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Seven Steps to Off Leash Reliability

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This post is part of the series in response to Dunbar’s 2012 Australian seminars. See index .

A reliable recall is often difficult to train.  Dunbar has many suggestions on training a dog to be reliable off-leash – however, he doesn’t teach a recall as such, more cues at a distance.  The logic is that it is just as useful for your dog to sit immediately, on cue, in any context, as it is for you to train a recall – and perhaps even better if you do not want your dog to move towards you (for example, if there was ongoing traffic or other hazards associated with approaching you).  Dunbar’s logic is partly based on not removing a dog from their rewards, as well.  For most dogs, being off leash is associated with a lot of fun, and calling a dog away from that fun is inherently punishing, despite any rewards you think you may offer.

Without further ado, here is Dunbar’s seven steps to off leash reliability.

Small back and tan crossbred dog running towards camera.

Photo © Ruthless Photos.

1. Define rules and verbal commands

Dunbar does not believe in ranks (i.e. dominance) with dogs.  We don’t need to act like wolves, or the dog’s mother, or anything else – we can simply train the dog because we’re human and clever!  He simply believes in having rules, and sticking to them.  This may be that the dog is not allowed in particular rooms, or it may be that the dog is required to leave any room when asked.

It is important that all members of the household are on the same page regarding rules.  For families or individuals taking on a new dog or puppy, they may find it useful to create a doggy dictionary which defines what each cue means.  This is deceptively simply – you may think that “sit” means “sit”, but where?  How quickly?  Is a crooked sit acceptable?  What does the dog’s name mean? (i.e. When you say “Fido”, what do you want the dog to actually do?)  In terms of “come”, what does it actually mean for the dog?  Are you going to have a different cue for ‘come closer’ to that of ‘come here right now and sit’?  All decisions that should be made before you begin training.

2. Teach off leash to start with

For many, they begin training their puppy on leash and this becomes a ‘crutch’ and sometimes a physical prompt for the dog to perform behaviours.  A good puppy class starts off leash, so reliability off leash is taught from the outset.

With an older dog, he advises to start off leash control in a small room of the house (like the bathroom), and gradually increase the area and the level of distraction.

3. Centripetal attraction

The fundamental piece of all dog training is to teach a dog to want to be close to you.  This can only be taught off leash.

Dunbar went into teaching opposites (of being close) in order to enhance recall training (like he is an advocate of training behavioural problems, too – more on this in a later post).  For example, he talked about teaching the dog to back up (the opposite of a recall), and teaching send out or a ‘send forever’ (also the opposite of a recall).  Chasey is also a good ‘opposite’ game to play with the dog.

Dunbar spent less time talking about making yourself awesome, which I think is also an important part of centripetal attraction.  He mentioned doing fun and quirky things during a walk, to maintain your dogs interest in you.  I would also make yourself the generous treat and toy god, which supplies good things, and the window to good things (e.g. telling your dog to ‘go sniff’ makes you a controller of good things, even though you don’t ‘own’ those thing, you can provide opportunities for the dog to experience them).  Another important part of getting the dog to like you is to not doing mean things to the dog.  If the dog finds you scary, angry, or painful, they won’t want to be near you.

But Dunbar did suggest using following exercises to teach your dog how to follow.

  • Trail walking: Most dogs stay close to the path but, if the dog gets more than 10 yards away, you head the opposite way.  Removing yourself in teaching your dog to ‘stay close’.
  • Practice in class by doing ‘dog and people’ weaving exercises.
  • Open field following: The rules to this game is “whatever your dog does, do the opposite” and “keep

    moving away from your dog, fast”.

  • Hide N Seek. If your dog is not paying attention to you, hide in a bush.  The idea is the dog will ‘freak’ a little and, when they do find you, they choose to keep an eye on you in the future.  This is great for puppies who are starting to push then boundaries, and is an effective one trial learning experience.  Sometimes it works with adults, but not always.

(All these training exercises should be done with caution and discretion – obviously, if your dog is inclined to ‘take off’, having them off leash and hiding from them may not be the best strategy!)

4. Body position changes

Dunbar suggests we teach dogs body positions (sit, down, stand) and use these as at a distance to control the dog.  Each of these positions need to be trained individually, and from all other positions (e.g. we often encounter dogs that will drop from a sit, but not drop from a stand – but it’s important that all body positions are trained).  There are 6 position changes with these 3 basic body positions.  Dogs should be trained to change body positions on verbals and on signals, individually and together.

5. Distant commands – Emergency sit and down

The method outlined in my post on repetitive reinstruction. for teaching distance sits, can be used for any other position you want to train at a distance.  If you do need to repeat a command, the dog must do it on one command before gaining a reward.  For dogs that creep, using heights, crates, staircases, fences, or any other barriers can help in the training phase.  Your criteria should be: The front paws don’t move.  Once you can get yourself 2 yards away from your dog, you’ve got great foundations and the rest is easy.

Your dog should be able to pass the sit test before you start distance control.

This emergency sit and/or down should be integrated into all off leash play, with the reward being continuing play.

6. Bombproof stays

A bombproof stay has three elements: It’s held at a distance, for a long period of time (duration), and with distractions.  It doesn’t matter if you choose to bombproof a down or sit it doesn’t matter, as long you have a solid stay with one position.

For teaching a stay, Dunbar advocates starting ‘toe to toe’ with the dog, and then stepping back, rewarding the dog for holding position.  From here, distance can be increased.  If the dog was to break, repeat the cue (repetitive reinstruction ) and reduce distance until the dog returns to position.  ‘Breaking’ a stay includes: eye movement, muzzle turns, nose crinkles, walking away, eye blinks, and anything that is not being still.

Once the dog is handling distance okay, then distractions can begin to be introduced.  An easy start is to kneel on the ground or go on one or two knees.  This can be increased to harder things, like laying on the ground, crawling on the floor, pats from people, giggling, silly things, tennis balls, dogs off leash, radio controlled cars, food, cues from other people, and so forth.

7. Teaching walking on leash

I am still a bit perplexed how teaching a dog to walk on leash is related to off leash reliability.  This is not an error in my notes, as I have it in the handout, too.  I think what Dunbar is getting at here is that a leash should be used once the dog is already walking nicely by your side, and wants to follow you – and to put a leash on earlier may mean that you result to ‘tugging’ the dog to get it to follow you, which may impact on the dog’s natural inclination to follow and walk on a loose leash.

Nonetheless, Dunbar has recommendations for teaching a dog to walk nicely on leash.  First, the dog needs to follow you off leash.  Next, the dog should be taught heel position off leash in a stationary position.  Then you can start moving, using verbal cues to help the dog understand when to speed up and slow down, and use food lures to get the dog in heel position.  Only once the dog is heeling off leash should you put the dog on leash and expect control.

Well done if you’ve made here, to the end!  Clearly, off leash reliability is not easy – hence the length of this post.  I would be interested to know if anyone has followed this Dunbar protocols for off leash reliability, and your success.

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