Terrified of giving your pup a taste of freedom? Try this 5-step plan…
My husband and I raised our dog (Oscar) in NYC for the first year of his life.
Raising a city dog, you can imagine the list of ‘worse case scenarios’ that went through our head daily as we walked him along the sidewalks of Manhattan. Even with a tight grip on his short leash, we were always hyper-aware of speeding taxis, unruly bikers, and unfriendly strangers that might endanger our little guy. It’s fair to say, allowing your dog off-leash on the streets of Manhattan is virtually impossible and certifiably insane. (Although, I did see an off-leash yellow lab in my building once and it was absolutely incredible).
There are certainly obstacles in raising your first dog, in a city no less, but we had the added challenge of raising a particularly energetic breed, Australian Shepherd. Oscar has always been wild with energy and we would frequent the dog park, the safest spot for him to run off-leash, to empty out his tank. Although we spent about two months in puppy training classes, this is where we learned he didn’t demonstrate the greatest signs of recall when it was time to re-leash and leave.
I was often seen at the the Madison Square Dog Park yelling his name, chasing him in circles, trying to rein him in for our walk back home.
Little did we know, our time with Oscar in the city would end quite abruptly and in the midst of this global pandemic, my husband and I moved out of the city to live in a more rural area. A new zip code came with more wide open spaces, virtually zero zippy yellow cabs, and bikers that preferred mountainous switchbacks to pizza delivery routes.
Oscar has been living his best life and the days of him restrained to tiny city dog parks are behind us. Now, he accompanies us on trail walks, he runs through open fields, and even joins us on rigorous hikes…all off-leash.
One day, as we rounded a particularly steep switchback on a hike, with Oscar trotting alongside us, my husband and I had a thought: “Remember when we were afraid to let him off-leash?”
It called to mind the first time we’d tried this with Oscar in a similar rural setting. It was in my parents backyard at their home in Massachusetts over the holidays, just before our move out of NYC. We were in the backyard and decided to experiment and see what might happen if we released him — assuming the lapse in his recall skills wouldn’t apply here, as the had in the city dog parks.
The moment we unhooked his leash, he darted into the snowy woods, his black and grey coat disappearing into the trees- this scared the s*%t out of us.
We shouted his name and my husband even bushwhacked through the dense woods to find him and lure him back. A few minutes later- which seemed like a lifetime- he came bounding back towards us. A few leaves sticking to his coat and a big goofy smile on his face.
He had a little taste of freedom and was in absolute heaven.
After that first (very stressful) experiment, we were terrified to unhinge Oscar from us and allow him to run free— in fear we might lose control again. However, we just couldn’t forget the look of pure goofy happiness he had on his face when he came back from his escapade. His breed (Australian Shepherd) is a herding breed after all, so it is basically in his DNA to run wild in wide open spaces.
It’s not easy loosening the reins with your dog, but we were determined to develop a plan that would allow him to get his energy out safely, without us losing our minds with fear he’d run off again. So, with advice from fellow dog parents, vets, and many google searches we executed a plan.
We are so pumped to say that our 5-step plan has successfully allowed Oscar to have safe blissful spurts of running off-leash, while keeping us sane and in control.
Here are the 5 steps that worked:
- Pick the right location to start…
A park next to a busy street or even an empty parking lot might not be the best space for your dog to run free. My husband and I opted for a wide open empty field, set way back from any roads, normally used for soccer and baseball games. This was the first place we tried off-leash with Oscar and it became our practicing ground, a place we knew he could safely zoom around. We would walk here a couple times a week and after a few trips, we could tell Oscar knew it was THE spot he could get all his ‘zoomies’ out, safely.
It’s important at the beginning, to keep your location consistent so that you and your pup get to know the area and become familiar with the boundaries.
2. Bring some dynamite treats and toys…
This is an occasion that calls for not-you-everyday training treats and toys. The treats should be extra special- we did kibble rolled in peanut butter and hardened in the freezer. (What pup doesn’t love pb??)
Have a ‘Chuck-it’ or a special ball your pup loses their mind over? Bring that. The more appealing you can make their ‘home base’ aka you, their master, the more inclined they will be to hang around and come back to you when it’s time to go home.
Additionally, your special treats and toys will keep you engaged with their play and they will establish a positive association with being off-leash: special treats and toys, for a special occasion.
3. Stay in control…
When you’ve reached your location of choice, it’s time to unhook the leash!
This is where my husband and I went wrong the first time- the firs time we freed Oscar from his leash and he ran away, we started chasing after him. Panicked and yelling him name to come back, the little guy probably thought he was being playfully elusive, which made it extremely difficult to gain control of the situation. So, first thing is first, you must immediately establish control. It starts with the unleashing…
When we unhook Oscar from his leash, we do it discreetly and almost sneakily, so he doesn’t notice he is freed. Then, we immediately command him to sit. When he does, we reward him with a special treat, before giving him a tap on the bum and exclaiming “GO PLAY!” — which he grew to know as a command to go run around.
By having a routine ‘unleashing’ you are telling your dog that you are giving them permission to run free, instead of them thinking they are slyly escaping you. This creates a tether-like trust between you two and you’re able to set a tone for that period of time off-leash.
4. Keep your cool…
Once your pup is off and running- play it cool. Maybe walk around in a slow circle or just stand casually in one place. If your dog sees you chasing them, they’ll run away (again, being playful) and if you start to panic and yell for them, you will burn out any strong recall skills.
When my husband and I started taking our off-leash techniques to hiking trails, we make sure that when we unhook Oscar, we walk on either side of him in a steady and strong stride. This instills a kind of ‘pack mentality’ and Oscar normally stays just ahead of us. Likewise, if we stop near an open field, we might tap his bum and say “GO PLAY!” to give him permission to run around for a minute or two.
Bottomline: if you establish control, your pup will follow suit with your demeanor. You will find that you’re also building a new bond and establishing a new kind of trust with your furbaby!
5. Pick a special recall word…
As I mentioned previously, yelling your dog’s name over and over again can burn out his recall skills- essentially making his name resound obsolete as a recall word when he needs to be reeled in. Instead, come up with an original word that you can use ONLY for getting your pup to return.
We started using our recall word when we would take him outside (on leash) to do his business…as we walked back into our home, we would say once or twice: “IN!” Oscar eventually would trot right to our front door, pulling us with him, associating “IN!” with ‘coming back’ or with ‘this time outside is over now.’
Now, when we want him to return from getting his ‘zoomies’ out, we say “IN!” and he trots right back to us. Sometimes we have to say it twice if he’s being a little stubborn, but this has been such a huge way to ensure recall, while letting him get that taste of freedom.
Listen, we are all going a little crazy in quarantine. Us, humans, have online workout classes and running routes to release energy and get our endorphins going. So, it’s no doubt you know your pup needs an outlet too.
Added benefit of letting your dog zoom around off-leash for a while? You will get ALL the tired-pup-couch-snuggles later because they will be pooped!