By Patrick Burns
Easter Sunday has come and gone, but there’s one member of your family who’s still obsessed with the Easter Bunny.
Is it possible to stop your dog from sprinting after bunnies, squirrels, and other critters? Can you walk off-leash through forest and farm, confident that he will remain by your side?
I hunt groundhog, raccoons, possums, and fox with my pack of working terriers, but I also walk those very same dogs off-leash through local parks, confident they won’t run off to chase wildlife of any kind.
What’s my secret?
It starts with a simple idea: not all dogs and breeds are the same. Every dog comes with a different type of internal code. For example, when a bird dog like a setter or pointer scents its first quail, pheasant, or pigeon, that genetic code “explodes” deep inside the dog. A different but equally powerful code drives the Border Collie to chase and herd ducks, sheep, or even small children.
The code is a dog’s factory setting. Properly channelling it or turning it off when it is not wanted is your challenge as a dog owner.
The first step is conditioning your dog to focus on you and only you. But that’s only half of it. You have to learn how to focus on your dog, too. This is important, and is the essence of all dog training. In order for your dog to pay attention to you in the face of the most tantalizing distractions, he needs to know you are paying attention to him, too.
For his and your off-leash safety – not to mention the Easter Bunny’s – the most important commands your dog should know are “come” and “stay/down stay.” The exact word you use doesn’t matter –some use terms like “place” or “bench.” To train my highly distractible terriers, I condition them to lie down on an elevated cot for increasingly lengthy periods of time. Then, using a long leash, I train them to come to me on command. There are many ways to do this – treats, clickers, leash pressure – whatever you prefer. The goal is to be able to phase out all those tools eventually. Add more and more distractions, and more distance between you and your dog. With patience, your dog should reliably remain in place and focused on your in the face of distractions, and respond to a one word “come” command and/or a hand signal.
Train your dog to place/stay and come several times a day, for ten to fifteen minutes at a time. rain him in your yard, in your living room, in a park – until he learns that these rules are law, no matter where you are.
Now you are ready to move the dog to off-leash training.
When it comes to the work I do, having my terriers “mostly” obey me isn’t an option. For their own safety, they must be 100% reliable. This is called “proofing”: the difference between a suggestion and a commandment. Whether your dog responds right away to just a stern voice, or if you need to couple that demand with a tool – like a high-end hunter’s radio collar – that you gradually phase out, it will take practice, repetition and patience until your vocal commands alone become to your dog like the engravings on Moses’ stone tablet.
Remember, how your dog behaves off-leash is ultimately is your responsibility, not his. As Cesar says, you can’t “check out.” You need to be aware of your dog’s body language. All dogs give some sort of warning – no matter how brief – before their innate drives kick them into full prey gear. Whether it’s erect ears, a front paw lifted in a point, a raised nose or hackles, the time to correct your dog is in those important seconds before the launch sequence begins. Remember what I said about dog and human paying attention to each other? Again, that’s the heart of all good dog training – and the dog-human bond. Your leadership, and clear communication that goes both ways.
Never risk your dog’s life and safety or that of other critters or people until you know your proofing is complete. Until then, seek out safe situations where you can practice, practice, practice. The bottom line is that you can train your best friend to walk off-leash in field and forest without any harm coming to him, or to any other wildlife that happens to cross your path.
Is this is a quick and easy thing to do? No, but it is certainly within the capabilities of any dog and dog owner, and it’s a real game changer if you like to hike and hunt through field and forest as I do. There is nothing like it – human and dog, side by side in nature, the way it was meant to be.
Start your training now. Next year, the Easter Bunny will thank you.
Patrick Burns is a trainer and lover of working terriers. For his personal, step by step methods for off-leash training his own dogs, visit his fiery and fascinating blog, www.terrierman.com, where he writes about dog training, natural history, ethics and other animal-related issues.