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Hi everyone. I know many of you have had experiences with different types of dogs and different dog personalities, which I understand factors into whether a dog can be safely trusted off leash perhaps just as much if not more than training does. Can you tell me about your experiences training and allowing your dog(s) to be with you off leash--not in an urban environment, but say out trailing or hiking? A solid recall is clearly a must, but it also strikes me that very good impulse control plus a strong relationship with your dog would also be necessary. Wondering whether anyone has had success in training an 'unlikely candidate' to be safe off leash? And if not, how you've found a balance between giving some freedom on the trails and ensuring everyone's safety.
 

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My dog is not currently off leash reliable. He has a really strong drive to hunt and just cannot process that someone is calling him while he's hunting. Prey drive is an issue too, wanting to chase things, but the bigger problem is following animal trails because I can't even predict when that will happen. He was off leash from 8 weeks to 8 months on our property, because I didn't want off leash to be a big deal, and I wanted to put in that foundation, but what I've learned is that instinct is stronger than training and foundations sometimes.

Right now we are working with an ecollar. Still very early days, but I hope this might be the answer for us. Before I got the collar I did a ton of recall foundation work and I know that he knows the cue, and I know that it's an automatic response, and I know that's it's been rewarded heavily. Now I need something to help enforce it, especially at a distance, when he "can't hear me" anymore.

Lots of people with dogs who are off leash reliable will tell you the foundations they did, but I'm convinced that a lot of that is up to the dog. Yeah, training is important because you can obviously improve a recall or destroy a recall, but I think most of those perfect recall dogs came hardwired to be that way.

And as far as off leash hiking goes, it makes me nervous with any dog who goes more than 20ft away. For a very close orbiting dog with perfect recall it's fine, but for a dog who likes to go around that bend in the trail I'm not comfortable. Mostly I don't want my dog running into hikers or other dogs while off leash if I'm not there (or even if I am there). So even if the ecollar gives me a near perfect recall, I'm not sure how often I would let my dog off leash off of my property. It would have to be just the right place.
 

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For sure .. recall, impulse control and a strong relationship are pretty much essential imo. Although I also believe using a VERY high rate of reinforcement for voluntarily checking in will go a long way. Which, sort of, comes back to the strong relationship thing. ie: setting consistent limitations for allowable distance, benevolently controlling resources at all times not just during trail walks, being the most interesting choice on the menu, etc. But yeah, capitalizing on as many golden opportunities as possible and thus building a solid history, are equally important.
 

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For sure .. recall, impulse control and a strong relationship are pretty much essential imo. Although I also believe using a VERY high rate of reinforcement for voluntarily checking in will go a long way. Which, sort of, comes back to the strong relationship thing. ie: setting consistent limitations for allowable distance, benevolently controlling resources at all times not just during trail walks, being the most interesting choice on the menu, etc. But yeah, capitalizing on as many golden opportunities as possible and thus building a solid history, are equally important.
I agree with this. We haven't tried Luna in a non-fenced off leash area yet (Maybe this summer, if my nerves allow...) BUT, when she is off leash in secure areas, we have always given her high value rewards for voluntarily checking in with us. IMO it's something you can never reward too much or too highly, because it could be a life saver some day. When I call my dog, I want my dog to COME.

We have seen results just from that in the 7 months we've had her. We have called her away from other playing dogs instantly when the other dog owners were repeatedly calling their dogs over and over to no avail. Yesterday I took her to the park (a baseball field) and we were the only ones there. When there aren't other dogs to play with I walk around the field with her so she still gets exercise (she isn't much for fetch) and she generally stayed within 10-20 feet, if not right next to me, even though she had unrestricted access to the whole field. This is without me asking her to do anything, just walking. We have done very minimal formal recall training (IE: setting up situations where we called her and rewarded) other than rewarding for checking in.

I know people who have off leash reliable huskies and other northern breeds that are known to be unreliable off leash, and I know they have used exclusively +R to achieve it.
 

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I absolutely agree with everything said by both Elrohwen and petpeeve.

I do off leash hiking with my dogs. 3 of the 5 are reliable - and when I say reliable I mean they stay within 10 feet of me unless given permission to go further, recall rapidly and eagerly. Yes, a lot of training went into that (recall training, practiced insecurity, high rate of reinforcement with high value rewards, just generally making it a game), but.

They're all dogs who are biddable, and very, very velcro 'stick close' dogs by nature. The reliable ones I mean. One of the ones I don't really consider reliable in the woods or the like is deaf as a post, and that's the ONLY reason. I trust her off leash anywhere with good visability. The other dog stays on a long line in situations where I'm not entirely sure of him. He's less biddable, more willful, and more prey-driven. He's back to being 95% now, but I like the fail safe just in case, when I'm not sure of the area myself.

