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  Spirit Ridge K9 Training  & Rescue

PO Box 70,
Hillsburgh, Ontario, N0B 1Z0   


"........ because sit happens"

Off-Leash Fascination in Rural Areas

As a trainer I am often asked by handlers why their dogs won't listen to them when they are off leash.  The usual comments I hear are that their dog will 'bolt' when off leash or never come to them or just generally show no interest in the owners - preferring to do what dogs usually do and that is wander off, ignore the repeated calling of their name or chase after small animals and other prey (or skateboarders, or cars - you name it, they do it!).

Having originated in the 'big city' (Toronto) prior to moving to our paradise in the country, I was clearly unaccustomed to being repeatedly asked why this occurs with their dogs.  No one in their right mind would allow their dogs off leash in a city (other than in leash free parks which I am firmly opposed to or in their fenced backyards).  As soon, however, as city folk move to the country, they believe their dogs have a god given right to roam freely and be off leash without any regard to their safety.  Furthermore, it is expected that their dogs will obey and listen to their every command - as if by magic - just because they are off leash! 

I have decided to offer this write-up to both clients and other interested parties because I truly need to set the record straight and explain why this is so patently unfair and, indeed, an exercise in futility (not to mention a dangerous one for the dog itself).

Here are the reasons why your dog 'won't listen to you' when off leash:

1.    If your dog is not perfect on leash to begin with and not trained to listen to you in a proper and immediate manner on leash, why would he/she do so off leash?  Does anyone believe that a baby can walk before crawling?  or run before walking?  Why do handlers expect something from a dog that they don't expect from their own children?  Training on a standard 6 ft leash needs to be graduated to a ten, twenty and thirty foot line before doing any off leash work with reliability. This is key to any training - creating reliability takes a long time but, being patient can save your dog's life! 

2.    Are you more fun as a handler than every single distraction your dog chases after when off leash?  To be specific, are you more fun (in your dog's eyes to the squirrel, another dog/cat/horse, the porcupine, skunk, chipmunk, a car driving by, screaming children playing nearby etc?  If you aren't, then what makes you think you can command your dog's attention and interest?  Even if you haven't trained for reliable 'comes' ('recalls' as they are properly called) can you even bribe your dog to come to you?  Are you prepared with very special and unique treats that your dog gets only outdoors?  Do you have a special motivating toy that you control and that your dog goes 'nuts' over - and if you do, do you know how to properly use it?  Once again, it is all a matter of not having realistic expectations of your dog (and, frankly, yourselves as handlers) in off-leash situations when you have not been properly instructed and trained in order to prepare your dog!  At Spirit Ridge, we make sure that handlers realize that they are unrealistic if they have such expectations and show them the way to properly train for such demanding control 'off leash'.

3.    If your dog does not view you as the 'leader' of his/her pack, why on earth would she ever listen to you either on or off leash?  I just marvel and individuals who take their dogs to off leash parks, let them go and romp with other unknown dogs and then start calling them over and over again while their dog repeatedly 'blows them off', to the point where it becomes painful to watch.  At Spirit Ridge, we teach handlers to set themselves up for success and not failure when issuing obedience commands to their dogs - and make no mistake, the 'come' command is one of the hardest commands to teach, especially outdoors and off-leash!  Calling your dog 10 times before he/she will come to you (or, worse even, before you have to corner them to get the leash on them) does nothing to improve your leadership status in your dog's eyes and undermines everything you may have trained for up to then!

These are only some of the reasons why your dog won't come to you when off leash.  I have said nothing about the incredible dangers of leaving a dog off leash (and, indeed unsupervised) - especially as these relate to living 'in the country' (or a small urban centre).  Many handlers believe that an electronic fencing system gives them 'carte blanche' to let their dog roam freely on their property.  This is not only a big mistake but also makes no sense.  Here is why:

Given a strong enough distraction and a 'hard' enough dog (ie one that is willing to endure some discomfort by the electric stimulation it gets in proximity to the invisible fence) will 'take a run' at it when chasing another animal.  Think of it this way, how often is it the case that two humans get into a physical altercation regardless of their physical strength differences, simply because of the adrenaline surge and their emotional status at the time?  Dogs can endure incredible amounts of discomfort given a large enough distraction - and a running deer or other animal can usually provide this.  Once your dog has cleared the fence, they can a) wander off and get lost and b) not come back onto the property as the distraction that made them clear the fence in the first place (and endure the pain) is no longer there! It is unwise to leave any dog unsupervised in any backyard for any amount of time - unless you are prepared to deal with the consequences!  These dangers increase exponentially during the night when both wild animals are more present and visually spotting your dog is much harder.

There is also a misguided sense by handlers that dogs 'should be free to wander'.  I often hear that these handlers grew up as children on the farm where the family dog wandered the perimeter (as if by magic it just seemed to 'know' and train itself - how unrealistic is that thought?).  As children and adolescents, the last thing we would watch or remember, is our parents training the dog in knowledge of their farm perimeter or borders as well as how not to aggravate or bother the farm animals.  Since these dogs magically 'knew' we expect our dogs, left freely to roam on the farm property to also 'know'!  This is not only unfair to your dog but also creates immeasurable dangers for them as they will wander off the property and onto country roads.  I frequently come across wandering dogs with no human in sight and no supervision.  My conclusion in these cases is that the owners must not care about these animals since country road traffic, while sparse, moves at a fairly high speed and the danger of being hit by a car, or attacked by a wild animal is significant!

Dogs do NOT need to be 'free'!  What dogs need is love and respect in the form of attention, training and social companionship within their family 'pack'!  Letting them roam does NOT provide them with physical or mental exercise but, rather, contributes to boredom.  If you let a dog loose on a large acreage, chances are that after five minutes, the dog will settle in a 10 square foot area and start digging, or sleep or just lay there.  Without proper interest and stimulation they will NOT get the exercise they need and deserve.

I often tell prospective dogs owners that if they are not prepared to walk their dogs but, rather, intend to release them onto their large property for exercise, that they should get a different pet.  Dogs need human attention and guidance - especially in their first 6 formative months as puppies.  Dogs that we wind up rescuing or seeing in animal shelters were bought by individuals who mere misguided in their beliefs and found that out the hard way when their dogs barked continuously, or dug up their living room carpet or backyard, chewed their baseboards etc etc.

One final point; if you are thinking about getting a second dog to keep your bored first one company - consider this.  If your two dogs wind up becoming the best of pack mates and entertain each other - you will NEVER be more fun than each other so forget about your dog coming to you when called.  This is one of the reasons why professional dog trainers who use their dogs in competitive obedience, agility and other dog sports, separate their dogs when training and often keep the dogs crated outside the home in a separate building.  In the professional world, not obeying a command is not an option for these highly trained and skilled dogs!

The preceding have been offered as 'food for thought' as well as a response to the frequent complaints I hear from dog handlers that their dog will not listen to them 'off leash'.  It is frustrating to me, as a professional trainer and behavioural consultant, that humans expect things from their dogs that they do not expect their children to do and, without any prior training whatsoever!  

Dogs are animals and guided by pack mentality that, unfortunately, the average dog handler does not understand or, worse even, totally disregards.  If I have one single piece of advice for dog owners who walk their dogs off their property is 'keep your dog on a leash and under control at all times'.  It is not only the safest thing for you and your dog but it is also a provincial (and municipal) law!

Jim Tsitanidis
K9 Trainer and Behavioural Consultant