Ah, a worthwhile meditation topic. There are additional factors to consider beyond the poignant points that Patricia McConnell just posted (or reposted) on her wonderful blog, “The Other End of the Leash“. Certainly, the average person has little to no actual impulse control training on their dogs. I’ve taught recall classes where people who regularly let their dogs off leash couldn’t even recall their dog successfully in a small, indoor, gated area. Add to that the need to train these skills (impulse control, distance position(s), and recall, to name a few) under arousal, and you’ve lost the majority, by far. They want that degree of, I hesitate to call it “control”, but they won’t bother to put the time in to train even half of it. The real tragedy, IMO, is that these can be some of the most fun exercises to train (when executed well;)! There are obvious requirements, that few could meet (and if you can’t meet those requirements, ask yourself if you have any business letting your dog off leash!). But, beyond that, there are a couple of other factors to consider, right?
I’m a “free bird” sort, and I relish in letting dogs exercise themselves, leaping and bounding through the woods. I grew up escaping with our family dogs, taking them to run off leash in natural areas, and I attempted, in vain, to recall half the time. The science of behavior wasn’t what it is today and so much time working with those dogs bore little fruits. But I did observe and learn about the nature of dogs. Our Jack Russel would run off only to be found miles away attacking someone’s sprinkler heads, waterfalls, all sorts of dangerous, unhealthy, you name it situations, and had been arrested more than once. Maybe Jacks, like cats, have 9 lives. That was over 20 years ago, so, please don’t hold it against me. My dogs were off-leash much like I was a child left to my own devices. (The beauty of this, though, is when I was a teen, I sought sanctuary by running around with the dog gang rather than getting caught up in naughty teen traps).
These days, I still seek refuge in nature and hunt for the right places, and the right times, to let my dogs run. How else are you truly going to condition agility athletes? You can’t just work fast-twitch muscles chasing a ball/disc. You need to let them build their relaxed trotting muscles, bending and stretching without extreme speed. Dogs need to bounce and play and wrestle and move all the ways that nature intended. It’s imperative you invest inordinate amounts of time developing “control” so you can give your dog more freedom, and, if you don’t, you have a conundrum. Dog parks, where you can find some of the most out of control dogs, and, sometimes aggressive, or sometimes socially retarded dogs who usually value playing with other dogs over their owners is out of the question for my dogs. I don’t believe it to be safe. Once in a while my dogs will go to a select dog park, usually to practice training around the distractions of obnoxious dogs, and even then, only at certain times of day (low-volume).
But here’s my biggest problem. One of my dogs is a hyper prey focused rescue. It took him 2 years before he’d eat food or play with toys when out in nature, because he was so distracted by every movement (literally, a leaf falling would distract him from the simplest request). He is tough because his heart’s desire is tracking (in hopes of a chase). My other dog is glued to my side (or, more specifically, facing me ahead on trail while staring at her toy), and her biggest failure is being highly social with people. The social piece, that’s just who she is, which I support. She’s harmless, albeit usually a bit dirty (or wet), so I manage her and haven’t meticulously worked on her greeting behavior (I’ve got other priorities and interests). The toy and handler focus, I capitalized on that. I brainwashed her, directing all her prey and herding interest into toys, which I control (so much more cooperative than those squirrels!). It is easier with dogs with certain aptitudes. But, you still have to sculpt and direct those behaviors to manifest in a constructive way.
Add to the challenge, I used to take a couple of client dogs with me to the woods in addition to my 2. My favorite protocol is to collect my whole group when anyone approaches, with or without dogs, and sit everybody in a cluster off the side of the trail with me in between my dogs and the passing party. The huge challenge is other people respecting the effort the stay requires (hardest for the client dogs with less training). This is where fights can happen between me and other dog owners. If they allow their dog(s) to “say hello”, and crash into the pile, I will head them off while trying to verbally get the owner to assist, and when that doesn’t happen in time, I will remove the offending party in whatever way possible (not always pretty). All the while, my biggest focus is on my reactive rescue, who, won’t seek out a confrontation, but will hold his ground (he had to fend for himself in the rescue yard with a load of BCs so he’s serious about boundaries, and very fair about them (but people tend not to understand this well)).
