Updated: Jul 24
Off leash heeling is often times made to look like it's the gold standard. It creates this illusion of a highly trained dog that will behave perfectly all the time, which in turn allows trainers to sell training courses and trained dogs for crazy amounts of money. Most of what you see is smoke & mirrors.
The one area where off leash control is useful and even necessary, is when it comes to the recall. For obvious reasons; if you need to do a recall, it's because you don't have your dog with you on a leash.
Whenever I'm in an environment where I am able to give my dog some freedom, ie. an open field, park or hiking trail... having a reliable recall is crucial. I have to be able to recall my dog at any moment, and have him respond immediately, or otherwise be able to enforce my command in case he is too distracted and decides to ignore me. In this context off leash control is useful, beneficial and even potentially life saving.
In any other situation off leash obedience/ control serves only to look impressive, nothing more.
My own dog is fully off leash trained. He can heel off leash in town, a shopping center or any busy environment, and he can perform stays with many distractions and activities around him. The problem is, I am constantly having to look next to me to make sure my dog is still in position. I am constantly worried that he might decide to do something stupid at any moment. My attention has to be on my dog almost 100%, which leaves me with very little room to concentrate on anything else. If I down stay him outside a shop/store I am constantly looking out the window to make sure he is still there. I am stressed the entire time that I am away from him. Anything can happen; he might break his stay & come searching for me in the store where dogs are not allowed, upsetting other customers and the store owner! He might be startled by something & take off running in front of a car, or a random cat triggers his prey drive leading to a similar outcome. What if someone tries to pet him? What if he bites someone (who is trying to pet him)? What if, god forbid, someone tries to steal him? These are all thoughts that are going through my mind the entire time. Am I able to do my shopping with my mind at peace? Not at all!!
For me personally, it is much easier, much simpler, much less stressful, and indeed much more practical and realistic to just put a leash on my dog whenever I take him to town or into a busy environment. This way my dog can still go everywhere with me and gain valuable experience and exposure, but I don't have to constantly be stressed and worried that he might make the wrong decision & do something he's not supposed to. I don't need to be watching him the whole time because I can feel him next to me. I know he is there and I know I have full control. When I need to enter a shopping center where he is not allowed, I put him in his crate in the car where I know he will be safe until I return.
The second problem is this; Very few dogs will give perfect obedience when off leash, especially in a busy environment. There are too many things going on and a hundred different distractions. The only way to get near perfect obedience in a situation like this is to have an e-collar on the dog. E-collars work great. I use them too. But if you have to hold an e-collar in your hand to maintain control of your dog, you might as well be holding a leash...
The dog in the video above is an "executive level" personal protection dog, which means he is trained to give off leash obedience in any situation. But notice the trainer always has the e-collar in his hand. Do you think that dog will give the same obedience without the e-collar to remind him of his job every now & again? Do you think CEO's & executive level businessmen (or their wives) will want to walk around with an e-collar the whole time?...or devote 80% - 90% of their attention making sure the dog is doing what it's suppose to do? They don't!!
This post will probably not be very popular with other dog trainers, but it is the truth, at least in my experience. Dog trainers will make videos of off leash heeling and obedience in busy environments because it looks impressive and helps them get clients & sell dogs. I know, I did it too. It's not real!
Put a leash on your dog. It's easier