There is so much joy in seeing a dog have off leash freedom. Watching them get the zoomies, race from scent to scent, roll in the dirt, the joy can be infectious!
At the same time though, some dogs NEVER get off leash freedom because they can’t be trusted without a leash on. And I mean, no one wants to have to chase their dog around when they’re off leash, that’s super stressful and tiring!
Let’s talk about how we avoid that, why it’s so important to have foundation skills, and actually prep our dogs for living their best lives off leash!
Strong Recalls = Off Leash Freedom
Yup, you probably already knew this on some levels, but that recall is the cornerstone of being able to take your dog out and about off leash. And this also tends to be a skill that is very hit or miss with many dog owners. It can be a challenge to teach, especially when you don’t know how or if your dog already has habits of avoiding you!
Believe me, this is a skill that is very common for owners to struggle with. A lot of this can be traced back to puppyhood or what kind of training was done when the dog first was adopted, but that’s a bit of a separate topic. The fact is though that recalls are the bane of many owners. And a it really is a pain in the ass when you don’t have them!
The more reliable our dog’s skills, the more work we put into them before there are issues, the more freedom we’ll be able to provide them, and in turn the better behaved our dogs will be!
Why Do We Need a Recall for Off Leash Freedom?
A lot can go wrong when your dog is off leash. Seriously, let’s take a look at this list of common things that people call me about All. The. Time.
- Door bolting. This is when a dog squeaks out the door and is off like a shot in the neighborhood. Cue you running down the road in flip flops and pjs and praying that the dog gets lucky around cars.
- Reactivity causing events. Mainly this happens when a dog has stressful experiences with other people/dogs in the world. When off leash, a dog should NOT be meeting or harassing other dogs/people. Even if they are friendly, there’s a high chance that other dogs may not be.
- Livestock and wildlife. In most off leash places there is a chance for either of these animals to be present! It’s in a dog’s nature to want to give chase to that rabbit that streaks out of the bushes, and some dogs are drawn to livestock as well. Both of these situations are not safe. The potential for losing a dog in the wilderness is soooooo much higher if there is no recall, as is the dog getting injured from livestock. Plus once the dog figures out those things are super fun, they’re more likely to do it again in the future.
It’s our duty as responsible dog owners to not only protect our dogs, but also not let them run amok like complete savages. Yes I love to let my dogs experience nature with me, to be able to practice healthy dog habits and blow off steam. But I still owe society and the places we go enough respect to make sure I have control of my dog. The recall replaces the leash. At all times there should be that safety net there if we want to give our dogs off leash freedom.
It’s no secret that I train dogs out in the world at large. Parks, nature areas, etc. From time to time there are off leash dogs. Even for a trainer this can be a VERY sketchy situation.
The most recent off leash dog experience I had involved a man who we will call AH. I had just pulled into a park where we fairly regularly train and had gotten a dog out to potty and prep for our session.
Meanwhile AH’s dog was approaching us and probably a good 80-100 feet away from his owner. It was extremely obvious that there was no real connection between AH and his dog, likely both due to the distance between them and a lack of training. Instead, the dog was zeroed in on me and my dog. That of course was my cue to pack my dog up for safety reasons.
When a dog begins to exhibit hyper fixation or stalking type behaviors (especially when off leash) this is a pretty huge red flag for whatever they are focused on. Even if this is out of a desire to play or meet. No dog likes being charged at or having their space invaded by a strange dog, this is actual a very high tension moment. Imagine if you had a stranger running up to you full force for no discernable reason! You’d probably be uncomfortable too.
It was by far the right call because after I had packed my dog up, AH’s dog continued to approach me with his hackles fully raised and growling at me all the while. AH could not recall his dog during this time, his dog was too busy continuing to stalk and growl at me. (Seriously this dog barely even took any breaths between growls).
At this point the dog was about 20-30 feet from me and close enough that I didn’t feel comfortable turning my back on the dog and inviting it to attack me. In the case that the dog did choose to bite me, AH wouldn’t have been able to help because he was WAY too far away, and had zero way to prevent the dog from getting to me.
I work with aggressive and behaviorally challenged dogs, but it’s still intimidating to have a dog like this be off leash and continually approaching. I can’t imagine how much more that would be magnified for a regular dog owner who doesn’t have the body of dog behavior knowledge to fall back on that I do. Who doesn’t have defensive handling skills to help fend off an aggressive dog, or who may inadvertently make themselves into more of a target.
I did not get bit that day, but when I informed AH that he may want to leash his dog as he was continually growling at me, boy did he live up to his label. AH proved to be a pretty sour specimen overall, and actually made me feel bad for the dog.
Moral of the story, don’t be like AH. We can do better.
The Cycle of Restriction Hinders Off Leash Freedom
What tends to happen with dogs who have no recall, is that they get less and less off leash freedom. They can’t be trusted off leash, so now their lives shrink! For most dogs this is VERY frustrating and it only makes the taste of freedom that much more exciting and desirable. Which means that those dogs tend to be VERY watchful for opportunities to get that freedom.
Every time they get that freedom, because mistakes happen, it only makes that freedom even sweeter. So we enter this cycle where the off leash freedom becomes so very valuable to these dogs because it’s such a rare opportunity, but their skills off leash don’t grow and instead the dog practices habits that take them away from their owner.
The owner becomes almost a signal that restriction is coming, and the dogs can become very avoidant of being put on leash or otherwise corralled or captured. Of course they avoid their owner because if they get caught, there goes their off leash freedom!
This then makes them an even more dangerous flight risk. If they get off leash in an urban or suburban neighborhood and their owner gives chase, they’re more likely to have a dangerous car mishap. Dogs who are focused on running away from something often don’t have great awareness when it comes to watching out for cars, and arguably I would say that most dogs don’t have an understanding that cars are lethal or dangerous.
Out in the wilderness it’s even worse. There are a lot of places for our dogs to be off leash in mountainous and heavily forested places, which can be very difficult for humans to traverse, not to mention that a dog on 4 legs will be able to do it way more quickly. All it takes is one nice scent to take them away from the path, and bam, lost dog.
The dogs who have the most severe selective hearing in these cases tend to be dogs who have been in this cycle of restriction. Without breaking the cycle with training it’s impossible to fix things! Recall are a skill that have to be worked at to be strong, they don’t come automatically.
To wrap up I want to leave you guys with this. Don’t be ashamed if your dog doesn’t have a great recall! You can only teach what you know, so if you don’t know how to teach a strong recall, it’s not your fault at all not to have one. It’s just a sign that getting training help is probably your next step.
Off leash freedom is a skill that all dogs can have and benefit from. It’s not out of your reach when you’ve got a solid game plan and I’d be happy to help you get to those goals!