Don't misunderstand - training matters. Impulse control, staying close, coming back, those are all big deals. But just as big a deal is the dog's basic drives and personality and brain. A highly independent prey driven dog? No way. No way, no how. I'd still do the training, but I'd do it as a failsafe in CASE they got off, but I would never let them off and expect that the training would override their drive to hunt, scent, or run.

(Worth noting: My dogs are a gsd mix, a border collie, a toy breed mutt of some kind (possibly with herder, even), a boston terrier (companion breed), and a rat terrier who, while a hunting MACHINE, is 8 years old and broken and therefore the clingiest dog in the world)
 

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For sure .. recall, impulse control and a strong relationship are pretty much essential imo. Although I also believe using a VERY high rate of reinforcement for voluntarily checking in will go a long way. Which, sort of, comes back to the strong relationship thing. ie: setting consistent limitations for allowable distance, benevolently controlling resources at all times not just during trail walks, being the most interesting choice on the menu, etc. But yeah, capitalizing on as many golden opportunities as possible and thus building a solid history, are equally important.
This is what I've done with all my dogs and they've all hiked very well off leash....

Until Hank.

He is GOOD most of the time. He is very in tune to me and very close orbiting. Until something kicks in his prey drive. Then he's GONE. Flat out gone for good, not even realizing he's being called or anything. Total tunnel vision on the prey. It is very different type of a situation with him versus my herders and papillons. With the other dogs I could stay a step ahead most the time and spot potential prey issues before they did. And when they did see prey they wanted to chase they still seemed to have half a mind on me and seemed to realize I still existed. Hank doesn't seem to register anything beyond the prey when he gets in that mode. With Hank, he often reacts to a miniscule sound or smell that I would never notice. He is hunting 99% of the time we're on a walk. Even on paved trails he will be walking calmly then suddenly dive into bushes after something. He is very wired in to do so.

He is on a long line on hikes now. I trust him enough to do agility work in the front yard and in the park just fine. When he's working with me, he is very focused on me. But on hikes it's a different story because he's not 100% working all the time.

The last time I tried was out in the middle of nowhere armed with cookies, toys and I lost him to an armadillo. Thankfully once he had it in its den he was not leaving it and was busy trying to dig the thing out. But yeah... not happening again.

I have toyed with the ecollar idea but I don't know that I'd go there. We'll see. I have been told by people that have more biddable breeds (ie herders and honestly all BC people) that I should just work through the prey drive. I used to say the same thing. But the terrier prey drive is very different from what I'm used to and I'm not sure you really can work through that high level of drive to hunt and react so quickly to varmints to a point where it's safe to casually hike with him. Get him to work off leash in a more controlled area? Yes. Hike through nature whimsically without fear that he'll scent or hear or see something I don't? Not sure it's possible. Breed and individual really matters.

For now, I don't mind using a long line. It's what is safest. We will continue working his recall and rewarding checking in with me. Working impulse control, etc. But at this point I don't see off leash hiking being his thing.
 

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My Staffordshire Terrier puppy is 10 months old now and she's been going off leash in nearby fields/trails/dog park/hiking/etc regularly since she was around 5 months. Bully breeds tend to be very loyal and velcro and I've never, not a single time, had an issue with her taking off, going to far or not coming back. I've worked HARD on her recall and have consistently praised and/or rewarded her every. single. time. she's stopped and looked back at me. Every time. We started on a long line and worked on recall/rewarding for being near me and the habits stuck when I let her off leash. Now, if she comes over and walks beside me when she's off leash, I reward her. I still praise when she looks back or comes over to me. I've found that practicing on a daily basis has really helped and I do my best to make myself the most rewarding choice. But who knows what's gonna happen when she gets older! I plan on leashing her (restricting her freedom) if she decides to not come when called.
 

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Plus side: Hank is very good at lure coursing and barn hunts. ;)

EDIT: I do think Hank would come back to me (or try to come back to me at least) after his prey was dead. Haha, not sure that makes it any better.
 

