I love letting my dogs run off leash. We do this every day, and usually somewhere I have
control over the surroundings. No surprises hiding around a corner or behind the bushes. Often it's a small field near our house, but nothing beats running at the beach or next to water. And you know the dogs love this too. You can almost see them smiling!
A prerequisite for enjoying walking off
leash is a succesfull recall. In my opinion this is the number one most important command you teach your dog. Walking your dog off leash comes with a responsibility. There's actually a ton of things to think about before releasing. We've covered some in a previous post here.
A successfull recall will keep your dog out of trouble, save you from the embarrasment of standing in a park shouting, arms waiving, with an ever reddening face trying to get your dog to come back to you. We've all been there at some stage...
My goal with training has been a reliable recall when my dog is off leash. I usually walk with my do on leash and release in safe surroundings for playing and more training. As the reliability on the recall grows, one might be tempted to walk off leash all the time, but for safe measures I don't.
A prerequisite for enjoying walking off leash is a successful recall. In my opinion this is the number one most important command you teach your dog.
1. Choose a high value reward for training
We all like getting rewards for having done something right, and dogs are no different. For teaching recall you'll need to choose a reward, or set of rewards, your dog absolutely loves. You should be generous with rewards while training.
Dogs respond differently to different rewards. Some need treats/snacks to feel rewarded, while others are more play-driven than snacks-driven, and would rather have you pull out a toy as a reward. In the long run toys and games might be both healthier and cheaper as a reward for your large four-legged friend.
When first starting out, start rewarding your dog as soon as she starts returning to you. Pull out the treats when you see her turning towards you, and give lavish amounts of praise when she reaches you.
Change the rewards to keep the dog interested for a longer period of time.
Freedom to run off leash is another form of reward I've had great success with. In stead of a treat, my dog returns to her fantastically enthusiastic human, who then overloads her with praise whilst holding her collar, before releasing her with the command 'Free' for another run around the field.
Bottom line: use a lot of positive reinforcements. Your tone of voice and body language should always be positive and engaged. If you get tired, you should stop the training session.
For treats, my dogs have always loved fish-flavored snacks for some reason, like salmon or tuna.
2. Choose the right command for recall
Consistency is a keyword for training a successful recall. The dog must connect the command you choose to tell your dog to "come here" to positive things. As I first started out training, this was a big challenge for me. It's rather easy to use the 'Come' command with an angry tone of voice.
Every time your dog returns to you, give some kind of positive reinforcement. A treat, a quick game and a lot of praise. Coming to you should be the best thing in the world. Both in and outside of training.
If your dog has made a connection to your command meaning something other than "great things to come", you should seriously consider changing command word and start teaching your dog a completely new word for this command. It's hard for your dog to get excited by a word that means "Get inside", "Time for a bath", "Stop running around having fun" etc...
3. Patience! Baby steps at first.
A reliable recall doesn't come without a lot of work. It's taught over time, and you have to start small. Start out with just short distances, and never out of sight. Expand to bigger areas and longer distances when you gauge an understanding from your dog. If you don't succeed in your own back yard, you shouldn't advance to a park etc. with more distractions.
After a few sessions you might try somewhere with more distractions. This could be a forest where you hide behind a tree, a park with other dogs, and so on.
If you and your dog fail at any time, take a step back and start over. Build the confidence in both you and your dog that this will be successful.
4. Make the reward an amazing experience every time
Dogs learn well when rewarded. Your job is to make this an amazing experience for the dog. Every time! Lots of praise, some treats, some quick games. If you forget rewards all togheter, your dog might wonder if it did something wrong this time, or if it's worth coming the next time she's called for.
5. Never assume your dog is "wired" one way or the other
A puppy isn't too young to start learning. A Great Dane isn't too "put any negative adjectiv here" to start learning. Or to get better.
With concistent practice dogs of all ages and breeds can learn this. If you tell yourself your dog can't, your'e actually only telling yourself that you won't try.
If you tell yourself your dog can't, your'e actually only telling yourself that you won't try.
6. Set your dog up for success
For your own motivation, you might need to see some progress. But you wanting progress, doesn't mean your dog is ready yet. You need to set your dog up for success. This will be motivating for both you and your dog. Remember baby steps.
Your dog needs to be trained in many different situations before you can expect a good successrate with your recalls. Before taking your training to the park, make sure your successrate in your backyard is good enough. Introduce just a few new distractions at a time. You can't expect your dog to come running to you at the first attemt if you just released her in some completely new surroundings.
Never end a training session on a bad note.
7. Never punish your dog for failing
If your dog sees a rabbit for the first time during training, it's probably going to chase it. This is where it gets hard being a dog owner/trainer.
If your dog has been naughty, and didn't respond to your recall, the last thing you want is to scold her when she returns. Remember that coming to you should always be the dogs best choice. Don't make the choice hard by yelling and screaming at them.
Take a deep breath, and start over. Set your dog up for continued success and learning by trying again, at a slightly lower level. Never end a training session on a bad note.
8. Get your family and friends involved
Getting other people involved is fun for both you and your dog, and it gives you more options in training.
Some dogs will only obey one family member, and you should train actively to avoid this, by including your spouse, kids or siblings in your training sessions. Having all family members training this (and other commands) will make your every day life at home much easier, especially with a large dog.
Take turns recalling your dog in an area with few or no distractions. Let your dog learn how nice it is to be part of a pack, and let her run between you while you take turns calling her in. Treats and fun everywhere!
Also use other people as distractions. You use the recall command, while the others just play or walk around with your dog. Your dog should obey your command - remember to lavishly hand out treats as soon as your dog turns to you.
9. Stop training session when dog loses interest
I'm guessing your dog loves her training. It's the best time of the day, when "my human is fully focused on me and playing lots of games with me, and giving me lots of treats!"
Eventually even dogs start losing interest. The learning is best when the motivation is on top, so you should keep training sessions short and very focused. In my experience 15 minutes is an absolute max. After that you both need a break.
Remember to always end training on a positive note, to build more motivation for future training sessions. Both you and your dog needs this.
The best feeling
The pride you feel after a succesful recall in the midst of a thousand distractions is just one of the best feelings I know. And your dog will sense your honesty in the subsequent praise, and grow on it.
I never feel happier with my dog than when she follows command, and behaves like the best dog there ever was. And all dogs have it in them to get there. Just never give up!
Further resources on this subject
The best film I found on YouTube covering this was made by UK based Royvon Dog Training and Hotels. I never used a whistle my self, but the principles are still the same. Well invested 7 minutes or so.
For those who still love diving into books, I have to recommend "Training the Best Dog Ever" by Dawn Sylvia-Stasiewicz and Larry Kay.
This is a complete program for training dogs using just positive reinforcements. Covers both puppietraining and training or retraining of older dogs, split into daily training sessions of 10-20 minutes.