Dog Off the Leash in the Country

Pip Writes to me:

We live on an acre of property in the country. On three sides of us are open fields and orchard and in front we have a very busy country avenue. Our place in not fenced except for a back yard area where we keep our dogs. We have a seven month old German Shepard, Mollie, and I have been using your book to train her on the long leash. Our “problem” is that I don’t think we’ll ever feel safe having her off leash on this property. She’s pretty good with her “come” command but letting her off the leash is so scary to me. Many people in our area let their dogs run free so I have that fear that she’ll see another dog or rabbit and take off across the road. Cars regularly travel 60-80 miles an hour on this road.
We are discussing the idea of fencing our entire property which would be a great expense but I can’t see a way out of this delemma.

I have one other question: We take our dogs for a walk on easement roads behind our property. Our older shepard is sometimes on leash but often is free. We have purchased a halter for Mollie. On walks when she has the halter, we let her explore on the long leash. Usually either before, during, or after that long walk, I’ll put the pinch collar on and take her for another walk. I use both the long and short leash. She heels during this time. We also practice “come” (on the long leash) sit, stay, etc. Do you think it’s OK for her to use the halter and have “free walk” time with us?

DPTrainer4 replies:

Hi Pip. I’m glad to read that you’ve been having some success with Mollie, and I do sympathize with you on the unfenced property–our yard is very poorly suited to a fence due to how the house and driveway are situated, and as such, we have never fenced it in. I would like to know if you’ve tried yet to boundary-train her to visual boundaries on your property? You can teach her to stay out of the street, and if there is something, even a line of trees, that differentiates your property from your neighbor’s, that’s something you can use to teach her, as some character said in a famous movie, YOU SHALL NOT PASS.

Something to remember, though, is that we recommend that the dog not be let out in an unfenced yard without supervision, even if she has been boundary-trained. There’s just too much risk that, like you said, something could run by and she’d find it more motivating than the consequences you’ve been giving her for stepping into the “hot” zone (or, Not Your Property).

It may seem hard to trust her now, and there is a point where, as you move through obedience and you see that she is really picking up concepts (not only commands, but also respect and trust for you), you might start to trust her a little more. You might find this a good read, as I actually did have off-leash situations in mind when I wrote it: there’s a big step the owner has to take, mentally, in order to trust that the dog will make the right choice, and in return, earn more freedom.

The very first day we had our current dog home, we learned that she was a squirrel-chaser, bolted out the door, and found anything but us to be the Most Interesting Thing in her world. It took time, long lines, tabs, and lots of corrections and praise…but now she is completely trustworthy (granted, we are in suburbia at the end of a cul-de-sac, so I WOULD be more careful around roads in your area) in the yard off-leash. She doesn’t chase wildlife, or if she does, she stops when I call her, she respects the boundaries of the yard, and anytime she’s out, we’re out. I admit it to being a horrible drag some days–believe me, I’d LOVE to just turn her out on frightfully cold mornings to do her business–and unfortunately, some shelters/breeders do require fenced-in yards in order to give you a one of their dogs, so I do see the bright side of the concept!

As for your question regarding “free” walks, I have no problem with it…I do it myself! The one thing is that, although she can stop and explore, move ahead and behind you, she MUST keep up with you, which means that you MUST keep moving. It’s not a matter of “Give an inch and she’ll take a mile” (unless she is that kind of dog), but the deal is that you’re still leading the walk, even though she’s not right next to you. The one thing I recommend you might change, though, is to not switch between the halter (do you mean body harness with this, or actual headcollar, like the horse?) and the training collar. This can make her “collar-smart,” and teach her that she needs to be good and listen to you when her training collar is on, but when it’s off or she’s wearing her halter, she can do whatever she wants. It’s OK to let her have some free time on the long line and pinch collar. Anytime you are interacting with her, she needs to be wearing it, and even free walks count.

Hope this is some help to you!