Dog: LOL! BBL!
January 14, 2011 10:45 AM   Subscribe

A close friend of mine has a young dog with tendency to run off without her when let off-leash. Any suggestions on how to curb this bad behavior?

The dog in question is three years old and well trained (using a clicker) with respect to most things.

The dog's owner regularly takes him for lots of exercise in dog parks and walking/running on trails. However, when she lets him off-leash on a trail, he occasionally departs on his own for some period of time (15-30 minutes) before returning to her again as if nothing has happened.

He is a mixed breed dog, but it seems he has a lot of some kind of hound in him, which might help explain his searching, independent behavior.

She has tried a number of different approaches to correcting his behavior, but without much success. She's tried recall training and always carries nice treats (to give him a reason to stick close). She has a shock collar that's she's considering using to train him, but is hoping to find other effective solutions before resorting to that.
posted by Kikkoman to Pets & Animals (29 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Keep your goddam dog on leash on a trail. Don't be the problem.
posted by mr_roboto at 10:51 AM on January 14, 2011 [14 favorites]

keep him on the leash. Seriously.
posted by H. Roark at 10:58 AM on January 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This dog is doing what its ancestors were bred to do. A retriever will retrieve, collies will herd, and hounds cannot be trusted off-leash.

I tell you this as a dedicated beagle owner who has trained recall and a picture-perfect off-leash heel into her beagle. (Without shock collars.) But it is not a natural trait, and even she is not 100% reliable. They are party tricks for her...not an expected behavior for walks, etcetera.

I also tell you this as someone who deals with the consequences of off-leash dogs who disappear like this. It's awful. Please have your friend leash her dog.
posted by Uniformitarianism Now! at 10:59 AM on January 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: This is pretty much standard behavior for some dogs, including mine. Lyle has no desire to be part of the pack, and will wander off to explore if given the chance. He does this with me and with his dog-walker, despite lots of training. As such, we mostly do off-leash things at the beach or in areas where there's no place to get lost. Hiking in wooded canyons and such is not really possible for us.

A few thoughts for your friend - if she's comfortable that he's not in danger in a safe place where he can't run into traffic, etc, she might just let him run off on his own for 15-30 minutes and let him have some time on his own and trust him to come back eventually. She might also train him to a new command (use the nonsense word of her choice) that means OH MY GOD THIS IS THE BEST TREAT EVER and use it *only* to mean that one special thing, and then carry that magic treat bait with her on walks. For Lyle, and for many dogs, sadly, "come" is more of an option than a command.

I am not a fan of shock collars. They are meant to be used as a deterrent, which works well for very specific behaviors at the moment they occur - ie. don't touch the garbage or you'll get shocked. Running around and playing is not a behavior you can deter. The dog won't grasp that he's being shocked because he's farther away from his person than she would like.
posted by judith at 11:01 AM on January 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Take him to the dog park hungry and hide on him when he takes off. When he comes back to find you, give him a treat. Not sure how this would work if he doesn't care about where she is for 15 minutes.
posted by KathyK at 11:08 AM on January 14, 2011

Agreeing not letting the dog off leash. It's not just a question of the dog getting lost. When my dog was younger, encountering an off-leash dog meant that my dog forgot all his leash manners and wanted to go romp and play with his new off-leash buddy. My dog weighs 120 pounds, and so this was a real problem, and I can't tell you how many times I swore under my breath at the unseen asshole who let his dog run off-leash and run off out of sight. (Now my dog is old and mellow and doesn't react, but I remember it all too well.) I've seen off-leash dogs nearly collide with mountain bikers. If she can't see the dog at all times when the dog is off-leash, she can't see if the dog gets into trouble, either with another dog, or a wild animal or some other hazard. It's not safe for the dog, and it's not safe for other people using the trail.
posted by ambrosia at 11:12 AM on January 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you're looking to condition the dog, all you need do it to maintain a hold of the collar with one hand when you remove the lead (we say lead in the UK) and at the first hint of the dog trying to run off, tug the collar sharply and shout "No!" at it in a voice that sounds angry (the tone is important). Keep doing this and gradually the dog will learn not to bolt off, even though it wants to. Each time it will tug less and less at the collar until you can remove the lead, let go of the collar and it will still look to you for approval to move. A quick flick of the hand will be all it needs as sign that you are letting it go.
posted by dougrayrankin at 11:15 AM on January 14, 2011

