Sunday, February 5, 2023

Off Leash Training

Those who know me, know that I despise seeing people do dropped leash and off leash activities in public places. Often people do this in parking lots, on sidewalks, walking through the mall, etc. Big crowds, lots of traffic, and lots of hazards. Some say Service Dogs need to be able to handle a down/stay in a crowded space. 

However it's not the possibility of the dog ignoring the cues handler is giving, it's more the possibility of other people doing something to injure my dog. Both Azul & the Great Dane were accidentally hit by a moving cart with humans stating they didn't see the dog. Hello! Azul is mostly black and was outside standing on white snow. Willow is the size of a horse! Tons of people see and talk to these dogs on every outing, showing they are highly visible wherever we go. The risk of injury to a Service Dog is huge and greatly impacts the life of the handler when that dog is unable to work.

So my question is WHY take the risk? Azul is connected to me 99.9% of the time in public spaces. 

When & Where is it appropriate to work on off leash training? 
Every dog handler (service dog or not) has to evaluate the risk to their dog in every environment.

Here is what I look for in off leash environments:

--Secured area with fence around perimeter or indoor space with closed exits.
--Space where other dogs are not going to suddenly appear. Azul and Willow have worked by each other since they were puppies. They can play or be in work mode together. Therefore I trust their interactions with each other. But I don't want other dogs (even friends)to show up spontaneously.
--Space where no people are going to be walking between me and my dog. (Unless it's someone I know and we are doing it for training purposes.

Bottom line: I want the environment to be easily predictable, where I know what's happening around us and can adjust my training to match.

In this location we had an empty store other than staff, a barrier of boats on 3 sides of the dogs with me and the other human on the 4th side which was the only direction people would possibly walk our way. My line of sight around the store was large. The biggest risk would be dogs breaking the stay cue and playing together. That was an acceptable risk that would not have resulted in harm to human or dog.
Today we practiced off leash skills with Miss Willow and her person! I even bumped it up a notch to see what Azul would do. He knows if I pass out or fall to the ground, that his job is to rush to my side and nudge me. But I've never sat down 20 feet away while he was in a stay, until today. First time he rushed to my side. After resetting, I gave him my hand signal for stay as I sat down and Azul successfully stayed. As a Service Dog he needs to be able to know what criteria require him to break my cues to do a more important job. He's still learning some of that criteria, but he catches on quick!

Azul also gets off leash time in fenced in environments.
Our backyard is fenced in around our fire pit, through the tree line that is the property boundary, and to our woodshed. This gives Azul plenty of time to get his daily Zoomies out, chase his flirt pole, hunt for squirrel, and be a dog. He also enjoys sniffing the dog park if we happen to find it empty. (We don't play with dogs I don't know for safety purposes.) And we've found a few other fenced in areas that we enjoy with friends.

Azul does most of his sniffing on a leash or longline.
In this picture we were in one of Azul's favorite places where we almost always see wildlife. He was extra hyper at that moment so his 30ft line became a 15 ft dual clip line so he could still sniff but not pull me off my feet while he was excited. He would love to run off leash here. But it's simply not worth the risk of him chasing something.

Azul does wear a GPS on his collar in case of emergencies. But that still does not make it safe for him to run off leash off our property. He doesn't run off leash on our property either because we live on US-2 with lots of traffic. At my daughter's house, I trust Azul off leash from the house to the fenced backyard. This is only because everything he wants is in that area, especially the chicken coop. He wears a leash to go from the yard back to the house because he's never ready to go back inside. 

I doubt I'll ever fully trust Azul off leash in outdoor environments. But the goal of this post is to demonstrate that each dog owner has to evaluate the risk of potential injury to their dog if they choose to let their dog be off leash. Again, it's not the dog's training that is most important but the uncontrollable distractions in the environment that can damage a dog that is following your directions.

Please be safe with your dogs!
Don't take unnecessary risks with their safety!


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