Honey and I sat on the top step of our front porch like we had done dozens of times before.
I could feel her excitement. But I was stunned when she took off running down the stairs and out into the street.
Honey completely ignored me when I called her to return to me.
Luckily the street had no traffic. And the man she had run to carried a bag full of treats.
He was our trainer, Russ.
Sometimes Dying of Embarrassment Is the Best You Can Hope For
As you can imagine, I was mortified to see Honey run into the street. And relieved to realize that the worst outcome was my embarrassment in front of our trainer.
But embarrassment is a small price to pay compared to seeing your dog injured or killed before your eyes.
Usually Honey had a wonderful recall. I’ve been able to call her to my side as a squirrel ran by her. But that day I learned the hard lesson that no dog has a 100% reliable recall if she sees something more appealing than her person.
My big training fail forced me to work harder with Honey on her recall. And I’ve added many more tricks to make me more interesting to my dog.
But it also led me to rethink when it was safe to allow her off-leash freedom.
Deciding When to Go Off-Leash
I went through a similar process with Honey. I ask myself the following questions:
1) What are the temptations we’re most likely to face if Honey is off leash? And how hard would they be for her to resist?
From least tempting to most
- food left on the street
- other dogs
- interesting people
2) Am I likely to spot temptations before Honey does?
I don’t allow Honey off leash where she could be quickly out of my sight lines.
3) Do I have tasty treats or a fun toy in my pocket?
Part of being interesting to my dog is having her never certain whether I’m pulling liver treats, a poop bag, or tug toy out of my pocket on a walk.
4) If Honey does run toward something tempting, can I corral her quickly and safely even if her recall fails?
The nearby gorge surrounding the Ithaca Falls provides lots of safety. We’re surrounded by steep, rock walls on three sides and I always keep my body between Honey and the gorge opening where another dog or person could appear. I also let her leash drag so I have something to grab if she tries to run by me.
And the gorge is set back from the road so we don’t have to worry about traffic.
I’ve found it helpful to ask myself these questions when I’m thinking about off-leash play time on a walk. That, combined with the extra training we’ve done, has made me feel more comfortable giving Honey some autonomy outside the house.
The Proof is in the
Yesterday I took Honey to play fetch in a nearby park. First I answered my four questions:
1) We went in the middle of the day when we’re less likely to see dog walkers or runners.
2) The park has some raised flower beds that Honey is too short to see over but I have a good view in all directions.
3) My treat bag was filled with liverwurst and I had taken one of her favorite toys to toss and play tug with.
4) The creek on one side cuts off Honey’s options (thank heavens she doesn’t know she’s a water dog). And I confine our play area to the side of the park where the flower beds create a container.
We had a great time.
And then I heard it. “Gidget, Gidget,” being shouted by the woman who had come out on her porch to smoke and whose ten pound dog was tearing across the street toward Honey.
I told Honey to wait as I walked over to grab hold of her harness. Honey stayed in place while the little dog sniffed her all over and we waited for the dog’s person to catch up to her.
I don’t know if Honey would have listened as well if the raised flower beds hadn’t blocked her view of the dog running toward her. But it doesn’t matter. Because we made choices that increased our likelihood of success.
Risk vs Reward
Any time we let our dogs off leash, we’re taking a risk.
Heck, even having them on leash is no guarantee of safety. Under the right (or wrong) circumstances, any dog can slip a collar or pull a leash right out of our hands.
But, like Patricia McConnell, I believe dogs need freedom to make their own choices—at least sometimes.
Our responsibility is to decide whether the reward is worth the risk.
My last dog, Shadow, was never safe in an open space without a leash. She followed her nose wherever it would take her. It took us months of hard work and training to get any attention from her once her nose was occupied. And I’m sorry we weren’t able to give her more freedom in her short time with us.
But Honey is a very different girl. And while I need to guard against being overconfident (luckily she creates just enough mischief at the most embarrassing moments to keep me humble), it’s important to look for safe places to allow her to explore off-leash.
I choose when Honey eats and when she goes for walks. I choose what we do each day. I choose her toys. I choose her bed.
I’m happy to give Honey the choice to return to me when she’s off-leash.
But that doesn’t mean I won’t stack the decks in my favor.