Having your dog off-leash in designated areas is a privilege that takes a LOT of hard work and patience. Even if you're in an area that allows off-leash dogs, there's a lot more to it than unclipping their leash and letting them run wild. Responsible dog ownership means being considerate of public spaces and making sure that if your dog is off leash, they're not going up to every single person or other dogs.
As hard as it is to imagine, not everyone loves dogs! Some people may have past trauma associated with dogs, while others may not even need a reason to prefer not being jumped on or approached by strange dogs.
Solid off-leash training, or recall training, starts with a strong foundation of communication with your dog. Start by building a marker system, then work slowly on a leash from inside your home, to your backyard or outdoor area with less distractions, to an area with more distractions, but still on-leash. We dive a bit deeper below on practical ways to start your off-leash training today!
Start By Building a Marker System
A marker system is a way of communicating feedback to your dog. My marker system is made up of words, or markers, that I use to signal to Kono that he is doing something I ask of him correctly or incorrectly. An easy way to think of markers is that they are marking whether or not he did something correctly.
In recall training, "Yes" is an important marker to mark the moment your dog starts coming back to you.
To build up a Yes marker, you can say Yes and then feed your dog high-value training treats and repeat the exercise until your dog understands that when you say Yes, that means that a treat is coming.
Use High-Value Treats
While using your dog's food can be useful in training, recall is one skill where having even higher-value rewards will only help you.
The reason why you want to use high-value treats is because you're competing with external motivators. When your dog is sniffing that extra smelly patch of grass, is that more interesting to them, or is running back to get a special treat more exciting?
Don't Repeat Yourself - Give Your Dog a Chance to Come
This is something that took me a while to learn because I can be a tad impatient. Not repeating a cue is something I do in general - if I say Come four times in a row, is my dog supposed to come the first time I say it? The second? The fourth? But if Kono didn't come right away, I started adding leash pressure pretty soon after.
Eventually I learned how to take a beat after I said Come (just once) and give Kono a chance to come towards me. If he didn't, it was more information for me. Either whatever he was interested in was more exciting than me and my treats (which is rare but happens more when he's nervous about a dog in the area), or sometimes, he just doesn't hear me, in which case I do say it again. But often what I'd find is that Kono just needed one more second to get a sniff in before he came. And I'm okay with that.
If he takes a while to come and I know he's heard me, I'll use my NRM (no-reward marker), which is Nope (in a short and neutral tone) and then say Come again. This time if he comes, I don't reward him.
Work Inside and On-Leash
The leash is there to guide your dog. When I started recall training with Kono, I didn't even use the word "Come" for several weeks. Saying it in the beginning does nothing if your dog doesn't actually understand the meaning of the word.
So I started with a leash. I either used leash pressure to guide Kono towards me, and when he came, I said Yes and rewarded with Kono's treats, or if he was on leash and started coming to me on his own, I said Yes while running back a few steps.
The reason why I ran back a few steps is because it made it more exciting for him to "chase" me, rather than running back to me in a stationary position.
Once Kono started understanding that coming towards me meant he was going to get treats, I started adding the word Come before he came. Initially, I said it right when he was about to come anyway, so he thought it was his idea all along. Over time, as he learned what the word Come meant, I could say it (still on-leash) when his attention was elsewhere. If he didn't come for whatever reason and I knew that he understood the cue, I could still use the leash to add some leash pressure and release it when he came towards me.
Practice in a Low Distraction Area On-Leash
See a trend here? The answer to the question "How do you start off-leash training your dog?" is essentially "Use a leash." Once your dog's recall is solid inside your home and on a leash, use a long line in low distraction areas to practice even more.
Remember that on-leash recall training with little or no distractions is very different than on-leash recall training with distractions. Just because your dog has solid recall inside your house on a leash doesn't mean they're ready to be off-leash once you move outside. And don't forget - distractions can be things in the environment that we don't even notice, such as smells or sounds.
These are the foundations to getting started with off-leash, or recall, training. In general, you want to start small and increase distance, duration, and distractions. If your dog seems to struggle at any point during your training, take a step back and lower the criteria. The most important thing is to set your dog up for success! Sign up for our newsletter below for future articles straight to your inbox on how to practice off-leash training, off-leash.
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