Dear Inquisitive Canine,

Our dogs, JJ and Benny, are very good on their leashes. They walk beside us and don’t pull when wearing their special collars; however, we can no longer take them to the off-leash dog park because once off leash, they’re out of control. They once even headed right for the lake in our dog park, dove in and swam off! Is there something I can do at home to train them to obey when off leash?

— Kris K., Seattle

Dear Kris,

Thank you for providing such a detailed description of your situation, along with questions for finding ways to reach your specified goals.

It sounds as if your inquisitive canines have learned to differentiate when they need to stay by your side and when they’re able to head off into the wild blue yonder. This tells me they’re pretty good learners and, most likely, motivated students. Let’s go over a few exercises you can use to make going to the dog park more fun for you all.

Ready? Set? Plan!

First, you and any other family members should discuss: 1) what you want from JJ and Benny, 2) what your two canines already know, 3) what you’re willing to teach, 4) when to use the skills you learn, 5) how you’re going to arrange training and practice sessions, and 6) what you’ll do if unforeseen circumstances arise when you’re out and about. Even simple single-sentence answers will help formulate a plan. We’ll go through them now, but if you want additional strategizing suggestions, click here to read our Top 10 Training Tips.

One thing I’d like to point out is that JJ and Benny are individual dogs with individual needs, wants and likes. You’ll want to practice with each dog separately using motivators each one prefers, at home, at the park and everywhere in between.

Off-Leash Strategies

» Determine what you want. You mention you’d like for JJ and Benny to “obey” when off leash at the park, so you’ll need to define what that means — paint yourself a Norman Rockwell picture of your ideal behavior. Does this include freedom to run around, romp and play, but to come to you when called? How about checking in with you on their own now and again? Then, of course, there’s playing fetch and visiting with other inquisitive canines and people. Finally, will you allow them to swim as long as they come back to you?

» What do your dogs already know? If they’ve already got a solid baseline of outdoor-specific behaviors (such as coming when called, leaving things alone when asked and staying nearby), then it sounds like you might just want to practice their skills using motivators that make the park seem dull by comparison. If they haven’t learned these skills, start with the basics and build from there. Taking a group class or using a DIY training activity, such as our dog training game, can assist in establishing foundational skills, as well as refining those previously learned.

» What are you willing to teach? Coming when called and leaving things alone when asked should be first up in your park adventure’s line of defense. Humans often wait until they need their dogs to know these behaviors before actually teaching them. Be prepared and teach JJ and Benny to take your call and stop what they’re doing when asked. For a few tips on teaching your dog to come when called, click here to check out a post written for a dog mom with similar issues.

» Who will teach the skills? You have two dogs. Are there two people who will be doing the teaching? More than that? The recommended ratio is one dog to one human. Each person can teach one dog, but they should do so at separate times, and not during the same training session, because too many cooks can often lead to miscommunication. An exception to this is playing round-robin recalls, which is a lot of fun for both dogs and humans and is included in our dog training game mentioned above.

» How will you arrange training sessions? It’s best to start in your own home with few interruptions, adding in distractions one at a time. As the distractions increase, the value of the rewards you’re using should also increase — higher values for when it’s more challenging for your dogs.

» Brainstorm the what-ifs. Having a backup plan is important, especially when bodies of water are involved. There are no guarantees, but making sure you’ve practiced a lot first in various locations, then at various levels of distraction, can help prevent unfavorable situations taking a turn for the worse. If the park seems busier that day or JJ and Benny seem more distracted, keeping some novel treat handy, rewarding behaviors more frequently and/or using a longline (as long as it’s safe to do so) can help manage their environment — and their behavior.

Take Paws

Allowing dogs off leash in a park is similar to our parents letting us loose at an amusement park — with their wallet. There are so many fascinating things to discover that it’s difficult for humans when we have to compete for our dogs’ attention. Just know you have control over the situation, either by managing their environment to help prevent behaviors from occurring, or by teaching them what you want and having reinforcements that make the park look like a giant snooze fest.

With time, practice and patience, you should be able to knock this challenge right outta the park — so you all can enjoy your time in the park.

— Dear Inquisitive Canine is written by Joan Mayer and her trusty sidekick, Poncho. Joan is a certified professional dog trainer and human-canine relationship coach. Poncho is a 10-pound mutt that knows a lot about canine and human behavior. Their column is known for its simple common-sense approach to dog training and behavior, as well as its entertaining insight into implementing proven techniques that reward both owner and dog. Joan is also the founder of The Inquisitive Canine, where her love-of-dog training approach highlights the importance of understanding canine behavior. If you or your dog have questions about behavior, training or life with each other,

Joan Hunter Mayer

Joan Hunter Mayer

Joan Hunter Mayer is a certified canine behavior consultant, certified professional dog trainer, and founder of The Inquisitive Canine. She and her team are devoted to offering humane, pawsitive, practical solutions that work for the challenges dogs and their humans face in everyday life. Joan offers training and behavior consulting services both in person and online, dedicated to strengthening the human-canine bond. If you are feeling inquisitive and have dog training questions, email and click here for more training tips. The opinions expressed are her own.