Hopefully you train your dog off leash.
If something happened while you were out walking and you had to drop his leash, would he stay where you told him to? Or if he wandered, would he come back to you when you called him?
The only way to know is to test him.
That’s why it’s important to find safe places to work with your dog off-leash.
My Dog Has A Rock-Solid Stay
When my husband Mike walked our dog Honey in the morning without me, I always ask if they had any adventures.
One wintry day, they did.
They passed someone whose car was stuck in his driveway and needed a push. Mike moved Honey off to the side, dropped her leash, and told her to stay.
He then spent five minutes helping our neighbor rock his car out of its snowy parking place.
And yes, Honey stayed planted on the sidewalk the whole time.
Lucky for everyone I regularly practice Honey’s cues with her off-leash.
Training Where You Need Your Dog To Listen
It’s great that you train your dog in your living room or kitchen. On our boat, Honey won’t move from her place in the cockpit if I tell her to stay.
When I need her to stay while I’m pouring hot liquids in our galley or checking the engine oil, Honey is golden. Your dog probably is too.
But the training you do indoors (or on the boat) is not enough to guarantee your dog will listen to you outdoors (or off the boat). So you need to practice.
But how do you find safe ways to practice cues like “Stay” or “Come” without risking your dog’s safety? Especially if you don’t have a roomy, fenced yard?
Safe Training Outdoors
No dog is 100% reliable in training without lots of practice. (I shared my humiliating example in When Is Your Dog Safe Off Leash.)
And some dogs won’t even be 50% reliable off-leash, no matter how hard you work (that was definitely true for my earlier dogs, Christie and Shadow).
So you need to make sure you have a safe place to practice.
Here are a few potential off-leash practice places I’ve used with Honey:
Fully enclosed areas
Fences are too high for any dog to scale and they go close enough to the ground to keep tennis balls from escaping. Just keep an eye out for tennis players who could open the gate and lose you a dog.
Fully fenced back yard
If it’s yours, you’ll eventually need to find a strange place with new distractions to train on. Perhaps a friend’s?
Some little league fields are enclosed in chain link fence on all sides.
Many older cemeteries have fences on all sides. The gaps in old metal fences might be big enough for a small dog to get through, so check carefully.
Many dog parks are fenced on all sides. But training during a busy time would be dumb.
Find out when people don’t come and go then. Back in Ithaca, early Sunday morning was a perfect time to enjoy the dog park by ourselves.
Keep in mind that the smells left in even an empty dog park make this a high-distraction zone suitable only for advanced training.
Partly enclosed areas
How much more fun would scary movies be if dead-end alleys were where people went to train their dogs instead of to get mugged or murdered?
Gorges or canyons
The Ithaca Falls is an ideal training environment. With high, rock walls on three sides, I can practice Honey’s recall as long as I watch out for hikers coming from behind me.
Paths with barriers
Two of my favorite walks with Honey are along steep creek banks with fences on the other side. Honey is not a water dog so I don’t have to worry about her dashing down the banks. And the fences mean I only have to keep a look ahead and behind me to look out for big distractions, like other dog walkers.
And if your dog is too high a flight-risk to feel comfortable with having him off-leash in even a fully enclosed area, here’s one more option.
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Long training lines
If you don’t want to risk losing your dog off-leash during outdoor training, rely on a Long Recall Training Lead (Amazon).
Honey’s long lead is 20 feet. But you can get them as long as 50 feet and made from super-light materials.
You dog can get far enough away from you that he has to deal with training distractions. But you can keep a handle on him.
I’d also argue that practicing your dog’s recall and stay is one of the few proper uses for a Flexi Retractable Leash (Amazon). I strongly suggest you only buy the kind that has a retractable band instead of the thin line that can act like a garotte.
And only use it if you can hold on tight. I’ve heard too many horrible stories about dogs panicking as the plastic cartridge of their flexible leash follows them as they go running down the street.
Training your dog to listen to you outdoors is an important safety tool. If you fell on a walk and lost hold of your dog’s leash, you want to know he’d come back to you or stop when you told him to.
It’s especially important for people who travel full time, by boat or RV. How much scarier is it to lose your dog where no one knows you?
You need to make sure the training is safe first. Here are some guidelines:
- Start outdoor training once your dog listens reliably to you indoors. This is an advanced skill. Don’t start practicing recall outside if your dog ignores you inside.
- Save the most appealing reward for your dog for outside practice. Liverwurst is my go-to when we’re doing training Honey to do something difficult.
- Before you choose a safe, outdoor practice area visit it on your own. Look at it from your dog’s point of view. Are there gaps? Could he jump a fence if something appealing walked by outside?
- Know your dog. My humiliating training fail happened because I did not know Honey well enough. I discounted her immaturity and the appeal of a particular distraction. And just because something is safe for my dog doesn’t mean it’s safe for your dog.
- Save your outdoor, off-leash practice sessions for when you’re both ready to work. If one of you is impatient or distracted, blow-off training for another time.
But most important safety tip is to love your dog.
The more time you spend enjoying each other, the more likely he will be to listen to you when you need him to. And the more likely you are to know when asking your dog to listen to you is just expecting too much.
Because there’s no much thing as perfection, no matter who much you love each other.
UPDATE: This post was originally published in February 2013. It has been updated.
Your Turn: Do you practice advanced training outdoors without a leash? How do you keep things safe?