Having a safe off leash dog
The trick to off leash work is the right on leash work. Some dogs are born to please and others need to be taught that you actually are telling them they need to do something. Your greatest responsibility as an owner is to keep your dog safe.
I teach leash work in a manner that teaches your dogs to be off leash good listeners. The first step is to not be leash dependent owner by learning to use your voice and movement while they are on the leash. The next one is to teach your dog to listen regardless of what is in the environment and that takes hours of practice in highly moving environments. If you live in a multi-dog household separating the dogs for some practice is very helpful especially with littermates. They have had tons of puppy play together and can tune most anything out while in the throws of pouncing.
Good leash work means you teach your dog to stay close and walk on loose leash by saying “stay close” and when they don’t you turn and walk the other way. This is going to take time and loads of practice. Everyday get your dog leashed up, tell them lets go and stay close, stop and sit often and give them a treat for doing so! When they move in front of you just turn and walk the other way for a few steps and turn and continue walking forward.
Having dogs earn a “paycheck” while working together is also a practice piece. A paycheck can be a meal, treat, ball toss or touch and praise. Owning a dog is a lot like you have suddenly been put in charge of someone's 5 year old; they can be sweet and sometimes bratty! They are always asking "what’s in it for me?" as well as stare you down with the "Your not my real mom" stubborn look. If you say come and your dogs are having the time of their lives chasing and running and rolling in something gross, and they do return what happens next is the key to will they come again. Did you toss them in the car and drive them home, or put them in an enclosure while you left for 8 hours, or toss them in the bath... or did they get a treat with big praise "good come" and then allowed to play again, or put on the leash and walked around for a bit then to the backyard for some ball time? There are lots of ways we by accident make come a real 4-letter word for dogs that means the end of playtime.
The other important part of off leash time is to consider if have they earned that amount of freedom by showing you they listen on leash without using the leash. I think about leashes as safety belts, I don’t want to use it but it is there if I need it to keep my dog safe. If my dog does not pull and responds to "stay close" commands and come commands as well as drops into a down when I say down then we move to a long line, then no line :) BUILD ON SUCCESS.
Most training styles teach basic obedience and send you on your way and your dog can be at the top of the class IN class and a nightmare at home leaving you at a loss. As a behavioral trainer I teach only 3 things to the owners. 1. You are the expert of your dogs. You know them best.Give yourself lots of credit and listen to your gut. 2. How to speak so dogs listen. 3. How to use your body to have your dog respond with what you need from them in the moment. We really are only teaching dogs two things. 1) This word means do this with your body 2) Restraint (installing an override button) Teaching a dog restraint from doing dog impulsive things that their brain, breed and personality want them to do is by far harder than teaching the commands. Remember you are the expert on your dog, you know what their triggers are and what their impulses are going to be, chase a rabbit, lung at a bike, chase a car, bark at the officer, jump on someone, play with other dogs..... This is where we need to practice so we can install the right override buttons. If you own a Labrador you have a super happy, endless energy and high prey drive to chase dogs dog, however each dog is an individual and only YOU the owner knows what each of your dogs has a the top of their list as a trigger. You can also use good triggers to replace bad behaviors. Labradors also LOVE ball time so we can grab and hold their focus with a ball as well as reinforce great behavior by playing ball. A little self-control goes a long way!
Knowing your dog’s personality is a big part of providing the right kind of training. We can change behavior but only modify temperament. A shy dog will always be shy, however they don’t have to be fear biters or freaked out every time someone comes near them. A social dog can be social without running across the street to say hi to everyone that they see. Behavior is shaped by what owners reinforce.
Your dogs are very smart, slightly stubborn at times and like to be happy playful dogs! You have already taught them so much; this next step will be the part that helps you have dogs you can trust because they listen!
Practice off leash skills in the yard with lots of treats and praise. Toss a ball clap your hands call your dog, give them a treat and say “GOOD COME!” then toss the ball again. Do this over and over and over until the word “come” means something really fun. Play this game everyday inside or outside and your dog will come when you call them, every single time!
You can mix things up and add the commands; “sit” and “wait” count to 5, and then say “Okay!” when you toss the ball. Again say come as your dog brings you back the toy. If you have not taught your dog to fetch you can use some kibble and have them sit and wait, then toss a kibble for them to find and then say “COME” and they get another kibble for returning!
Remember if there are really big triggers in your dog’s environment that they have not yet mastered ignoring always be ready to keep them close and on leash while they practice. For example, if you are playing ball and your dog LOVES ball and is returning every single time but they love other dogs MORE than ball and you see dogs coming into the area you are playing, call your dog and get them back on the leash BEFORE they have a chance to not listen. This is the build on success part you need to always remember.
I hope this info has been helpful. I really love dogs and have some much respect for dedicated owners. They are such amazing companions and they just need to have the behaviors that allow us to take them anywhere we can!