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Until something kicks in his prey drive. Then he's GONE. Flat out gone for good, not even realizing he's being called or anything. Total tunnel vision on the prey.
I have been told by people that have more biddable breeds (ie herders and honestly all BC people) that I should just work through the prey drive. I used to say the same thing. But the terrier prey drive is very different from what I'm used to and I'm not sure you really can work through that high level of drive to hunt and react so quickly to varmints to a point where it's safe to casually hike with him.
Yeah, this is exactly where I'm at and why I've decided to try the ecollar. You can train and train and train, and make yourself high value, and get a dog who is conditioned to come every time, but that prey/hunt instinct is just so strong in some dogs. I honestly don't think there will ever be anything more rewarding in Watson's life than following the scent of something - toys and treats and mom just can't compete. Plus, once they have run away a couple times, they realize that there is nothing you can do about it. You can have a dog who recalls perfectly 99 times, but that 100th time when they just keep going, you're screwed.

So far the ecollar hasn't been that big of a deal. I have it set on level 22 out of 172 or something ridiculous, just enough so that he notices it. Watson is a soft dog and shuts down quickly if he's confused, but he go the idea very quickly and hasn't shut down at all. I'm still laying the foundations but the whole thing is less scary and aversive than I always assumed. Time will tell when we get the point of trying it under heavy distraction.

I know a herding dog with perfect recall (has recalled mid-chase off of squirrels and cats). I would consider him a pretty high prey drive dog, but at the end of the day listening to his people always wins. He's had pretty much zero training, other than some very basic "call the dog, give him a treat" stuff. Some dogs just come that way. The fact that pretty much every gun dog trainer I have seen uses an ecollar tells me that most bird dogs don't come that way.
 

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I think it really depends on the dog. You can only do so much training until it's up to the dog whether or not it will ever have a good recall. Like elrowhen, my dog was mostly off leash until he hit around 8 months and no longer listened. After that I trained him on an E-collar and it worked 50% of the time so I decided it wasn't worth it. He actually responded better to the vibrate instead of low stim so I only used that and the tone. I have always rewarded the dogs for coming to me, even in the house and still do reward them every time. It doesn't make a difference. I lost one of my dogs for 4 hours in the woods yesterday because the leash slipped and he caught a scent. If your dog doesn't have really reliable recall then I wouldn't take the chance. My dogs are scent hounds though, so if yours isn't then you've got that going for you.
 

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I reinforce recall within my fenced yard and when using a 50 foot line in open fields, but my dogs are not off-leash for walks or hikes. I was able to get a strong enough recall to allow my hound off-leash at a private horse farm, but that was a place where he could check back in to a static location rather than checking in with a person who is moving along a trail. It was also a place with no unknown dogs or people, so it greatly reduced any chance of a bad encounter. He can drag a leash in a low-key area that doesn't have deer, but that really only done to reinforce "dropped leash" training rather than adding something to our hikes.

Fully off-leash in public though, nope. For one, there are few legally off-leash places in my area and having dealt with dog aggressive/dog reactive dogs, I developed a bit of a pet peeve about off-leash dogs in on-leash areas. But mainly, no matter how much reinforcement there is, there will at some point be a prey animal that causes my dogs to lose all higher brain function and go "deaf" to the world around there aside from that prey animal. The risk vs reward weighs very heavily on the side of leashing them.

One is a hound who will follow his nose to the ends of the earth; the other is a bully breed whose terrier hunting instinct goes full bore very quickly. I mean, she killed a squirrel once that had a 150 foot head start on her and she still caught up with it and chomp. For the bully, even if she had great recall, she would still not be off-leash on public property because if anything happened, she would be the dog blamed due to her looks/breed.

I have a 15 foot biothane leash that is just the right length for a little extra freedom but isn't too long to be cumbersome, doesn't snag on branches and doesn't absorb mud or water. really, given the width of most trails we go on and the terrain around them, they'd gain basically nothing from being off leash.
 

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Discussion Starter #12
This is all really interesting, thanks for these replies. It sounds like some of your dogs just get way more out of the environment than others' do, and that this is a really hard force to work against.

For sure .. recall, impulse control and a strong relationship are pretty much essential imo. Although I also believe using a VERY high rate of reinforcement for voluntarily checking in will go a long way. Which, sort of, comes back to the strong relationship thing. ie: setting consistent limitations for allowable distance, benevolently controlling resources at all times not just during trail walks, being the most interesting choice on the menu, etc. But yeah, capitalizing on as many golden opportunities as possible and thus building a solid history, are equally important.
I'm wondering whether there's something in this^^ for those types of dogs that struggle with not engaging with all the things in the environment which excite them, but whose drives are not so hard wired and entirely instinctual - as with Watson and Hank.

I'm also wondering whether once a behaviour that is NOT safe and not compatible with off leashing is practiced - such as blowing off a recall, even one time - will it be forever included in that dog's repertoire of possible responses to a given situation? always that risk?

