Teach Your Dog to Listen Off Leash Before Hitting the Trail
Off leash obedience. It’s like the holy grail of adventure training, with good reason. Teaching your dog to listen off leash means that your dog can have far more freedom on adventures than a leashed dog. It also means that you don’t have to try to manage a leash while hiking, which can always be a pain!
The good news is, you can start teaching your dog basic off leash skills without ever hitting the trail. Spend your weekday and winter walks getting ready for the summer trails.
But off leash hiking is always dangerous, even if your dog does listen. I know one dog who was bitten by a rattlesnake despite doing rattlesnake avoidance training. My own dog was charged by an angry mamma black bear when we were trail running – luckily he had the sense to stay still and then come back to me when I called. Even if your dog can listen off leash, you can’t prevent things from happening out on the trail.
In fact, I’d argue that it’s smarter to teach your dog general trail etiquette than it is to focus on snappy off leash listening skills. I’d much rather have a dog who knows to stay close to me and not chase wildlife than have a dog who listens beautifully but requires me to constantly call him, tell him to heel, tell him to sit, and so on.
It’s the difference between a dog who behaves well off-leash and a dog who listens off leash.
Here are my top tips for teaching your dog to behave well off-leash before you even hit the trails:
1. Teach your dog that checking in with you is awesome.
On walks around the neighborhood, pocket some of your dog’s dinner kibble. Every time your dog glances up at you, waits for you, or sits for you, reward him. The idea that staying close to you and checking in with you is worthwhile will transfer over to hiking, I promise.
As your dog excels at this on walks, start adding distractions. Practice rewarding your dog for checking in with you at the park, around squirrels, near other dogs, and at dog-friendly home improvement stores. The more balance that you have in your relationship bank account with your dog, the better!
This is different from teaching your dog to heel because you’re waiting for your dog to offer the behavior and rewarding him for doing it right. Again, this is the distinction between good listening and good behavior. We want well-behaved even more than well-trained! This approach also helps you avoid the common problem of a dog who only listens when you’re waving a bone around.
2. Give your dog enough exercise and stimulation.
Dogs are more likely to be too excited to listen if they don’t get enough exercise and enrichment. If your dog normally just gets let outside for potty three times a day and then you unclip the leash at a trailhead, it’s no wonder he takes off like a shot! Ensure that your trail days aren’t too few and far between. More importantly, ensure that your dog gets some amazing exercise and mental enrichment (perhaps in the form of puzzle toys) every single day.
3. Practice giving your dog more freedom in small doses.
During your muddy spring walks around the park, practice dropping your leash briefly and rewarding your dog for checking in with you – just like you’re hiking. If you don’t think your dog is ready for that, the area is unsafe, or it’s illegal, use a long line instead. I hiked Barley with a long line for almost 6 months! Again, this gives your dog a lot more freedom while still keeping him safe. Your dog learns valuable skills in a safe way that can translate to the trail later. Parks and soccer fields are perfect for adding in the feeling of being on a trail without driving too far. Keep rewarding your dog for checking in with you.
Start out your actual hikes in a similar way – have your dog drag the long line for extra safety. Depending on your dog’s temperament and your dedication to training, the dragging long line can be a lifelong compromise!
4. Consistently call your dog (and reward your dog) if they stray.
It’s generally easier to call your dog back to you if your dog is closer to you. It can be tempting to let your dog range as off-leash skills improve, but it’s also easy to realize too late that your dog can’t hear you over the wind or the rush of a river. Plus, most dogs just listen better when we’re closer. Reward your dog handsomely for listening to you. In fact, I often have a variety of different treats in my hip belt so I can surprise my dog with jerky, chicken nuggets, kibble, or a treat ball. He never knows what he’s going to get, but it’s going to be good! I try to consistently call Barley back if he’s more than 25 feet away from me (about the length of my long line).
Being consistent about the distance that your dog is allowed to stray will help your dog learn to self-regulate more effectively, rather than just waiting for your cue.
Of course, there’s no real substitute for doing your off-leash training on a trail. That said, when you can’t hit the trails due to time or commute, parks are an excellent solution. You can even practice your dog’s checkins and recalls on your daily walks. Building up the relationship and basic skills now will make it much easier to transfer those skills over to the trail.