Long Line Training: Part 3 - Leash Wiseness and Going Off-Leash

Welcome back! Have you already read Long Line Training Part 1 and Part 2 ? Cool, then let’s get these dogs off-leash!

If you had asked me 25 years ago if my dog was off-leash trained I would of said, "Oh yeah, totally, for sure, dude!"  However, I was surfing couches and playing guitar for a living in those days. My dog was never on a leash and went with me everywhere, but, was he actually trained? If you asked me now I would say, "No, not really." Same person, same question, different answer. Why? Because I hold myself and my dogs to a higher standard than I did back then. Assuming that you do, too, I've laid out a few details for an enjoyable, safe and successful off-leash transition.

Consistency and Creating Habits: The first thing to keep in mind about long line training is that you are trying to pretend the dog is off-leash.

"Yes, but dogs aren’t stupid, they know they are on a leash!"

True, but what you are looking for is consistent responses to commands. In other words, you are looking for that point when you are never using the long line because the dog is always listening. Every time you have to use the line should be a reminder that you still need it.

The biggest problem people run into is failure to use the line consistently. The dog then becomes "leash wise." They will behave perfectly when the line's attached and when it’s not...well, not so much. Consistency is the key to creating the habits you want, such as coming when called without hesitation, so don’t forgo the line prematurely and definitely don’t Ping Pong. Ping Ponging basically means some days the line is on and other days it's off. I cannot overstate how damaging this is to your training! Once the dog becomes leash wise you will be in deep doodoo, my friend...which really stinks!

Does the line have to be 50 feet long? No, it doesn’t but it’s what I prefer. I've tried going 100 feet and it was a tangled mess of rope to deal with. Shorter lines are ok but just don't quite get that "off-leash" vibe. Remember, you want the dog to feel free. There is nothing wrong beginning the exercises on a retractable leash or a shorter line but I would still move up to the 50 footer before going off-leash.

Let It Drag - Going Beyond 50 Feet: Once you start feeling confident and are thinking about ditching the line...don’t! Not just yet. Instead, drop the line and let it drag on the ground. Now your dog can roam beyond 50 feet but you still have some control. For example: Your dog is 100 feet away and investigating something in the bushes. You call but it appears your dog has gone deaf. What do you do? Rather than head towards the dog, head for the end of the line. Pick it up, call again and give it a pop.

Shorter, Lighter Lines and Tabs: Assuming you had success dragging the line (see above) then you can start letting the dog drag shorter lines made of lighter material, the idea being that they are less noticeable to the dog. I recently used a shoelace to work with a dog that wouldn’t come at the dog park. It obviously wasn’t very long or very strong but it was light enough that it didn’t interfere with the dog play that was happening. It was just enough to grab or step on when I wanted to call the dog from playing with another dog. Grabbing her collar was not an option, she was already wise to that and would dodge away if she saw anyone reaching for it.

Another great tool is called a tab. It’s a super short leash, only 6-12 inches long. Not really a leash, just a handle to grab onto. It won’t help you get your dog to come but you can grab it to give a quick correction or to hold onto once the dog gets to you. It’s way better than just grabbing the collar and may give the dog a sense of still being leashed. Many advanced obedience and agility clients use these. They have something to hold on to that doesn’t get hung up on the equipment or under the dog’s feet when working off-leash.

Remote Collars (aka Shock, Electric or E-Collars): Used properly, an electric collar can speed up the path to getting your dog off-leash, achieve levels of reliability that might otherwise be impossible and, contrary to popular belief, be very gentle on the dog. The real power of the tool is not it’s ability to cause pain but it’s ability to create superstition. This, combined with the fact that electricity feels strange and unnatural, means the level of stimulation rarely needs to be more than a tingle or slight sting. This is more gentle than hitting the end of a longline at full speed by a long shot.

Unfortunately, many people think of it as a “Quick Fix” or a “Bigger Stick” which entails unnecessarily high levels and a total lack of subtlety. This careless use is what causes so much controversy. Yes, there are times when higher levels are needed, such as rattlesnake aversion, high prey drive issues, etc. but these are special cases and should not be part of our initial off-leash transition. For general off-leash training, especially during early collar conditioning,  you may notice a little twitch or the the dog’s ear or a head turn but it should be very subtle. The dog should not be squealing, jumping or showing any signs of fear or stress.

Please do not use electric collars without educating yourself or getting some professional help.

Conclusion: A dog that's simply allowed off-leash and a dog that's actually off-leash trained are virtually two different species. I hope this article helps you to achieve the latter but if you are having trouble please keep in mind, there is no substitute for hands on training with a qualified professional.

-Chad Culp, Certified Dog Trainer and Canine Behavior Consultant

© Thriving Canine 2015