Not you, the dogs!
Clicker Training, unlike more traditional training, really allows the handler to build up off-leash reliability from the very get go. Traditional training (especially at its worst) is centered around delivering leash pops and corrections. Dogs often become very leash savvy. They know when the leash is on–when there is the possibility for getting a correction and when the leash is off–when corrections can be evaded. What people often end up with is with a dog who cannot work reliably off-leash… the dogs know they can get away with kicking off when the leash is off. Since dogs are trained under the guise of avoiding a correction, when they know there is little to no chance of correction, they have no reason to listen.
On the other hand, Clicker Training is a great tool to teach off-leash reliability. Unlike many people, I actually like to start training with a new dog outside (on leash at the very start). I start by simply rewarding for offering attention (often with a game of tug), I want to build up this idea that even when we are in a distracting place, I want them to work with me. When a dog is choosing to engage with me and not take off, I start doing obedience training sessions outside. Pretty much from the get-go of obedience practice outside, the pup is dragging the leash. Dragging the leash is simply a precaution until I’m reasonably sure the pup is not going to chase–once I’m pretty sure the pup is with me, I take the leash off all together. All of this is building toward a dog who is reliable on-leash, off-leash, at home, at a park, etc. The dogs gain an understanding that the leash is not a cue to “I have to listen now” or “It’s work time,” nor is unclipping the leash a cue to take off and run like mad.
There was a dog, in a class I was taking, who had been traditionally trained using leash corrections, choke chains, tight leashes, etc. who totally exemplified the difficulties of that type of training with non-professional handlers. This was a young dog who would not sit unless there was tension on his collar/neck. If the handler asked for a sit she had to tighten the collar and pull up… this dog had learned part of the cue for sit was to have tension on the collar. While he was somewhat under control off leash, he was not what I’d call obedient. He would come back when he got all crazy and zoomie, but he was not focused on his handler, could not sit/down/stay without tension on his neck, and clearly knew his handler had limited availability to correct him. During this class dogs spent quite a lot of time off-leash working and while her dog got better by baby steps, he was still largely out of control.
During this class Rio was pretty much never on leash. Most people had to leash their dog in between off-leash time because they were not as proficient off-leash. Rio, however, was rarely , if ever, on leash in that class. He heeled beautifully, gave me amazing attention, had really reliable behaviors, and didn’t ever check out to mingle with another dog. At one point the handler of the previously mentioned dog asked me about Rio. She was impressed by Rio’s behavior. I wanted to say that the way she was training her young dog would prevent this type of result but instead I said I’d simply done a lot of off-leash work with him from the time he was a baby. I also said that because I didn’t use leash corrections, I didn’t need to have a leash on him so he learned to work with our without a leash (in a really nice, non-accusatory way). She was perplexed but saw the results and was interested in learning a little more.
It seems this off-leash reliability is what she wanted from her dog… it’s just very upsetting/sad that she’s been hurting her chances of having this because the type of training she was first exposed to.