For instances when a dog might not heed the recall, consideration of temperament comes into play. The goofy flat-coat that doesn’t listen well when she sees other dogs is bombproof, sweet, passive. So, not too big of a worry. But, my reactive rescue is always being trained and can down at a distance while chasing squirrels, and is at the top of my priorities. I can manage it, but, honestly, few have the dexterity to juggle and manage such a feat. I’ve encountered dog walkers who had too many dogs to handle, each of which would probably be difficult to control verbally alone, and they have a gang of them off leash. This becomes an altercation where I start demanding that they “call their dogs” as I attempt to back away while organizing my group. They usually can’t catch their bunch, but I can usually manage their dog and send them back to them. Because my group is already anchored in a tight cluster in a sit-stay, I have the freedom to body block and handle the incoming dog that isn’t responding to her walker.
But, it could all go wrong. Nothing is certain with animals. For that reason, I wouldn’t bring multiple difficult dogs on the same outing. I rely on the rest of the group being under good to excellent verbal control so I can focus on my one loose cannon (who will spend much more time on leash, possibly entirely). I don’t recommend other people attempt this sort of thing. I have over 20 years of professional animal handling experience. And still, there’s risk. But, the benefits are too great to play it perfectly safe. I’m sure to discuss with clients (and have them sign off on paper) about what can go wrong. A dog could get lost chasing a deer or a bear. Or attacked, by a wild animal or by a rude dog that shouldn’t be off leash! There are poisons and dirty water, holes to break legs in, etc. It is a gamble.
So, what are your options? What everybody really needs is good instruction. Not the kind you get from a pet dog class. The kind where you take private lessons with someone well-versed in working with dogs WHEN THEY ARE EXCITED. Most “professional dog trainers” try to manage a dog’s arousal level so that they don’t get into the zone where they are aroused and find it difficult to listen. That is a big mistake, in my opinion. It’s a much better idea to train for the most challenging situations, the real life situations, and progressively build to the point where your dog can function (i.e. listen and respond) to you while exciting stuff is happening. This is a skill set that pays of handsomely in quality of life and has benefits beyond just the recall. I believe it’s THE most important thing and if you only work on 1 thing with your dog, this should be it.
I’ve taught group recall classes, and may not offer this material beyond a one-on-one setting again because the class attracted people with lively and excitable (some may call them naughty) dogs. Of course, these are the dogs and people that need the most help. But, to really trigger the arousal that makes it so hard for a distracted dog to come when called is extremely difficult in a room full of high-wired dogs. It certainly is a goal to get each dog to the place where they can see this kind of excitement and not lose their head, but that takes months and months (maybe years) of training, and is not the ideal starting point to build these skills. And, working privately, you can always find real life situations or strategically arrange some to trigger and challenge your team when you’re ready for that.
And your battle may be easier or very, very difficult. It depends on your dog. It depends on what your dog has learned, how he was raised to understand the world, what genetic predisposition is ruling his brain, how you respond, what you address, etc. But, it is your responsibility to prepare your dog with good training if you plan on ever letting your dog off leash. Some dogs may not be candidates to enjoy such freedom. And, for those that are, there’s a time and place to take the associated risks. Realize that you are an ambassador for us all, and if somebody deathly afraid of dogs gets greeted with a happy nuzzle from your off-leash dog, you are not serving our community. Don’t assume anybody wants to greet your dog. Try to collect your dog whenever you encounter others. Once you have your dog under control, you can ask if they’d like to say “Hi”. As a dog-lover-for-life, I am not interested in your unruly dog jumping all over me when we meet on trail. I once had a new pair of shoes ruined when I “wasn’t asking for it”. Someone’s bouncy, happy, clueless and untrained puppy slid down my pant legs and stepped all over me on the way out. I wouldn’t have minded a wet “nose stamp” while the owner was trying to recall, but they just watched and laughed, thinking their puppy was cute. All of these little trespasses are what takes our right to let our dogs off leash away. But, nobody minds my off leash dogs when I call them and they circle tight around my body and all lay down and stay while I greet a passer-by. So, please think about everything involved with letting your dog off leash before deciding to do so.