I should have pointed out that the point of holding onto the collar as you remove the lead is to break the association in the dog's head between removing lead and running away.
posted by dougrayrankin at 11:16 AM on January 14, 2011

For what it's worth, our mixed-breed dog (Ringo, who is discussed here) is a well-behaved dog.... until he gets outside off-lead. He is an escape artist (I can't make my fence on uneven terrain contain him- he always manages to find a hole), and doesn't come back until he damned-well feels like it. He's too smart to trick him into coming back, and he clearly knows what commands like, "come" mean, but he will weigh the quality of treat we're offering versus hours of running and swimming in the creek behind our house and chasing deer, etc. The treat always loses.

We do our best to prevent him from getting out of the house off-lead, but once or twice a year (or sometimes more often), he gets out. All we can do is wait for him to come back. He always does, but only when he's entirely exhausted (and often has a minor limp or scratches or something from the uneven terrain.) No one has been able to come up with a training tip that works, so we just try our best to contain him and know he'll never be that "walk next to you" off-lead dog. Ah well, he's otherwise completely awesome and very cute.
posted by JMOZ at 11:27 AM on January 14, 2011

Most dogs can never, ever be trusted 100% off-lead, as they simply aren't that well trained. This dog falls into that category.

The dog isn't misbehaving; he is behaving in a predictable manner. His owner is just too slow to learn, and, given that fact, I cannot imagine a scenario in which she magically learns how train the dog into the upper echelons of dog behavior.

Dogs don't have to be off-leash. It's not a requirement for their happiness. Mine spent his 3rd-4th months of life tied to an 8' rope on my belt, and (checking) looks pretty content right now at my feet. But I can't trust him not to run off when neighbors walk their dogs by.
posted by IAmBroom at 11:30 AM on January 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

I would never trust my dog to go off-leash in public. Dogs are dumb, even on leash- how many times walking a dog do you see it randomly try to dart out into the street without looking both ways first?
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 11:32 AM on January 14, 2011

Nthing that 99% of dogs should never ever be let off leash in a public, non-fenced area. That's very not-cool of the owner.
posted by brainmouse at 11:37 AM on January 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: To answer the question, it sounds like your friend has a good training regime going and she should continue the training (Really Reliable Recall is a book I've used). Accidents happen and it's always good to have the best possible recall training you can muster.

To echo what a lot of other folks have said: keep the dog on-leash. Not only is it massively frustrating to chase down your dog, it is mortifying to have to apologize to an innocent fellow-hiker when your dog barks at, jumps on or surprises them. An owner is often liable if the dog causes a car or other accident and no one wants to think about, much less deal with, those possibilities.

Finally, if your friend is going to let her dog off-leash, she needs to trust her dog . . . AND every other dog that could be off-leash in her vicinity. Her dog may be friendly and well-trained, but what about other dogs on the trail? As someone who has had to literally pull her dog from the mouths of off-leash dogs while the owners say "Ooh, he's never done that before!", I would suggest she consider how she would rescue her dog if he were attacked by another off-leash dog. It's far easier if you have your dog on the end of a leash.

It would be fabulous if all dogs could be friendly and well-behaved and frolic off-leash in harmony, but it's not very practical. Good on your friend for training and exercising him well, but if she has any doubts about her dog's ability to stay firmly by her side, she should use a leash to guarantee that he does.
posted by annaramma at 11:53 AM on January 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Most dogs just can't be off leash. It's very, very rare to have any kind of scent hound that can be trusted off leash. I only say rare instead of never because I'm sure there's some hound somewhere who does just fine, but the vast majority just can't be trusted. Their overwhelming instinct is to follow that nose.

