A post about a missing dog who was spooked and ran into the forest early last week reminded me about why I work so hard on their training and use Garmin GPS collars (See Article) when I take Luna and Leda out for off-leash hikes. The post reminded me of Leda, who tends to be fearful and anxious in certain situations. A week later, and the little dog is still missing. On our walk this morning, I thought about how important it is for us to protect our fearful and anxious pets and wanted to explain some of the ways I do that.
First, leashes, including long lines, are always the safest way to take our pets out. All pets who go out should be accustomed to a leash and have a safe way to attach that least to them, preferably a harness as to keep pressure off their necks. There are a variety of leashes, including leashes that strap around your waist and keep your arms free. Luna and Leda both started out on leashes in the forest and were able to enjoy their walks leashed. They earned the privilege to be off leash as we trained and worked on a few different things.
Recall is a big deal and one of the most important things, if not the most important thing, we can teach our dogs. We should have an exceptionally reliable recall and be as certain as possible that our pets will return if we call them. I continue to reward recalls even after they are reliable because I want my pets to value coming to me when I call them. Often, I carry high-value treats, like pieces of unseasoned steak or roast, to build the value of the recall. When we start teaching recall, we want to begin in an area with few distractions and work up to areas that are more distracting. In forests and fields, long lines are unbelievably valuable tools to teach recall.
Proximity is another important aspect of trusting our pets off leash. In most of the forests we walk, we are required to have our pets in sight and under verbal control, and this is important because we do not want our pets harassing wildlife, getting lost, or hurting themselves. We begin building proximity by rewarding it. For instance, if your pet looks at you, that is a check-in. I will mark them looking by using a reward marker (we use “yes”) and giving a treat. Our pets quickly learn that checking in is valuable. We can also use games and toys to keep their attention at least partially on us. For instance, I carry a small stuffed squeaky toy, and if I feel like my pets’ focus is off, I will initiate a play session to get them focused and excited about being out walking but also excited about being with me.
Finally, having a collar that can track your pet is important. I purchased the Garmin Astro collars because we cannot rely on cell reception where we walk. I am not keen on them looking like shock collars, but my pets’ protection is more important to me that what some stranger may think. These collars have up to a nine-mile range and include a handset that shows you the pet’s location on a map. I feel much more secure since we have started using them and know that my chances of finding my lost pet are dramatically improved because of the collars.
Being able to allow our pets to roam off leash is a privilege for us and allows them to have a more enriching experience. It is not without risks and takes time to train, but it is worth it. If you would like help working with your pet so that they can join you on your excursions, please reach out. I would be happy to help.