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
5-minute read
Episode #29

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.

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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.


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).