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

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.


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).