How Can I Train My Dog to Go Off Leash?
Q. I want to teach my Yorkshire Terrier to do off-leash work, but he bolts every chance he gets and will take off running without coming back. Why does he do that, and is there any way to make him stop?
A. Dogs in general are wired to explore their environment and seek out new things, including social interactions, food and mates. Running after something is instinctive for many dogs; certain breeds have a hard time staying at an owner’s side because they were bred to hunt or chase. Huskies are one such breed that is bred to run, and run they will when given a chance, unless they have been taught otherwise. Basset Hounds may be difficult to stop if they’ve caught an interesting smell and are hot on its trail, while Jack Russell Terriers will race off in pursuit of a fleeing animal such as a squirrel. Independent breeds, such as the Shiba Inu, may be more confident in escaping and venturing out on their own than a dog bred for companionship, such as a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, which are more likely to stay close to its owner. However, regardless of breed, each dog is an individual and can act outside of the breed standard based on their personality, training and comfort in a given situation.
It is also possible that a dog is running away from something specific — something he perceives as a threat or a danger. A variety of things can frighten a dog, including a loud noise or a bigger dog. A dog may also run because of a conflicted relationship with his owner. Dogs running out of fear need immediate help from a veterinary behaviorist or a certified trainer.
Dogs Are Meant to Run
Running away can be highly rewarding for your dog. The feeling of freedom and the rewards he reaps while free, such as getting to greet other dogs and people, chasing after birds and squirrels, or even finding a tasty bowl of kibble left out for the neighbor’s cat can be reinforcing enough to have a dog salivating for his next opportunity to run.
Convince Your Dog to Stay Close
In order to keep your dog from running, you need to make it worth his while to stay with you. Dogs not only need the basic essentials, such as food, water and shelter, but they need enrichment, including social interaction. Often the draw of running off leash is to discover social interactions that can’t be as easily accessed while on leash. Friendly dogs need regular outings around people and other dogs. Exercise is also critical for pets, both the physical outlet of running and playing and the mental stimulation of encountering unfamiliar sights, smells and sounds.
In addition, if your dog is still intact, neutering can make a dramatic difference. Roaming behavior is decreased in 90 percent of male dogs that are altered.
However, the bottom line is this: Training is imperative for keeping dogs close while off leash. Exercising your dog before you train will make him more likely to relax during training sessions, and teaching him some basic behaviors will make him less likely to bolt once he's off his leash.
Training Is Key
To teach your dog heel, stay, and come when called, start in a low-distraction environment with your pet safely secured. As your dog reliably responds to these commands, you can move to areas with more distractions, such as people and other dogs. Keep your dog secured on a long line; eventually, you can graduate to a drag line, which is a slick rope attached to a harness. A drag line won’t catch on things as readily as a normal leash will, which gives your dog more freedom without turning him completely loose.
Alternatively, look for larger fenced areas for your training sessions, such as the dog park or dog beach in the early morning when few people or pets are likely to be around. Once your dog proves reliable at responding to the heel, stay and come when called commands on a long line or in a large fenced area, you can think about letting him off leash.
If your dog consistently runs away when chasing something, his predatory behavior needs to be addressed and managed. The greatest safeguard to protect your predatory pet and anyone or anything he might chase is the use of a barrier such as a leash. There are some dogs who will just never be reliable off-leash dogs; these dogs can learn to be completely content on leash when given enough exercise and stimulation and can be given the off-leash experience in safe areas, such as a fenced yard or at the dog park.
There's always a risk to having your dog off leash in a public place. An off-leash dog can dart into a busy street while chasing a squirrel or end up in a fight because he approached a dog that was appropriately leashed and caused that dog to feel threatened. Train your dog carefully, and be thoughtful about when and where you let him off leash.