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E-Collar Training: Be Sure to Do This Before You Go Off Leash

by Robin MacFarlane

How do you know when a dog is ready to have the leash unclipped?

The whole point of training a dog with an e-collar is to gain the ability to run the dog off leash while feeling secure that you can maintain control as needed.

But how do you know when the dog is really ready to have the leash or long line unclipped?

If you go from e-collar conditioning on leash, and assisting the dog in doing things properly to then unclipping the leash entirely, it may be a step that your dog isn't ready for.

Working on leash in the beginning phase is the best way to insure we can help the dog follow through with the desired behavior. The leash is a way to apply pressure to assist the dog in a recall or heel position. It is a way to help maintain focus on the handler and guidance for teaching a Sit, Place, or Down command. But it can also become a crutch. If we forget to wean off of using the leash pressure the dog never fully understands the proper response to e-collar stimulation in the absence of that leash tension.

That is why it is so important to go through a transition step in the training and work with a dragline. A dragline is exactly what it sounds like: the dog is dragging a leash or long line attached to a flat buckle collar.

Having a line dragging from the dog provides you a backup plan if the dog struggles following through with e-pressure alone. At any time the dog shows confusion, you can pick up the line and help guide the dog into the proper behavior. The line is helping you, just as in the early conditioning phase, but you're no longer keeping it in your hand or maintaining pressure on it.

Because the line is generally dragging and only picked up and utilized on an as needed basis, the dog has opportunity to demonstrate to you his level of comprehension. If you are picking up the line frequently to assist, then the dog is not yet ready to work off leash. If you are rarely to never picking up the line, and you've put in the work to generalize to a variety of locations and situations, then the dog is ready to roll without needing a line attached. You now have stimulus control with the e-collar on.

The other reason to let the line drag is to ensure that the use of the leash and the tension applied to it does not become a crutch. Too often people struggle with having a loose leash during training. Constant tension can become a cue to the dog and as soon as the leash comes off and the tension disappears Fido may not know how to respond correctly. Allowing the leash to drag gives the handler opportunity to develop other skills for assisting the dog in understanding, but it is still there as a back up if needed.

An additional step that can be taken is shortening the line by cutting segments of it off periodically. These means a gradual reduction in the weight the dog is feeling attached to him. Rather than just going "cold turkey" with no line, you could chose to shorten it over time until there is little more than a small tab of leash left attached to the collar.

However you choose to go about it, the important thing is to recognize your dog is intelligent enough to know when they go from you holding a leash/line to nothing being attached.

If you train and go through intermediate steps using a drag line, you will have much more success in gaining the off leash reliability you desire.
-- Robin

Robin MacFarlane is a professional dog trainer and owner of Thats My Dog in Dubuque, Iowa. Her best-selling dog training DVDs, JUST RIGHT and JUST RIGHT 2 have helped thousands of dog owners teach their dogs basic obedience and fix problem behaviors through a system of training that you can easily work into your daily routine.
  • Robin writes for Gun Dog Supply on our E-collars Dog Training blog
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