The Myth and Allure of "Off Leash"

If you talk to many dog owners, at the top of their "wish list" is to have "off leash" compliance and reliabilty in their dogs.  Simply put, they want their dogs to follow their "commands," come when called, and despite the fact that most places have leash laws requiring dogs to be tethered to an actual "leash, cord or chain" of some sort, they don't want to have to worry about their dog not listening to them or running off when they happen to be off leash. Can't really blame people for wanting that, heck, as a dog trainer who competes in multiple dog sports with my dogs, it's what I want and train for too!  The difference is, I (and frankly any dog trainer or person who truly knows and understands how dog's learn) am fully willing to allow the time necessary to achieve this reliability, which in reality can take quite a while.  Even the most trainable and biddable dog, especially if young, might struggle with impulse control, immaturity and/or other inherent drives and impulses that can impede reliability.  For example, dogs with strong prey drives might be challenged when they see a small critter scurrying by, and just can't resist the urge to chase.  This wouldn't mean the dog is being "disobedient," but rather would mean the impulse to hunt was just too strong at that moment.  It takes time and patience to proof the behaviors we've taught our dogs, but in the end, with effective training, consistency and adherence, most dogs will become reliable at some point.  But what if someone told you that you could have "off leash" reliability in your dog within a matter of weeks, and they had the videos to prove it?  Wouldn't that be appealing?  Of course it would, and recently, that's exactly what has been a growing trend in dog training.  More and more trainers and dog training franchises seem to be making these exact claims.  Some promising to be able to accomplish this in as quickly as 2-3 weeks.  Could this be true?  Well, let's take a closer look.

And before we go any further, let me say, this blog isn't going to be a debate or discussion about training philosphies and methods.  For now, this isn't about which are better, worse, more or less effective, humane, inhumane etc.  No value judgement here.  That's another blog for another day.  What I'd like to do right now is just focus strictly on the marketing claims of  achieving "off leash" reliability.  And to do that, we must first define what off leash" really means. I think to most, off leash means, well, exactly that - no leash.  The dog is not attached to, controlled or restrained by a physical, tangible leash, chain, cord, or any other material that tethers the dog to you.  Okay, that makes sense.  So, further, one could say off leash reliability would mean the dog is complying completely on his own, with no influence, manipulation or force by the handler.  The dog is doing so of his own free will. That's a pretty tall order, and this level of reliability usually comes after many months (or years) of training and a working partnership has been established between that dog and handler. Like I said, it is something that those of us who compete in dog sports train for.  In many of the advanced levels, we walk into the ring, and the leash immediately comes off.  From that point on, we have no means to manipulate the dog other than to give the cue or command and hope for the best (or in some instances, pray).  But no, seriously, we train for hours and hours to achieve this.  So how is it possible to develop this within a few short weeks, and with a dog that is brand new to training?  Is that what is being promised?  Not really.  Firstly, tethering a dog to a physical leash is not the only tool that can control, manipulate, influence and force compliance.  One such tool is the e-collar (otherwise known as electronic collar, shock collar, remote training collar, etc).  Originally used in the field to communicate to hunting and working dogs that were working at a distance, these collars have been around for several decades and through the years have made their way into basic obedience training for the general public.  Some trainers and training companies  promise "off leash" reliability but by way of implementing these collars.  So yes, the leash comes off, but the e-collar goes on.  While you have no leash to control, correct or influence the dog, you can deliver corrections, messages and warnings of varying degrees and strengths in the form of tones, vibrations and yes, even electrical stimulation and shocks that will stack the deck in your favor that your dog will choose to comply.  It's kind of like "making him an offer that is really hard to refuse."  Discomfort or the threat of discomfort is a very powerful motivator.  True, there is no leash, but should this be considered "off leash reliability" and equivalent to the dog choosing to comply of his own free will?  What would happen if you took the collar off, or the batteries died or you had an equipment malfunction?  Would "off leash" reliability still be there?  Incidentally, no dog sport allows the use of e-collars during their off leash competitions because it would give that team an unfair advantage.  That, should give you the answer.


Above is my Dalmatian William completely off leash (and no e-collar) running alongside a horse drawn carriage.  Not only is he staying with me, but he is also not bothering the other horses (and other farm animals - chickens, donkeys, goats, etc) that we passed along the way.  But William is 9 and we've been training and working together building a partnership since he was 10 weeks old!  So, again, this isn't about what method of training is right or wrong, or better or worse, but rather this is about dog owners being informed, aware and educated about realistic training goals, what they are paying for, and what they are actually getting.  Achieving true off leash reliability and establishing a mutually respectful working partnership with your dog takes time.  It just does.  There are no short cuts, even if you are told otherwise.  On the surface it might look impressive in videos to see a dog working without a leash, but look a little closer.  It may appear that you can skip some steps and fast forward way ahead, but beware of a false sense of security.  If it is really off leash reliability that you want, it may take some time to achieve it, but when you do, it's a beautiful thing, and it won't be powered by batteries and dependent on a remote control.