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When is my dog ready to hike off-leash?

Meet John Imler! John is the owner and lead trainer of Top Dog Training.  He’s a member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and International Association of Canine Professionals. He is a graduate of National K9, a nationally recognized school that has been in operation for over 30 years. He has worked with trainers and clients from all over the US and as far away as Greece. We’re excited to start sharing John and others expertise with you.

Getting out with our dogs is one of the most rewarding activities we can do with our dogs. It takes us back tens of thousands of years to the same activities our ancestors did with their canine companions.

Before we fall to the allure of cutting our dogs off leash and going into the woods, we have to be realistic in our skills and the capabilities of our dog.  The risks are substantial and could result in best-case, our dogs running off chasing an animal for a few hours and worst-case our dogs getting lost and being struck by a vehicle.

Regardless, here are 3 key commands/behaviors your dog needs to understand.

The dog’s name: I tell clients the 2 most important things to teach your dog is their name and a recall. I want the dog to know their name because when we say it, it is imperative that they look at us. They need focus on us rather than the object that held their attention a moment ago. Too often we call our dog and we end up repeating the dog’s name over and over and basically pleading with them for attention. When you call your dog and they look at you, make it worth their while. Reward them with a treat or praise!

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A solid recall: that has both a verbal cue/command as well as a hand signal.  As I mentioned above, a solid recall is one of the most important things your dog needs to have in the real world. We need to call the dog once and the dog responds by moving directly to us. Provide the dog with a high value reward and/or substantial praise EVERY time they come to you. Let them think that the greatest thing in the world is getting to you when you call them!

And finally, an off leash command: Recalls, casual walk commands, and heels are all commands that allow the dog to manage distance. When we teach a simple “walk” command we are teaching the dog to match our pace, on our left or right side within 4 feet.  When we teach “heel” the dog learns to walk in VERY close proximity to our left and maintain focus on us. When we teach a “Hike” or “Let’s Go” command we are teaching the dog to stay within 20-30 feet and maintain contact with us by checking in with us.  We can manage this by using a long line.  

Using these commands, we can teach our dog to explore with us and stay within close proximity off leash WHILE checking in with us. We have the confidence to know that when we call our dog’s name they will immediately turn their attention to us. Finally, if we need to get a leash on our dog we are confident in our recall that we can get the dog to us as soon as possible.

 So work on these with your dog… and when you are ready, unleash and go!


John Imler left a successful career with a Fortune 500 company to spend his days with wagging tails and covered in dog slobber. He is the owner and lead trainer of Top Dog Training in Louisville, KY. He is a member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and International Association of Canine Professionals. He has worked with trainers and clients from all over the US and as far away as Greece.

Connect with John for more tips and tricks!

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Twitter - @johnimlerTDT

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