Ask Tom, the Dogcharmer: The off-leash club

How do you get your pooch to come when you call?

Ron—Courtesy Tom Shelby

Dear Tom,

Ron is a rescue our family has had for about three years. We’re almost certain he’s a Lab mix, around 4 years old. He’s a gentle dog with high energy. I’ve had several trainers, but I can’t get him to come on command outdoors. He’s easily distracted, (thankfully) always comes back, but it’s on his terms. My goal is to be able to have him run off-leash and come when I call. I would be be so appreciative if you could offer advice or lesson(s) to us if that’s possible.

Thank you.





Dear Mary,

First, let me say, with literally millions of friendly, homeless dogs that need to get adopted who will make great family pets, thank you for being one of those good guy adopters.

I have to believe that virtually every dog owner would love to have their dog off-leash and perfectly responsive. Over the years, several new puppy owners have exclaimed to me with great joy that their 10- or 14-week-old pup is totally off-leash trained. “He just sticks with me wherever I go!” is the joyful chorus I’ve heard over the years from these new puppy owners. “That’s great!” I say. “However, at 12 weeks of age, the new, unknown world can seem incredibly vast and scary, so Puppy stays close for security. Trust me, as Puppy gets older, he gets bolder, and soon he’ll be sending you a postcard from Vermont!” And that’s been the case the great, great majority of times.

So Mary, here’s what to do. Start in the house. Why in the house? Because Ron knows he’s a captive audience in the house. Fifteen times a day, mostly when he doesn’t expect it, call him to come. When he arrives, he gets a treat. If he won’t come the first time you call him, walk past him with the treat in your hand passing close to his nose, and call him. The first four or five times he comes, give him the treat. Then start giving him the treat intermittently. Intermittency is the strongest way to condition an animal: The attitude becomes, maybe there’s a treat, maybe not, I better go check it out. If he’s the type of guy who looks at you, yawns, and doesn’t move when you call him, he needs to be dragging a leash. Now, when you call him and he yawns and plays deaf, you walk over, pick up the leash and pull him to you with a smile on your face, and when he arrives, he gets a lot of praise and petting. He needs to know that when you call him, it’s not a suggestion, it’s a command.

When his recall is close to 100 percent in the house, take it outside, preferably in a fenced-in area. If the only time on Planet Earth he gets people food is when he comes to you off-leash outdoors, you may find he becomes quite cooperative. A great conditioner game (he can be dragging a leash or line — on a harness, not collar!): Call him and he gets a treat immediately upon arrival. Then a family member, a comfortable distance away, calls him with his people-food treat at the ready. If the two of you can have Ron charging back and forth like a lunatic when he hears “Ron, come,” you’re doing great. Keep the words the same, it’s not “Ron, come” one time and “Here, puppy” the next. Between the happy great praise and hot dog pieces, the three of you should have a blast as he’s flying back and forth to the words, “Ron, come.” It’s great conditioning, but it doesn’t negate the reality of Ron’s likely deafness given a powerful distraction. I hear it a lot: “She’s perfect off-leash, except of course if she sees another dog” (or cat, or squirrel, or jogger …). There is no real off-leash without a “leave it” command.

When looking for missing people, my search dog Michelle ignored countless distractions, including deer, rabbit, cows, horses, and a fox. She was, however, smart enough to run from a charging bull on a farm. The initial teaching of “leave it” should be with a professional. Depending on the dog’s personality, the size of the dog, the reaction to different distractions, the intensity of the reaction, the teaching methodology will vary greatly with the need to cater to what will work. For that I’d suggest the initial help of a professional. Mary, with some effort most of us can enter the “off-leash” club.

Best of luck,

The Dogcharmer


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