I'm personally not a fan of letting dogs go off leash. I won't go into a rant, but in my opinion unless you're in a large fenced in dog park you should absolutely have physical control over your dog at all times. Even in a dog park if your dog doesn't respond to voice commands then you should have physical control.
posted by TooFewShoes at 11:54 AM on January 14, 2011

Hounds cannot be let off leash and trusted. I have owned hounds my whole life and it is just not in them. They smell something and they follow it, end of story, their tiny cute brains just can't help it.

If your friend hasn't figured it out yet, they are also amazing escape artists. My hound-mutt can scale any fence, climb onto roofs, climb trees, operate zippers, and open some doors. If you don't want your hound to happily follow a scent into the wilderness you have to keep it on a leash.
posted by bradbane at 12:06 PM on January 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you have a medium or large sized active dog, than never letting him off leash is just not a fair option. Unless your dog is so small that he/she can truly sprint inside your home or apartment, you need to get your dog some outdoor off-leash time a couple times a week.

If unleashed dogs are allowed on the trails in question, than there's no reason you can't let your dog loose... once he/she's well trained enough that you'de be truly surprised if she didn't heed you.

If your friend uses a clicker and is trying recall training, than honestly, it's possible all she needs is more patience. Dogs will pick things up pretty quickly, but making something stick and become second nature takes time and practice. I'm sure she knows never to punish the dog after calling him -- all that does is make the dog associate being called with being punished. The trick is to not get ahead of your training: don't call your dog if you don't think he'll come. That means he stays on leash until he's trained. In the meantime, always be training. Around the house, whenever it occurs to you, call the dog, click your clicker, and give him a treat. When he's ready, have a friend try to tempt him with a dog toy while you make him come to you, and stay. Yes, it's important to have dedicated training sessions outside where the distractions are, but it's equally crucial to "always be training" when the opportunity presents itself at the dog run and on walks... but only in situations your dog is ready for.

The idea that some breeds or some dogs can't be trained for certain things is a myth. Some dogs are just more difficult, and sometimes there's more unintentional bad conditioning to overcome. Just be patient and, above all, consistent, and the dog will come around.
posted by patnasty at 12:21 PM on January 14, 2011

There is some kind of myth out there, this image of a dog running free along a trail or beach, and that this is somehow standard, or should be standard, for the North American dog owner.

This image is only applicable to, as someone state above, a very tiny, tiny percentage of dogs (I would estimate less than 5%, with mellow dispositions).

The dogs I see off leash? Most of them are very, very old, and cannot run faster than their owners.

I will almost NEVER see a young dog off leash. Certainly not a three-year-old.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 12:35 PM on January 14, 2011

The idea that some breeds or some dogs can't be trained for certain things is a myth.

Heh, just saw your comment after I posted mine, patnasty.

I guess if there is no traffic around, the situation is far less dangerous. Just be prepared to have to run five or six miles chasing them...just in my only caution.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 12:45 PM on January 14, 2011

If your friend is on private property, then she can do whatever she wants. If she is in a park or on a trail or any other public place, the dog should be leashed. She may enjoy seeing her dog romp around, but she needs to be considerate of other people who may be allergic to dogs, afraid of dogs, don't want to step in poop, have toddlers that may get knocked down, etc.
posted by skidoom at 12:45 PM on January 14, 2011

I'm a dog owner. People who let their dogs off leash need a hardcore ass whoopin. Sure, you trust your dog. I do too. I do NOT trust other dogs or other people. The .005% chance that the one trigger I never knew about in all the time I've had my dog drops in front of him, drives him bonkers and in the process another person or dog gets injured resulting in a lawsuit on my ass, is enough of a financial dis-incentive to never let him off the leash.
posted by spicynuts at 12:45 PM on January 14, 2011 [4 favorites]

If you have a medium or large sized active dog, than never letting him off leash is just not a fair option. Unless your dog is so small that he/she can truly sprint inside your home or apartment, you need to get your dog some outdoor off-leash time a couple times a week.

