How to Get Your Dog to Behave Off Leash

How to use the “Premack principle” to teach your dog to check in with you when off leash.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA,
September 22, 2009
Episode #029

Often when we want to reward our dogs for a job well done, we deploy a tasty treat or a butt scritch. In this week’s episode, I’ll explain how you can use behaviors as rewards -- and how turning your dog loose to go play, for example, can teach him to pay attention to you and stick nearby when he’s off leash. Next week we’ll talk about how to use the same principle to fix nuisance behaviors.

What Is the Premack Principle?

The Premack principle is named for Dr. David Premack, the researcher who first formulated it in scientific terms. It states that for any two behaviors, the one that’s more likely (or that your dog prefers) can reinforce, or strengthen, the one that’s less likely (and that you might prefer). Your parents put Dr. Premack into practice if they ever said you could go to the mall after you cleaned your room. Left to their own devices, most adolescent human organisms are much likelier to go to the mall than to clean their room. So your parents took your desire to engage in mall-going behavior and leveraged it to use as a reward for that much-less-likely room-cleaning behavior.

How Does the Premack Principle Work for Dogs?

As for us and our dogs, we often think of distractions -- squirrels, fire hydrants, the whole great outdoors -- as obstacles to training. They get in the way of having our dogs do what we want. The Premack principle invites us to turn that thinking around. Instead of trying to get our dogs to ignore whatever excites and distracts them, we can use those excitements and distractions as rewards. Today, I’ll explain how to use the Premack principle to teach a dog to check in with you when off leash.

How to Get Your Dog to Behave Off Leash

When your dog’s off leash, the big distraction is the whole wide world, with its sounds and smells and dead things to roll in. An off-leash dog is safer if she checks in with you frequently. But who wants to call their dog over and over and over again when they could be talking with their hiking companions or enjoying the scenery? Teaching your dog to check in isn’t the same as teaching her to come when called – that’s a separate skill. Instead, your dog will just stop by from time to time, without your having to ask.

Start in your backyard or other safe, fenced area. Ideally, choose a spot that’s not too novel or interesting to your dog. Hold your dog on leash until she focuses on you even briefly. Immediately say “Yes!” and unclip her leash. That is her first lesson that paying attention to you may be rewarded with freedom to sniff and explore. From now on, you’ll always wait for that moment of attention before you release her to go play.

How to Get Your Dog to Pay Attention to You

As you and your dog walk around your practice area, her travels will sooner or later bring her near to you. Immediately say “Yes!” in a quiet, happy voice and give her a treat or toss it on the ground near her. The treat is one part of her reward. Here comes the second part -- you encourage her to go play or sniff. The highly probable behavior of poking around and being a doggy is a reward for the rather less probable behavior of paying attention to you.

Occasionally during your practice session, give your dog a treat, put her leash on, wait for her to focus on you even briefly, mark her attention with a “Yes!,” and then unleash her. Over and over, you’re rewarding your dog for attending to you by letting her go play some more.

Most people find that in a familiar, not too exciting location their dog soon chooses to spend more and more time hanging around nearby. So that might be the point at which you end the training session. Because this training is fun, dogs may be disappointed when it ends. So when your dog stops roaming, finish up with a quick game or practice a few tricks.

An Important Point and a Human Example

Here’s an important point about your dog’s developing habit of hanging around with you. Yes, she’s hoping for treats. But something else is going on as well. Event A -- attending to you -- now reliably predicts Event B -- getting the opportunity to go be doggy. When A predicts B, and B is wonderful, A starts to seem wonderful too.

Here’s a human example. Say you just started to date someone, and you assign them a new ringtone on your cell phone. Turns out your new boyfriend or girlfriend is great to be with and fun to talk to on the phone. What do you feel when you hear that ringtone? Mm-hmm. Your dog will also get to feel really good about checking in with you.

How to Practice in More Places

After you have worked in your familiar, not very exciting place a few times, practice in other locations. If you don’t have a variety of safe, fenced areas to choose from and your dog doesn’t reliably come when called, consider having her trail a 50- or 60-foot cord with a few knots along its length. You can step on this to catch her if you need to. I don’t recommend extending leads because, among other things, they accustom dogs to tension in the leash.

As you practice more often and in more and more places, your dog will learn to automatically focus on you when you’re about to let her off leash. And, once she’s off, she’ll check in frequently. You can still give her a food reward sometimes, but you can also toss a ball for her, or ask her to do a fun trick. Then encourage her to go explore.

How to Get Your Dog to Enjoy Being On Leash

Of course, sooner or later it’ll be time to leash up and go home. For many dogs, being on leash means the fun is over. But not so for your dog! You’ve taught her that being on leash almost always comes with the opportunity to go play again. Besides -- and here we’re straying away from the Premack principle a bit -- just because your dog’s on leash doesn’t mean you need to act like a stick in the mud. As you walk home or head back to your car, talk to your dog, give her a toy to carry, ask her to do tricks and reward her with scritches and treats. Being with you should never be any kind of a drag.

That’s all for this week – but, like your dog, I’ll be back. Visit me on Facebook. Comments and questions are welcome – e-mail dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com or call 206-600-5661. Thanks for listening!


In this YouTube video of the Premack principle being used to teach a dog to orient to her person when off leash, the trainer explains that she used a clicker to mark her dog’s attention to her.


The clicker sound is distinctive, which is a huge advantage. So that you can get started right away without any equipment, I substitute a happy “Yes!” in this and my other podcasts, but if you want to learn more about clicker training, I will cheer you on! www.clickertraining.com and www.clickersolutions.com are excellent sources of free information on this great technique.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock