Loving Your Off-Leash Skills: How to Train an Automatic Check-In
that of all the sights I love in this world
– and there are plenty –
very near the top of the list
is this one: dogs without leashes.
Walking or hiking off-leash looks deceptively easy, but most dogs need extensive training before earning off-leash privileges. Staying near and coming when called are skills that require practice and consistency. Training your dog to come when called is not a one-and-done process: you must reinforce the behavior throughout your dog’s life.
Most dog training classes address recall (“come”), and hundreds of online tutorials are available. However, teaching your dog how to voluntarily and periodically report back to you when off-leash is less discussed. Here you will learn how to teach your dog to check in with you when off-leash. Frequent check-ins help keep your dog safe and are an invaluable component of training a reliable recall.
Not all dogs are candidates for off-leash activities. If you have neither the time nor inclination to train a solid recall, then keep your dog tethered unless they are in an enclosed area. The safety of your dog, other dogs, wildlife, and other people is more important than seeing your dog run free. Dogs who are reactive to or unpredictable around other dogs should always remain leashed when in public.
Your dog must first be able to follow basic cues when outside and when around distractions. Poor recall skills are often issues of over-arousal or fear in disguise. If your dog loses his mind when other dogs are playing or when he sees a skateboard or a jogger, your first job is training him to be calm around distractions before practicing recall in exciting environments. Anxious or stressed dogs need help overcoming their fears before learning to be off-leash, especially dogs who may bolt when frightened. If you struggle with teaching recall because your dog is over-aroused or fearful, reach out to a qualified trainer or behavior consultant.
Resist the temptation to think of off-leash as all or nothing. Depending on where you are with your dog’s recall training, allow for gradations of off-leash activities. Your dog may be able to be off-leash in some places and under certain situations but in other areas must stay leashed. Using a long lead (anywhere from 10-20 feet) is helpful when first teaching recall and for new environments. Knowing your dog and understanding their limitations is paramount. Set both of you up for success by not unclipping the lead in challenging situations.
Start with as few distractions as possible and with your dog on a leash or a long line. Wait for your dog to come to you without verbal prompting or pressure on the leash. Whenever your dog looks at you or moves toward you, click or mark and then treat. If your dog cannot acknowledge your existence and is too engrossed in smells, sounds, and sights, move to a less exciting place like inside the house or an empty street. Similarly, if your dog is obsessively mugging you for treats, try switching to something lower-value like kibble.
Each time your dog willingly comes to you - without calling or prompting - mark or click and feed a treat. Deliver the treat low and at the dog’s level to prevent jumping up. Step back slightly as your dog approaches rather than thrusting the food at your dog, as you want your dog to come to you instead of you pursuing them. Practice before your dog has eaten and offer a variety of treats. Keep your dog guessing and they’ll check in to see what you’re handing out. Your dog needs to be motivated to continue to turn back to you. Reinforcement builds behavior.
Always do warm-ups before taking your dog off-leash to remind him how the check-in game works. Checking in should be easy for both of you. If your dog is not checking in regularly, put him back on a leash or a long lead and go back to an easier step: fewer distractions and less distance. The goal is for checking in to become an automatic habit. When my dogs bounce back for a check-in, they are frequently already licking their lips in anticipation of a reward. They are conditioned to repeatedly and willingly report back to me and then go back to sniffing, meandering, or playing.
Every dog guardian has a different safety zone radius, depending on their comfort level and the dog’s temperament. I allow my mellow 9-year-old dog to explore farther than my 12-month-old pup. The frequency or amount of time between check-ins is entirely up to you and dependent on your dog's trustworthiness, as well as where you are walking. I typically want my dogs to report back to me at least once every 3-5 minutes when we are hiking off-leash (yes, that means I carry treats on every off-leash walk). Periodic and regular check-ins obviate the need to call your dog obsessively, which can quickly turn a pleasant walk into a chore.
Creating a habit of frequent check-ins helps keep your dog safe. When off-leash, your dogs should always be close enough that they can hear you call them. They also should be close enough so you can quickly intervene if they encounter wildlife, forbidden food or trash, a reactive or aggressive dog, or any other unexpected dangers. If your dog is wandering too far between check-ins, put him back on a long lead and try using a timer to create a fixed interval schedule of reinforcement (that’s when a behavior is rewarded after a set amount of time). Initially, you will likely need to cue your dog to return to you on schedule.
Teaching an automatic check-in will help with other aspects of training because you are teaching your dog to pay attention to you and refocus in the face of distractions. Handler focus is at the core of all effective dog training.
Dog lovers and activists have been fighting for decades to create and keep off-leash spaces for well-behaved dogs. Remember, all off-leash areas require dogs to “be under voice control,” which is just another way of saying your dog will reliably come when called.
Bay Woof offers a handy map of off-leash (unfenced) dog play areas in the San Francisco Bay Area. With successful check-in training, you and your pup will be ready to enjoy them!