And finally, whether there is some value in using primarily premack to train off leash reliability for those dogs who don't find conventional rewards... rewarding? And (for you more advanced trainers out there) how this could be done? Perhaps where 'benevolently controlling access to resources' takes the form of exchanging brief freedoms for ... voluntary check-ins (looking at you, CptJack, ireth0 and ChelseaOliver) or quick recalls? I'm asking about this specifically as I'm working with a dog who could give two hoots about whatever I have in my pocket and who's totally in love with the world, and I'm concerned that age(ing) really isn't going to fix this problem. I've found premack to be useful for establishing other desirable behaviours (i.e. LLW), just not so sure how to use it in situations where the degree of reward offered by the environment is too great to compete with.
 

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Yeah, this is exactly where I'm at and why I've decided to try the ecollar. You can train and train and train, and make yourself high value, and get a dog who is conditioned to come every time, but that prey/hunt instinct is just so strong in some dogs. I honestly don't think there will ever be anything more rewarding in Watson's life than following the scent of something - toys and treats and mom just can't compete. Plus, once they have run away a couple times, they realize that there is nothing you can do about it. You can have a dog who recalls perfectly 99 times, but that 100th time when they just keep going, you're screwed.

So far the ecollar hasn't been that big of a deal. I have it set on level 22 out of 172 or something ridiculous, just enough so that he notices it. Watson is a soft dog and shuts down quickly if he's confused, but he go the idea very quickly and hasn't shut down at all. I'm still laying the foundations but the whole thing is less scary and aversive than I always assumed. Time will tell when we get the point of trying it under heavy distraction.
I will be interested to hear your experience for sure! I am not sure it is the right choice for us like I said but I see the use for it now a lot clearer. Let me know how it goes with Watson! Could you PM me some of the specifics (collar brand, method, etc) I am just interested in hearing what you're doing. Don't want to start a debate though.

I know a herding dog with perfect recall (has recalled mid-chase off of squirrels and cats). I would consider him a pretty high prey drive dog, but at the end of the day listening to his people always wins. He's had pretty much zero training, other than some very basic "call the dog, give him a treat" stuff. Some dogs just come that way. The fact that pretty much every gun dog trainer I have seen uses an ecollar tells me that most bird dogs don't come that way.
The papillons and the shelties and the GSDx even were much better at off leash than Hank. They came pre-programmed so to speak.

I do agree too that some high drive herders can have high prey drive but it seems to manifest itself differently. Hard to explain but I agree. Mine always seemed to have one ear on me at least.

I could not beat a squirrel/rabbit/rat/armadillo/etc with Hank no matter what I tried. It's a nice slice of humble pie for someone who has had many off leash reliable dogs. ;)
 

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Discussion Starter #14
I have a 15 foot biothane leash that is just the right length for a little extra freedom but isn't too long to be cumbersome, doesn't snag on branches and doesn't absorb mud or water. really, given the width of most trails we go on and the terrain around them, they'd gain basically nothing from being off leash.
So this is interesting - what make is your leash? I also let my dog drag a long line, 20 feet, and it snags on everything and is actually becoming more of a hazard than it is useful as a safety measure. This may actually be just the solution I need right now.
 

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I think it really depends on the dog. You can only do so much training until it's up to the dog whether or not it will ever have a good recall. Like elrowhen, my dog was mostly off leash until he hit around 8 months and no longer listened. After that I trained him on an E-collar and it worked 50% of the time so I decided it wasn't worth it. He actually responded better to the vibrate instead of low stim so I only used that and the tone. I have always rewarded the dogs for coming to me, even in the house and still do reward them every time. It doesn't make a difference. I lost one of my dogs for 4 hours in the woods yesterday because the leash slipped and he caught a scent. If your dog doesn't have really reliable recall then I wouldn't take the chance. My dogs are scent hounds though, so if yours isn't then you've got that going for you.
This would have been terrifying, I am so sorry that happened! It's also an important cautionary tale for me, as someone who's probably more eager than she should be to get this off-leash thing happening.
 

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I know a herding dog with perfect recall (has recalled mid-chase off of squirrels and cats). I would consider him a pretty high prey drive dog, but at the end of the day listening to his people always wins. He's had pretty much zero training, other than some very basic "call the dog, give him a treat" stuff. Some dogs just come that way. The fact that pretty much every gun dog trainer I have seen uses an ecollar tells me that most bird dogs don't come that way.
Is this what you mean when you say that some dogs just come with perfect recall? In this case, they didn't train for it specifically it just... worked?

