Is Your Dog Ready to Hike Off-Leash?

A reader recently commented on the “Don’t Worry, He’s Friendly!”  blog entry. She is committed to training her dogs to be well-behaved in public, and asked that others be patient while she teaches her dogs off-leash manners. She rightly pointed out that a dog is not reliably trained overnight, and said she feels if she leashes her dogs as soon as she sees someone else on a trail (as I recommended), the dogs will “learn nothing.”

The key to solving the training aspect of this dilemma is to understand that dogs are always learning from the situations we put them in.

If dogs are allowed to gallivant off leash to a stranger (even if the dog is friendly, still in the process of being trained, or any other reason), then the dog will likely find that to be fun and interesting and therefore be inclined to repeat it. With many dogs, it takes only one or two rehearsals of the behavior for it to seem worth repeating.

If, however, they are prevented from running around in the presence of strangers by being called and leashed (which courtesy and common decency towards others requires of us), and immediately provided with something fun and interesting (like praise, treats, a tug toy, a chance to sniff something fascinating) then that is the habit the dog will enjoy. It is up to us to make the choice and do our best to instill good habits. Part of good training is refraining from putting our dogs in situations that set them up for failure (some old-time methods used to do this deliberately, but we now know better). Rather, we should set them up for success so they get to rehearse correct behavior over and over.

It does take time to train a dog to respond reliably when we call, and I admire dog owners who make the effort. The good news is that there is no reason the training must occur at the expense of strangers’ comfort (or that of their dog!). Any solid recall training program will introduce gradually the distraction of other people, dogs, and wildlife, with the proper prevention measures in place to avoid subjecting anyone to the behavior of an untrained dog.

For example, we can start off in a training class designed to teach these skills using tried and true methods, rather than simply doing our best and hoping things go well. As the dog reaches more advanced levels, we can set up situations in which the approaching “stranger” is actually a friend we’ve enlisted to help assess and strengthen the dog’s skills. Until you can reliably call your dog away from the most tempting distractions under controlled situations, it is not fair to others to attempt it in real-life circumstances where you could cause problems for people and dogs, however well-intentioned you may be.

So where does one find a solid training program, one that uses modern, reward-based methods to get a jaw-dropping reliable recall? The book Out and About with Your Dog: Dog to Dog Interactions On the Street, On the Trails and at the Dog Park by Sue Sternberg offers one such training program. Another solid approach is Leslie Nelson’s Really Reliable Recall DVD or Susan Garrett’s Five Minute Formula for a Brilliant Recall webinar. Nowadays most anyone has access to a professional trainer who can create a customized plan (try Association of Pet Dog Trainers and do a Trainer Search). You might also find it helpful to train towards Canine Life and Social Skills (C.L.A.S.S.) degrees, in which the dog must come instantly even when tempted by a stranger offering treats or with food and toys spread on the ground.

By the way, even if your dog is on leash, and especially if your dog is on a retractable leash, it is important to keep your dog by your side when passing others and not allow your dog to approach them (joggers, cyclists, people on horseback or with a stroller, people walking their dogs). Please put yourself in others’ shoes; while your dog may be lovely, young or just learning, their dog may be shy or unable to tolerate invasions of personal space. If you are interested in a doggie introduction, you must first ask, “Can they meet?” and wait for an answer before even considering letting your dog approach. This protects your dog, their dog, and shows respect for your fellow humans.

None of us is perfect, and we all make mistakes from time to time. Hopefully we all try to do our part on public trails by recognizing we each play a role in the continued availability of these spaces to people and dogs. Just as we avoid littering and leaving behind dog waste, let us to be courteous and not allow our dogs to intrude on the outdoor experience of others. Happy training!

5 thoughts on “Is Your Dog Ready to Hike Off-Leash?

  1. I’ve been so blunt in the past to have responded to “Don’t worry, he’s friendly” with “Well and good, MINE ISN’T!!” just to dissuade the rude encounter, even if my dog enjoys a good butt sniff. The beagle pulling towards us on the end of the flexi-lead would rather mount my dog than extend a proper greeting first. As well as reply to “Does it bite?” with “He can bite, and I cannot guarantee he won’t when provoked” And last but not least to “He’s wagging and seems so nice, it’s cruel to muzzle him!” as a person misidentifies a head halter for a muzzle, I respond “Wagging is sometimes ‘red-flagging,’ but the muzzle is actually a head halter, like horses wear, and he can still bite, make no mistake.” I enjoy making friends with dog-loving folks, but I enjoy having a happy, harmonious dog more. My younger dogs haven’t been off leash since we lived on a large acreage farm. I just prefer control.

  2. I hear ya, the response to poor petiquette can be tricky, phew.

    My new plan, which I think is very practical, is to carry a wad of $100 bills on hikes. Every time I see an owner leash their dog and keep them at their side, I will thank them for being such a good ambassador for dog lovers everywhere, and hand them a $100 bill.

    First step, acquire wad of $100 bills…

    1. Write many many many more books Barbara ;] Better yet, TV series! Become the Marty Stouffer of dog communication and observations. You’ll be a household name like him in no time, with wads of 100’s to throw as positive reinforcement to humans behaving well. Your own version of “Wild America”…

      1. You know, I can honestly say I have never been compared to Marty Stouffer. Must be the moustache. I do like that business plan in any case, and I will get right on it!

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