This is simply not true. There are lots of ways to get even a large, high-energy dog ample exercise without letting him off leash. I know, I have one. It just requires that a human get the same exercise too. Jogging, riding a bicycle with the dog running alongside, long hilly hikes with the dog carrying everyone's drinking water in a doggy backpack are some of the ways that we manage it.
posted by ambrosia at 12:55 PM on January 14, 2011 [5 favorites]

Letting a dog off leash in a public place that is not specifically for off-leash dogs is a jerk move. I say this as a crazy dog lady. Your friend needs to find a dog park.
posted by crankylex at 1:03 PM on January 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm a dog owner. People who let their dogs off leash need a hardcore ass whoopin. Sure, you trust your dog. I do too. I do NOT trust other dogs or other people. The .005% chance that the one trigger I never knew about in all the time I've had my dog drops in front of him, drives him bonkers and in the process another person or dog gets injured resulting in a lawsuit on my ass, is enough of a financial dis-incentive to never let him off the leash.

This is actually an important point I forgot. I was part of a discussion group of owners with leash reactive dogs. There are COUNTLESS hours of training involved with trying to get a fearful dog to NOT be leash aggressive. Sometimes it takes months, if years.

All it takes is one effin dog running up to yours off leash, even if it's friendly and playful, and your dog (who is most likely a rescue and was never properly socialized with other dogs) is back to being fearful/aggressive again.

Does your friend really want to be "that thoughtless owner" who people who work with problem dogs really, really despise?
posted by The ____ of Justice at 1:12 PM on January 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

I've had dogs all my life, and only one dog could ever be relied on to come back 100% of the time - she had in her something special: the desire to please me. She was a Rottie, and I'm thinking that's a little breed-related quality. My current dog, a Basset Hound, snuck out the door one day - and unlike the Rottie, who'd come up and let me know she was there and could I please put her back inside so that she could stop being bad - took off and when finally captured, was over a mile and a quarter away within fifteen minutes, just following her nose at a very fast waddle. Oh sure, we drove around calling her - but why should she come?

Unless her dog is off-leash in an off-leash trail area, it's not a liability, and shouldn't be chanced. It gives dog owners in general a bad rep if there are any negative encounters with her dog. For the sake of all of us, doing the right thing is important here. And it makes working with dogs like my hound incredibly frustrating, because mine often has to stay on a leash, and I can ask my dog to sit or stay and expect her to do that - but I'd have no way to get her dog to back off and give us space. My dog is blind in the right eye, and if approached too aggressively, will snap. I can tell an owner that, and when we're on the sidewalk I'll have her sit while another dog passes - but she's a handful an unleashed dog doesn't understand "don't approach". If her dog becomes aggressive with his off-leash opportunities, my leashed dog is vulnerable too - and so am I.

But my previous success was also because we worked with a trainer who trained me as much as the dog. She taught me to watch my dog carefully, and to only call her when she WILL come. There is a time when a well-trained dog is attuned to the owner, and will respond - and it's only a split second shift to a moment when the dog realizes "Hey - I don't have to listen!" and so calling the dog when it's intent on wrassling, halfway into the roll on a dead bird or waterlogged slug, or is about to dash after that chipmunk is futile - and calling without expectation of return teaches the dog it doesn't have to come. If the desire to please the boss isn't there, even working for excellent food won't make perfect recall happen - and if it's a hound, well, few people are willing to put the work into reliable recall with hounds. We stick primarily to fenced areas, and we're lucky Toronto has some great parks for this.

My hound loves FOOD (in great big capital letters with shadows coming out) - but she loves scenting a trail more. If I can catch her before she hyperfocuses on what she's about to set out after, I can get her to return - and I'd better have food to reward her or she's not going to fall for that twice. But I have to be watchful, and quick, and on top of her even then. I often call her back and reward her when I anticipate trouble - because I have had too many embarrassing, winded sprints across the beach and into the middle of someone's picnic when she discovered the part of the off-leash area where the fence doesn't go into the water. It's never worth the risk.

