach for the collar, obsessively chasing squirrels) to gut wrenching fear (running straight for the road, lunging into the middle of a dog fight).  All good reasons to start working on that recall again, wouldn’t you say?

The good news is that most dogs can be trained to come happily when called.  I’ll give you a simple method that anyone can use and is fun for both you and your dog.  The secret to all good training is motivation – so let’s start there.  Most dogs are highly motivated by food.  There will be a few dogs in the minority on this, but if you use really special food rewards, you can teach most dogs just about anything.  My trick is to start with boiled chicken or cheese.  The former is irresistible; the latter is too, but with the added benefit that it’s easy to deal with (think pre-packaged American slices right from the fridge into your pocket).  “Sharing” food with your dog wisely and selectively (without mindlessly over-doing it) is not only a great training technique, it is a natural part of a great relationship.  Think about how food is an integral part of many love relationships – your mom’s home cooking, dinners with romantic partners, breakfasts with your kids.

To get the most power out of food as a reward, the best time to use it is… yes, you guessed it – when your dog is hungry.  This increases the value of the reward dramatically.  When training my own dogs to come, I go to the park in the morning having skipped breakfast (the dog’s, not mine – I love a good breakfast).  I bring my pup on a long line (a retractable leash will do nicely) and every time she responds to her recall command (“Here!”) by turning to look at me, I praise her and give her a piece of chicken or cheese.  I do this about 5 or 10 times spread out over the course of a long walk.

Once she’s got the hang of it, I’ll wait until she’s a little distracted by sniffing the grass, or watching another dog, and then I call her. (I’m gradually raising the level of difficulty by waiting for her to be distracted now.)  By the way, the reason I suggest using a command like “Here” is because most owners habituate (or desensitize) their dogs to the common word “Come” by over-using it without rewarding it consistently.  Once your dog is desensitized to a word, it’s useless to try and use it as a training command, so start with a fresh word when you begin this training.

After a few days of 5-10 recalls with rewards on each walk, my dog will run to me at light speed every time she hears the command “Here!”  Up to this point I have given her a reward each and every time she comes.  But, now that she’s got it down I will switch to what I call random rewards, which is where I reward most of the time, instead of all the time.  In the coming days, as she continues to show that she “gets it,” I will switch to rewarding about half the time, and eventually to just occasional rewards (this does not have to be exact, the more random the better).  The random rewards technique is powerful in making behaviors likely to repeat.  (Think about people in casinos at slot machines – winning big every once in a while makes the behavior addictive.)

Once I’m confident my dog has a reliable recall, I can trust her off leash.  Away she goes!  What a pleasure for both of us.  Over time, I will keep my dog’s recall sharp by delivering very high value food rewards only occasionally.  To keep it fun and interesting, I will mix in other rewards, too. Sometimes when she comes, she gets a game of tug with a nearby stick, or another time a game of chasing me, or I might suddenly pull her favorite squeaker ball out of my pocket and throw it for her. Of course, she always loves a stinky, delicious treat mixed in.  Be creative, have fun with it.  That’s what great relationships are about – having fun together.

What has started out as a training exercise has now become the expression of a beautiful bond.  My dog likes to be around me, she wants to go where I go, she likes to keep an eye on me, to come check in, she loves the sound of my voice calling out to her…  Oh yeah, and it doesn’t hurt that I spent those early training days using boiled chicken.  ; )  Just like those of us who were lucky enough to be rewarded by mom’s amazing meals during childhood – food used the right way can create a strong bond with very positive memories.

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