The Greatest Gift I Have Given My Dogs

I consider myself very fortunate to live where I do. Our house and property sits next to 800 acres of wooded trails and open prairies. This little piece of paradise is called Farmdale Reservoir and its primary purpose is to protect East Peoria and surrounding communities from flooding. But that purpose aside, it is a big draw for mountain bikers, horse trail riders, trail runners, and hikers. And dogs are allowed off-leash as long as they are under verbal control. I spend a lot of time in Farmdale Park, most of it accompanied by my boys.
Sting and Graham know all of the cues that signal a walk in the park. It is the most animated you will ever see Mr. Graham, as he bounces from his front paws to his back paws and turns in circles, somewhat like a rodeo bull. Normally docile and lethargic, it is quite a sight to see him behave in this manner. Sting, always ready for an adventure, flies out the open door, nose immediately to ground, looking for adventure. I am always amazed that he does not just tumble tail over head in this manic flight of excitement.
What makes it truly wonderful for them is the fact that they get to do all of this off-leash. They are free to explore and smell what they wish, run like the wind, or trot slowly down the trail. Squirrels are fair game to tree and of course, it’s always fun to meet another dog or a person on the trail. When you are off-leash, you can mark any tree, bush, or plant that tickles your fancy. For these reasons, I feel that the work I put in to making my boys reliable off-leash, is the greatest gift I have given them.
I frequently tell the parents of my young daycare dogs that they not only need physical exercise, but also mental exercise. Hiking off-leash is an excellent way of getting mental exercise. As I posted last week, using the nose is excellent mental exercise for a dog, as is seeing all of the wildlife and meeting new people and dogs.
But is it safe? How much work does it take? Are all dogs capable of being off-leash? These are all valid questions and one that every owner should consider prior to starting off-leash expeditions. In healthcare, big decisions are often framed in terms of risk vs. benefit. Do the risks outweigh the benefits? Do the benefits outweigh the risks?
As you have probably guessed, I feel that the benefits of off-leash hiking far outweigh the risks in most cases. That said, I would never recommend off-leash time for you and your dog without the proper preparation.
1. Train your dog to have a reliable recall. I would recommend using a command or sound (whistle perhaps) that is not one you use on an everyday basis. Create a recall command that means something really good is going to happen. Again, I will recommend seeking a good trainer to help you through the process (Ann Goyen, alliancepetbehavior.com)
2. When you have a reliable recall, start your off-leash work in a safe place that has boundaries such as a fence or thick shrubs. But make sure there are plenty of distractions and temptations to fully test your dog.
3. Use a long line, such as a tracking leash that gives you a fighting chance of catching your dog should they get in trouble and you need a handle. This will give you a good feeling of security until you better trust your dog.
4. Teach your dog to stay with you, on command. I do not use the “heel” command. I use “stay behind”. Since we hike mostly on single track trails, I need a command that lets my dogs know that I want them to stay behind me on the trail and not run ahead. I use this primarily as a way of forcing a very energetic dog to rest or to keep them out of trouble if I see potential trouble ahead on the trail.
5. Teach and reinforce a “check-in”. Check-ins are simply your dog turning around and looking back for you or running back to you. I always want to see my dogs. This is not a problem for Graham, but Sting is much more adventurous and his nose can lead him astray. I simply call him back if he gets out of sight and then I release him as soon as he turns back and makes eye contact with me. He doesn’t have to come all the way back, just needs to acknowledge me and be in sight. I use a different command for this. Over time, he has developed a sense of how far ahead is too far ahead and checks-in frequently without a command. He realizes that this gains him more freedom in the long run.
6. Make sure your dog is properly I.D.’d with collar and microchip.
7. Carry your leash.
8. When you first start going out, keep your dog on the long line for safety and take the same trails over and over. This way, your dog will learn the trails and should he ever get lost or separated from you, he can find his way back to the car or home.
9. For safety’s sake, when I see strange dogs approaching, either on or off leash, I call my dogs in and get them under control for proper greetings.
10. Always respect other people’s rights on the trail. Not everyone loves your dog like you do. Some people are deathly afraid of loose dogs.

There will be times when your dog will scare you. He may disappear for longer than you like. He may chase a deer. He may greet another dog before you can call him back. This is part of life. But if you put the work in up front and trust in your relationship and your training, the benefits usually outweigh the risk. I can’t imagine not hiking off-leash with my dogs. And I contend that it is the greatest gift I have ever given them.