Dogs and Wildlife - Tips for going Off-leash July 2016
Some of my favourite moments with my dog, Shadow, have been the opportunities to un-clip his leash and watch him run free without restraint. Alternatively, some of my most stressful moments with Shadow have been after he spots a critter and takes off into the bushes in a mad pursuit. While in reality he is only ever gone for a few minutes, when I have no idea where he is and what he is doing, that time without him feels like an eternity.
It can be hard not to take it personally when your dog doesn't automatically want to stay at your side, or when they bolt off ignoring your normally reliable recall cue. Part of my process for dealing with these stressful times has been to remind myself that my dog evolved from wolves and inherited many of their genetic traits. Since wolves have to hunt for their food in order to survive it is only natural that we see an incredibly strong prey drive in a great number of ours dogs. Despite the fact that they are well-fed, it is normal for our dogs to have the instinct to search for, stalk, chase, bite and/or kill* wildlife when the opportunity presents itself. Predation is about getting enough to eat and it is instinctual, it is not the dog being “stubborn” or “bad.”
The good news is that with training and management you can greatly reduce the odds that your dog will chase wildlife when they are off-leash. The bad news is that regardless of how much training you do, you can never 100% guarantee your dog's behaviour. It is wonderful to want your dog to have off-leash freedom, but it is important to remember that it is our job to keep them safe. There will always be risks and you have to decide when those risks are reasonable and when they are not.
Management Around the Home:
- Fences: A 100% secure fenced area is the ideal option if you want to leave your dog outside unsupervised. Fences not only keep your dog safely in, they also keep dangerous wildlife out. If you don't have a fence consider building one around all or some of your property.
- Tie-outs: Tethers can be used for short periods with supervision. The dog should be attached by a back-clipping harness so that if they try to bolt after a critter they do not injure their neck. Rubber coated metal wire is the best option so that the dog cannot chew through it and escape.
- Supervision: Supervise your dog outside and be aware that if you do not it is normal for your dog to wander off or chase wildlife. Be sure your dog has a collar with a tag and is microchipped.
- Exercise & Mental Stimulation: If your dog is tired from walks and play they will be less motivated to wander off. Channel and drain your dog's prey drive with appropriate outlets such as fetch and tug games that simulate fleeing and struggling prey. Work-to-eat activities and food puzzle toys are especially relevant. Feed your dog their daily meals in stuffed frozen kongs, or through find-it games like kibble scattered in the grass. It takes effort to sniff out the food and this will tire their noses and their minds. Offer regular chew options like raw marrow bones or bully sticks.
Management On Walks:
- Awareness: Pay attention to your surroundings and try to choose safe locations for off-leash hikes. Avoid walking at dawn or dusk when wildlife is more active. Make note of and avoid hiking near any potential risks for your dog such as farm animals, busy roads, or popular jogging trails. Know when local hunting seasons are and always follow local leash laws. If you are not sure that it's safe, don't let your dog off-leash!
- Bear bells: Traditionally worn by hikers to alert unforeseen bears of their presence, these loud bells do just the same for your dog. Attach one to your dog's collar so that the sound follows them around wherever they go and spooks wildlife in the hopes that they run off before your dog spots them. Added bonus: you can hear where your dog is even when you can't see them.
- Long Lines: A 10-30 foot cotton long line (or waterproof biothane line) can be attached to a back clipping harness and either held or left to drag behind the dog. Lines can offer security during early stages of training around distractions however they also come with risk of injury to both the dog and the owner. Always supervise heavily when using a line and watch out for any tangling around the dog's legs. Wear gloves and be very careful about grabbing a moving line or holding the end of a line when a dog is running. Lines are not recommended for hiking in the bush where they could easily get caught.
- GPS trackers: The ability to know exactly where your dog is in the event they do run off can enable an owner to relax or to engage in an efficient pursuit. There are 3 main types of trackers on the market:
- GSM Based Trackers - These trackers are cheap and can pinpoint a location on a map using cellphone networks and in conjunction with a smart phone. (This is the only kind that I have tried, specifically the TK102 which is available online.)
- Digital UHF Based Trackers - Popular among hunters these trackers encode GPS co-ordinates into an analog signal that is sent to the hand held device and work independently of cell networks. They are more accurate however they are also bulkier and more expensive (I dream of owning a Garmin Astro 320).
- Analog UHF Based Trackers - Popular among animal researchers these use directional tracking, meaning the handheld device beeps when pointed towards the dog and you follow the beeping until you reach them. There are no map co-ordinates but again, no cell network required.
Above: My dogs, Morvo and Shadow, wearing their collars with tags and bearbells as well high-visability orange vests.
- Recall: A solid "come when called” behaviour is essential training for any dog! If you want your dog to recall away from wildlife then you have to practice and train around wildlife. Always start training in low distraction environments and then build up slowly towards your goal behaviour using an incremental plan. Choose a special "emergency recall" cue and protect it, meaning never use it to call your dog for anything they don't like. Every time you use this cue reward your dog generously with high-value treats (chicken, cheese, pizza crusts - whatever your dogs equivalent to $100 would be). Don’t be stingy here, teaching recall is about big pay offs for the dog. Practice recalling your dog often, rewarding and then immediately after letting them go back to what they were doing. Be careful about letting your dog off-leash for the first time or in a new area (consider long lines or fenced areas for testing and proofing your training). A professional trainer can assist greatly with this process.
- Whistles: Instead of using a verbal cue, train your dog to recall to a whistle (fancy silent ones for dogs are available at most pet stores or online). The sound of a whistle can carry further then your voice as well as save you from having to yell. Attach it to your treat pouch, leash or keys so you never forget it on a walk.
- Gramma's Rule: "You have to eat your broccoli before you can have your ice cream” a.k.a. “Premack's principle” can be applied to dog training to turn distractions into rewards. In a scenario where a dog can be permitted to chase wildlife this principle can be exploited. With the right set up the dog will learn that in order to chase the squirrel he just spotted, he must first do a recall to his owner, after which he is let loose to go chase (the reward for doing the recall). This type of training teaches dogs that the best way to get the things they want out in the world is the listen to their owner.
- Auto-check-ins: Praise and reward your dog for staying close to you and they are less likely to spot wildlife. Reward your dog anytime they check in with you on their own or if they stop up ahead, look back and wait for you to catch up. Use casual cues to keep them close such as "this way.” If your dog never checks in with you then prompt it and reward, over time your dog will start offering the behaviour without prompting. Added Bonus: loud happy talk and praise also deters wildlife.
Above: Shadow always has a happy "recall face" because he LOVES coming when called!
*If your dog has a history of killing cats, dogs, farm animals, preserved or endangered animals please use strict management to ensure it never happens again. No amount of training can guarantee a dog who has a history of killing will not do it again. However, please note that a dog who kills an animal due to predatory urges is not at risk of becoming aggressive. Predation is about eating, aggression is about protecting oneself from threats.
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