Whenever one makes the transition of turning a mostly leashed dog to an off-leash dog, we will see a kind of rambunctious, over-bubbling, desperate energy. Zooming around without listening the slightest to their owners, not responding to recalls, obnoxiously exploring every inch around them, overexcited greeting of any person and dog they might run across, hunting wildlife etc.
This outburst of freedom joy is like the teenager who is suddenly allowed to drive a car. I remember the excitement I had myself when I finally earned my driver’s license (in my home country in Europe this is a 3 month process – the long build-up make for an even greater experience when I eventually got it): I drove everywhere, no matter how close the destination. I thought about driving a lot. I would cruise around just for the sake of it. I would get a kick out of every acceleration and sharp turn.
A dog who has never been allowed to explore his surroundings off-leash is this beginner driver. He goes mad with excitement, he is absolutely overwhelmed by the opportunities that life suddenly presents to him. The amount of choices and options he has never had before (run around? sniff? eat things he finds? jump up on something? find stick to play with? make some new human or canine friends?) blows his mind.
Of course he does not respond to his recall – who would want to give up such never-known freedom?
The sole kick they get out of running at full speed, possibly for the first time in their life, must be amazing. A predatory animal who is designed to hunt and kill, and who does not get to even remotely fulfill his desire for running and sprinting, finally being able to, for the first time ever – this must feel like they have found their true calling to them.
Of course they do not come to go back home when we yell their name.
I have witnessed many dogs in this state of obnoxious, first-time off-leash wonder.
The approach I choose is the same I would with a beginner driver under my supervision:
Make sure they are safe (maybe start out with a big fenced in park first, don’t use areas with heavy wildlife, go with other dogs etc.), and wait. Wait for a couple weeks, maybe a month or two. It will get better. The novelty of the off-leash freedom and all that comes with it will wear off and lose its overly exciting qualities.
Your dog will eventually settle down and see off-leash time as the new normal. There will come a time when he has sniffed 3000 trees, and the 3001st tree is just not that exciting anymore. There will come a time when he has zoomed around all he ever wanted to zoom, and there is no nervous energy left to zoom more.
And this is the time for you to shine. You, as the owner, have the power to stay novel and exciting throughout your dog’s whole life.
You can offer him what no environment can offer: Constantly evolving games. Novel training challenges. Ever-changing new ideas for interaction and engagement.
After your dog has enjoyed all the enticing, but fairly repetitive options that his new-found freedom offers him, he will look for the new kick (remember: dogs are experience junkies). This is where you come in.
(Need ideas? Our Outdoor Focus and Games Online Class has 10 weeks of recall games!)
Unfortunately (though understandably), many owners do not want to go through that period of the obsessed teenage driver. If a dog, turned loose for the first time, loses his mind (and chances are he will), he is put back on leash for life with the decision that he is simply “not controllable”.
This is giving up too easily (something we should never do – not in dog training, not in life). Let time work in your favor. Let your dog sniff and run and be obnoxious all that he wants, and wait (Don’t be his party pooper). It will become boring, or at least, less mind-blowing for your dog.
This is when you come in. Training will be easy now. Your dog is looking for his new kick – and this new kick is you, the games you think of, the engagement you offer, the toys you can find for him outdoors and the adventures you take him on.
Now your dog is an experienced driver. He is over the initial obsession with his new-found freedom and speed, not because it’s not enjoyable anymore – it definitely still is – but is has lost its novelty. Now our experienced, calm, reliable driver focuses on other things: the people he is with.
You can be the only reliable novelty in your dog’s life. Don’t waste that chance. Make every interaction with you fun and rewarding.
Dogs were bred over a long time to be extremely interested in us. If we offer them a choice (run free off-leash) very rarely, and then take it away as soon as they start to enjoy it, we will only enhance their drive to use it to the max every time they get it, and not waste a second (by zooming around, ignoring us, etc.). This is actually a very good approach to create an enticing reward (if your dog does not enjoy toys, try it – show him a toy only for a short time and as soon as he shows interest, elaborately take it away).
If on the other hand we allow them to experience this choice abundantly, but show them that we are an even better choice – they will pick us.
Give it a try. It’s just so much fun.