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  • Writer's pictureAly

Walk the Walk!

Updated: Oct 7, 2019

Just yesterday, as I was walking all 9 of our current CC dogs on-site, I ran into a county inspector at the water tower (one of our checkpoints on the "Summit Hike.") The look on his face as we came over the ridge said it all: What the heck is going on here?

After chatting with him and continuing the hike, I had to laugh to myself. How strange would it be to stumble upon a woman casually hiking along with nearly a dozen Golden Retrievers quite literally in the middle of no where? 

Being a girl from the country, it had never occurred to me that taking a bunch of dogs for a walk or hike in the wild was not really normal until much later in life. It just didn't seem odd to me. I'd done since I was about 8 and had the chore of exercising, feeding, and watering the dogs at my dad's gun dog training kennel. But, when even my dad asked me recently, "How do you keep them all together?" I realized that maybe this particular task wasn't as standard as I'd thought. 

Walking a small or large pack of dogs off-leash is definitely not a routine occurrence in most peoples' lives. And, what a shame that is! 

When nothing but your affection and appreciation of one another's company keep you two (or 10) together, with no leash or chain restricting them to you, you will feel a new sense of trust and connection. Your bond and your communication is witnessed - physically - and us humans like that kind of gratification! 

But, how do you get to that point; frolicking in the fields, splashing in the creeks, rolling in the grass, tangle free and semi-wild?

The first thing to keep in mind when considering going Off-Leash is that your dog has the instinct to stay together in a group. Now, age will affect this, but perhaps not in the way you're thinking: 

Puppies naturally follow. You do not have to teach pups to follow. Like little ducklings, they will trail after Mom everywhere. But, when Mom's not around, you - the person - take on a new role within the family dynamic: Babysitter. That means all you have to do is make yourself interesting and rewarding, and BOOM! Puplings arrive. Babysitting puppies is much easier than babysitting your red-headed nephew named Damien. 

It's when dogs are older, and their instinct to follow and move as a group has not been encouraged or refined, that we struggle with wandering dogs. And, let me tell you, nothing kills a lovely hike faster than having to search for a dog who walked/trotted/raced off! 

The trouble with a wandering dog is that once he wanders and discovers the joy and freedom of racing through the field/trail/neighborhood, this ignites another instinct in him. It's one that says: Move. Run. Race. Keep moving. 

When I was very young, my dad told me that when a dog starts to "run off" "he ain't ever gonna stop." To this day, I know that to be true. What I also know now, that my 7-year-old self didn't then, is that the reason for this is simple: Instinctual fulfillment. 

If you've learned along with CC for a while, you know that I could step on a soap-box right now and tell you all about why the natural mentalscape of a dog is important, and why we should work with this instead of against it, but let's keep this blog entry somewhat to the point. 

Older dogs have a higher confidence level, allowing them to have a much larger range of travel than the young pups do. If your dog has had his instinct to follow and return to you ignored or - worse - accidentally corrected, then you'll literally run into problems!

Unfortunately, it's quite common for today's pet dog to never be allowed to truly incorporate or grow this instinct to run-with and move-with in his bond to his humans. The average pet dog is not given the chance to even see if he'd listen to his instincts and move as a group, and that is purely due to human hovering. We're all SO WORRIED our dogs wouldn't come back from an off-leash adventure that we never try it; not even when they're young and perfect for creating this understanding ("You follow. You come back. We go together.").

Honestly, I don't blame most people for doing this. It's a natural worry to have, especially if you've not had experience with a confident off-leash dog before. But, if you want to get to that level of free hiking and walking (or four-wheeling, biking, etc) with your dog, it's time to face your fears! Don't worry, I'm here to help you with it. 

Before we get into the list of To-Dos, let's always remember to be safe when we're increasing the difficulty of tasks or cues. For our dogs, we must make the increased difficulty as easy to overcome as possible. This is, in a way, more important for you than the dog. If you feel confident in your environment and circumstances, then so will your dog...and this will display through your communications together. If you're nervous, your dog will feel this, and it will make him more prone to imbalance as well -- leading to easy distraction, defensiveness, or fear.

Dogs of ANY age will NOT follow someone who is not confident or balanced, and they will always choose to go with the one who is most balanced and confident. 

Now, onward! Follow these tried and true rules to achieve the best results when you choose to release the hound: 

1. Outside of the City - I believe that city noise, smells, vibrations, etc, confuse a dog's homing mechanism. Yes, they have one. They are territorial mammals, they definitely have a homing-beacon. But, in today's loud, smelly, and distracting world it seems that there are some human environments that mix up the signals in a dog's inner-self. Not only does this homing-beacon become lost, but it appears that some of your dog's basic thought processing and instinct will conflict. Why? Because our world is not at all a natural one anymore. More on this later; just always remember that your surroundings will be a major part of the success of failure of this exercise. 

Do not, under any circumstances, let your dog off-leash without a containment area if you're inside of a city. Find containment areas! Baseball fields (at schools or churches - please ask permission when possible), football fields, school yards/playgrounds (uh, when school is not in session), an arena or working yard, etc. I promise, if you look you can find a suitable environment to begin your training. 