If her dog is taking off immediately after being unhooked, that's one thing and others have described how to deal with that - but if they're having a nice wander and the dog gradually gets far enough away so as to be out of reach and then sees an opportunity and disappears for the time mentioned - well, he's got her trained, and she needs to be the one that remembers that while dog walking should be relaxing and enjoyable for both, it's still work for the human and to smarten up and pay more attention. She might go further with recalling preventatively than when it's that second too late.
posted by peagood at 1:54 PM on January 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Much obliged for the great feedback, everyone.

My friend is now reconsidering the entire question of letting the dog off-leash in light of the replies here (she tells me he will be on-leash for the forseeable future -- anytime he's not in the fenced dog park or in terrain which creates a natural fence as described above (and where he isn't able to cause trouble for someone else)).

It's really helpful to know others have faced the same issues with respect to training -- and invaluable to get experienced feedback on what can be done / should be done in this case. Thank you all again!
posted by Kikkoman at 1:58 PM on January 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

My late, great rescue greyhound was an anamoly - he didn't chase after squirrels or birds, and if the fence gate was left open by accident, he still didn't stray outside the back yard. He was very attached to me and rarely strayed from my side, even if I went out in the front yard with him unleashed. HOWEVER, I found out the hard way that a sudden loud noise (like a firecracker or car backfiring) could spook him and send him off running pell-mell in no particular direction, including right into the street. I learned to always keep him on leash for his own safety whenever we were not in a fenced-in area.
posted by Oriole Adams at 2:04 PM on January 14, 2011

I see this thread is about 90% or more in favour of the idea that dogs can't be trained to behave off the lead. I know from experience that dogs are entirely trainable to obey your every command. Where do you think we obtain the expression "Pavlov's Dogs"? As I have said before in this thread, training dogs is very very simple if you know how to go about it.
posted by dougrayrankin at 5:10 PM on January 14, 2011

I agree that there are specific times and places where being off-leash is okay, and it is unacceptable anywhere else (and I HATE when I am walking my dogs on-leash in an area you expect other dogs to be on-leash and some random off-leash dog runs up, one of my dogs can be leash reactive and besides that, I don't necessarily want my dogs interacting with dogs I don't know). I am glad your friend is rethinking this.

That said, I will say as a general point about recalls that we often inadvertently train our dogs NOT to come when they call them: we SCREAM at them to come in a mean, angry voice (would YOU come to someone who sounded like that?); we punish them for what we think is not coming when called, but is (to the dog) punishment for (eventually) coming when called or allowing itself to be caught; we don't reward our recalls enough (I never walk my dogs without a pocket full of cookies); we teach them that coming when called means playtime is over (instead, call your dog, feed a treat, release); and there are all kinds of other ways. The Really Reliable Recall method already mentioned works wonderfully, and is far preferable to any punishment, pain or fear-based method, but it is still not going to give you a 100% reliable recall, never bet your dog's life on a recall.

Of my dogs, I have one who has about a 99% reliable recall, one with a 90% reliable recall, and a puppy who is, well, a puppy. And I never have my dogs off-leash except under certain circumstances (no people or dogs around, or with dogs we know) and in certain locations (fenced areas, or very far from a road), and these are competition agility dogs who get formal training 3-6 days a week, some casual training every day, and who come 100% of the time when called in agility. But if it's a choice between coming to me for a treat, and chasing a rabbit that's right under their noses, the rabbit will win pretty well every time, and rabbits do stupid things like run in front of cars. Dogs are predators, all the training in the world can't change that, a dog chasing something is often not able to think about anything else, no matter how well trained it is.
posted by biscotti at 5:17 PM on January 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

As I have said before in this thread, training dogs is very very simple if you know how to go about it.

Nice boast, dougrayrankin. You know what else is very simple? Playing Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2. And performing a tonsillectomy. Skydiving. Eating noodles with chopsticks. French braiding.

Almost anything is simple if you know how to go about it. But that blanket statement is not helpful to the OP.
posted by IAmBroom at 2:52 PM on January 18, 2011

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