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.
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?”
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).
Here are the steps we took, with Grace’s guidance, to letting C-Biscuit off-leash:
- Dog Whistle
- Hunting Vest (or brightly-colored coat)
- Cow bell (optional)
- Tag collar including your cell number
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.