2. Energy Level - Don't let your dog run free when he's hyper or over-stimulated. This behavior will cause him to "lose his ears" (he can't hear you due to the amount of information pouring in from his over-stimulation) and he will get stuck in whatever mind-set that excited him. He will be more prone to chasing things, getting lost, and ending up at AC or worse. 

It may sound silly, but exercise your dog FIRST. Much like before you go to a park, if you dare, you should be sure that your dog is not entering this new set of circumstances in an over-excited and frustrated fashion. Pre-exercise exercise is the key when first building to this level of training. Go for a walk/run on-leash before every going off-leash.

3. The Wild is Still Wild - Let's remember that when we leave our cities and homes to go hiking in the beautiful parts of nature, that place is the home of another. Dogs coming off-leash in the wrong area can be dangerous, and deadly. Always be aware of your surroundings, and always adhere to predator and wildlife notices and common sightings.

Side Story: Last summer, I had Jax and Ari off-leash on a trail far in the mountains of Utah, and we came across a mother moose and her two (2!) babies. You don't have to be an animal expert to know that situation was a bad one to be in. Luckily, both dogs listened to my quiet vocal cues and physical signals- thanks to many exercises in training prior - to be called back and move away. The moose and her two calves were unbothered by us, and we quickly took "the long way around." Note: Ari was only 3 months old at this time. This is the exact situation that could have ended in disaster if the dogs had not responded as they'd been taught to.

Dogs disturbing other animals in nature can lead to either a fight or a flight. If the dogs pursue, I'm not going to say it's impossible, but it sure is harder for your dog to find her way back to you. The excitement of the chase, the thrill of the adventure, will cloud her mind and lose her senses for a while. When they return, she may not have the instinct or ability to sniff you out. This scenario is the top cause of lost dogs in the wilderness; they give chase, and then they can't get back.

So, the next in our list: 

4. Recall - Your recall needs to be immaculate with a dog who is off-leash. The more crowded and stimulating the area you're in will be, the better your recall must be in order to slice through all that distraction. 

5. Silence is Golden - On the trail and in nature, there is a lot of silence. This may make things uncomfortable for us loud humans, but it's something to take note of.

When you're off-leashing, don't spend a lot of time making vocal noises. In fact, try to limit yourself to only making noises when you are rewarding a behavior, when you are recalling your dog, or you're changing direction. Every time I change direction on the hikes or walks - which is often - I whistle twice, loudly. All the dogs come running! Now, if I had been singing along to music, chatting on the phone, or just talking aimlessly to the dogs, the noise wouldn't stand out as much. But, since we'd been traveling in silence together, the sudden change is surprising and causes everyone to look what's going on, and regroup.

6. Change It Up - When you're on the trail, one thing to do often is to change direction or stop. When you do this, reward your dog heavily when they come to you. Do what we do: The Huddle.

The Huddle on the trail is when the trainer kneels down and lets all the dogs come in for pets and hugs. Lots of yes-noises and happiness is found in this huddling group-lovefest, and the dogs are ALWAYS waiting for it. The moment I stop and whistle, this is what they're hoping to find when they turn to look. This is how we charge the recall and change of direction noises; the anticipation of The Huddle is the reward base here. So, use this to your advantage when you're working with your dog(s). 

One other thing to note: Don't get confused by dominance practices; your dogs do not need to be beside you or behind you on the hike. Personally, I prefer them to be in front of me so I can see everyone and do head-counts.

In nature, the Alpha is not always "in the lead" and the idea of this came a long time ago when people confused the real reason of why some Alpha trainers say humans should always exit the door first; it's not because they're "in the lead"as a literal leader -- it's because they're setting the energy level for the next environment/situation. A leader does not always physically lead the party, but he or she will lead by exampleand by presence. This is in its truest form when with animals, especially social animals. More on this later. 

7. Take It Back - If your dog is "failing" in this training, it's likely that the miscommunication may be stopping with him, but it's starting with you. Are you nervous? Are you calling him too frequently? Are you not paying attention to his cues as to what he's looking at, sniffing, and finding? I don't know, and if you don't, then it's time to take it back a step.

When you see that you and your dog(s) are struggling, make things easier...Go back to rewarding with food any time your dog is within 3-5 feet of you (proximity charging) or go back to the containment areas you started in and get more success here before trying the Great Outdoors again. 

Running, walking, hiking, biking with your dogs with no physical tool to keep them with you is wonderful. It's camaraderie. It's a bond, and it strengthens every time you do this. But, it does take time, as all good things do. Be patient with your dogs and pups; remember that not only are they learning, but so are you.

Start slowly. Take the time to build your confidence, and make yourself leader on your adventures

Remember that dogs will only follow one who is balanced and confident. If you're missing one of these traits, then off-leashing is not for you...yet! Work up to it! Use exercises and training with your dog not only to help her find her happiness and balance, but yours too. Trust me, they can teach you a lot if you're willing to pay attention

Take your dog for a nice walk or run on-leash today...Tomorrow, who knows? The world awaits the team who can work - and move - together

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