Letting a Sighthound Off-Leash

The main thing I heard about sighthounds when I got a whippet was, Do not let them off-leash! Because of their chase instinct, they can bolt. I assumed this meant that for the rest of our together lives, C-Biscuit (and later Sesame) would be tethered securely to our sides. Or, rarely, let loose on a fenced field.

Bob and Biski

Bob and C-Biscuit: Multi-day hiking trip, never letting go of the leash!

We did umpteen hikes last year, including scaling Giant Ledge with heavy backpacks on, with Biski on no more than a 6-foot leash (we abhor flexi-leads). We even lived in fear of letting go of the leash. Every time Bob and I handed off the leash between us, we would both hold it in our clenched fists while confirming, “Okay, YOU HAVE IT?”  

When I say "heavy packs," you didn't think I meant OURS? (Don't worry - she's only carrying snack packs of M&Ms!)

By "heavy backpacks," you didn't think I meant OURS? (Don't worry, she's only carrying M&Ms!)

A dog can, and eventually will, get away. When he does, you want to know you still have some control over him and some confidence about his returning. As the football folks say about players partying after a touchdown, “When you get to the endzone, try to act like you’ve been there before.” You don’t want your dog waiting years to get free, then bolting when he finally does. It pays to build some experience and trust regarding being off-leash.

We heard about our friend Grace letting her two whippets off-leash. Off-leash? we marveled. How? I’ve since learned that plenty of whippets and greyhounds romp off-leash – and come back reliably. I think training a dog to be off-leash, in safe circumstances, is a great exercise for us (peace of mind, convenience), for them (freedom and fun!) and for the bond between dog and owner (trust = love).

A bright coat and cowbell make it easier to track a wayward pup

A bright coat and cow bell make it easy to keep track of pups on the trail

Here are the steps we took, with Grace’s guidance, to letting C-Biscuit off-leash:

Bob demonstrates that a bag of treats acts as an invisible leash

Bob shows that a bag of treats acts as an invisible leash

Helpful equipment:

 

Step 1: Whistle training

Condition your dog to race towards you with relish when you blow a whistle. Use a treat that’s especially high-value, and make it obvious at first: When they are right next to you, blow the whistle (not hard! they can hear it), and treat them to a delicacy. Repeat this several times over a couple days. Then get the dog from the next room with the whistle, and gradually from farther away. Next, go to a fenced yard or field. When your dog is already running towards you, blow the whistle and give special treats. Don’t be stingy: Really deliver here, as this is the key to your dog doing what you ask in the future.

Release the hounds!

Release the hounds! C-Biscuit and Grace's two whippets in the vanguard.

Step 2: Go Hiking

Put the vest, tag collar, and for extra insurance a small cowbell on your dog and go to a trail where they can be off-leash. Make sure this trail is away from any road. If you have friends with dogs trained to be off-leash, all the better: Ask them to come with you. This triggers pack mentality and the dogs tend to stay together (as well as with you, who should be the leader of their pack). With or without company, a hike on a trail puts you and the dog in migration mode. That’s different than, say, a backyard or a dog park.

Picchu's first hike, staying on the leash

Picchu's first hike, on the leash. As you can see, Biski is hardly running away.

When you’re away from the parking area/road, let the dog off-leash. I had thought that if you let sighthounds off-leash, they would go tearing off into the wilderness at lightening speed, never to be seen again. Bob and I had Grace and her whippets, plus her cousin and his Sheltie, all well-trained, to break us in on our first off-leash experience. We couldn’t believe what happened: We unclasped the leash, and Biski kept trotting at our sides. Huh. Then she ranged a little more, with the other dogs, but never too far. We were amazed.

Continue the whistle-training on the trail: Toot, treat. Repeat. Be careful not to get nervous, whistle your dog back, and put the leash on. Teach them that whistle + return = treat + more freedom.

Not holding a leash frees me up to swing on wild vines!

Not holding a leash frees me up to swing on wild vines! (Note Biski is still underfoot.)

Step 3: Enjoy

Once your dog is used to being trusted off-leash, you can change venues and expect them to stick relatively close-by (again, always away from traffic). Always have the tag collar on and the whistle (and treats, ideally) ready.  

The way hiking was meant to be!

The way hiking was meant to be: Yeee-Haaaw!

Using this method, we took Machu Picchu off-leash almost right away, and she did great. Giving the pups some freedom to sniff & roam while hiking has been the best thing we’ve done with, and for, them. And if I accidentally drop the leash in the park, I won’t panic. 

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4 Comments

Filed under Adventures, Dog Training

4 responses to “Letting a Sighthound Off-Leash

  1. Great to read this as hubby and me live in fear of our whippet getting away – it’s only at the fenced dog park and inside that she gets to run free… we might just give it a try!

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  4. It is interesting to read that whippets can’t be let of the leash (first time hearing that)…. well, they don’t see the cars and bicycles, but they always come back when required. I have a whippet more than a year already, and after a month together i let her first time off leash. There was no problem and still is no problem with that. Most whippet i know (if they are not too shy or afraid of other dogs or people) are very liable and always come when called… even without any special training. All you need is trust yourself and a dog. My Vega go everywhere around even if i do not see her with my eyes, but i need just to call her and she is right beside me…

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