As well, I'll look forward to hearing how it goes with the e-collar training. I remember when I first joined and was totally overwhelmed with a very exuberant and outgoing pup, your responses were really supportive and understanding. It seems like you've worked really hard to get where you are with Watson, who I know is also an exuberant guy.
 

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So this is interesting - what make is your leash? I also let my dog drag a long line, 20 feet, and it snags on everything and is actually becoming more of a hazard than it is useful as a safety measure. This may actually be just the solution I need right now.
Biothane Long lead
I have the 15 foot, 5/8 inch. It is this brand, but I bought it elsewhere for about the same price. The handle loop could still catch on stuff but unlike a nylon or cotton lead, the lead itself doesn't snag on burrs/branches/etc.

I don't think Premack would work much for using prey drive as its own high-value reward, in the sense that I can't exactly reward Eva for checking in by allowing her to then kill the squirrel or bunny she's going nutty over. In most situations she is very food motivated, but prey tops any food.
 

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This is all really interesting, thanks for these replies. It sounds like some of your dogs just get way more out of the environment than others' do, and that this is a really hard force to work against.



I'm wondering whether there's something in this^^ for those types of dogs that struggle with not engaging with all the things in the environment which excite them, but whose drives are not so hard wired and entirely instinctual - as with Watson and Hank.

I'm also wondering whether once a behaviour that is NOT safe and not compatible with off leashing is practiced - such as blowing off a recall, even one time - will it be forever included in that dog's repertoire of possible responses to a given situation? always that risk?

And finally, whether there is some value in using primarily premack to train off leash reliability for those dogs who don't find conventional rewards... rewarding? And (for you more advanced trainers out there) how this could be done? Perhaps where 'benevolently controlling access to resources' takes the form of exchanging brief freedoms for ... voluntary check-ins (looking at you, CptJack, ireth0 and ChelseaOliver) or quick recalls? I'm asking about this specifically as I'm working with a dog who could give two hoots about whatever I have in my pocket and who's totally in love with the world, and I'm concerned that age(ing) really isn't going to fix this problem. I've found premack to be useful for establishing other desirable behaviours (i.e. LLW), just not so sure how to use it in situations where the degree of reward offered by the environment is too great to compete with.
I have done premack work with Mia and squirrels. I basically set up shop in an area that was as safe as possible and had lots of squirrels then rewarded when she came back to me. It did work well but needed fine tuning and brushing up sometimes.

As far as mistakes go, yes the more mistakes happen, the more likely they are to happen imo. I always reward a recall in public. 100% of the time. The paps and Hank know I am loaded on hikes so they anticipate rewards.

I do practice a lot of dropped leash type scenarios with Hank and collar grabs, etc. He is far from a bolter in normal circumstances but that prey drive....
 

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Is this what you mean when you say that some dogs just come with perfect recall? In this case, they didn't train for it specifically it just... worked?
Certain breeds/individuals are more likely to be hard wired to want to work with people and want to stick close and maybe are not as hard wired to chase/hunt for prey. It doesn't mean that the people with the 'easier' breeds haven't done any training though I have certainly seen many individuals of various breeds seem to pick up off leash rules with little effort on the owner's behalf. My shelties did not ever have specific off leash training but they were fine, the papillons are reinforced but it's never taken more than a cookie to get them to pay attention. They would melt and die if they thought I was gone out of their sight (the few times I've hid from them, they immediately look for me). I see many many 'just pet' BCs that can walk through the middle of a town off leash. Etc

Not trying to belittle the work a papillon/sheltie/BC owner has put in to their dogs recall but it's just often easier with those incredibly owner oriented and biddable breeds. You still have to do some work usually, but it's much less of a challenge than with an average hound/husky/terrier.

disclaimer: all dogs are individuals and such but there are trends
 

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My dogs have always been trained to be off leash, even in our yard (which is not fenced). We start them young by always responding to 'come' and rewarding for coming, whether it was on their own or if we had to go get them and make them come to us.

I usually take each dog thru two years of obedience and agility training, so I think there is a bond there from that. I also don't allow my dogs to greet everyone we pass while out on leashed walks, so they get used to the fact that every person we pass doesn't necessarily want to be their friend.

When out hiking off leash or at a family/friends' house or farm we also bring special treats to give the dog when she comes to check in on her own. If she comes when called, there is a 50/50 chance she will rewarded with a treat, but she won't know if she doesn't come. She likes bits of cheese and tiny cat treats and usually only gets those when we are out and about.



Any time you take your dog off leash you do need to be mentally prepared for worst case scenario.
 
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