Step-By-Step: How To Train A Vizsla To Go Off-Leash

We all hope to have our dogs wonderfully trained, responsive to our commands, making us proud. Sometimes, however, training goes awry, and our Vizsla that trained beautifully on the leash becomes a crazy hooligan the minute the leash is snapped off. The handler can end up running miles after the delinquent Vizsla, hoarsely calling his name and trying frantically to catch him as he prances just out of reach. This enough to make any owner angry, disappointed and frustrated. What went wrong, and how has this happened.

Off-leash training involves some fundamental principles:

  • Train on a leash and close to you first.
  • Train in safe enclosed areas before moving to open spaces.
  • Use reward markers for training at a distance.
  • Gradually increase the complexity of tasks.
  • Use rewards that your dog values.
  • Always keep it fun.

This article will help you look at how to transfer your on-leash training to off-leash training. It will explain important steps that need to be taken and how to achieve your dog’s best performance.


Are Vizslas Good Off-Leash?

Vizslas are high-energy dogs bred to be working gun dogs. Their high energy can make them distractible and quite a handful if they are not trained correctly. Their excellent prey drive will increase the chances that if they catch a good scent or are triggered by a bird flying out, they will take off into the wild blue yonder, leaving you trailing disconsolately behind.

This problem is not unique to Vizslas, and most gun dogs will display this behavior if they are not trained sufficiently. While an untrained Vizsla will not be good off-leash, a Vizsla with good training will be a well-behaved reliable hunting dog. The rule of ‘what you put in is what you get out’ applies to hunting dogs as it does to many aspects of life.


Where Should I Start When Training My Vizsla To Go Off-Leash?

The first training should start when you bring your Vizsla puppy home. The basics of good manners, house training, and basic obedience around the home must be instilled. You should use feeding the puppy to teach him to sit and wait or stay before giving his food. He should also learn a basic ‘come’ command and go outside to the appropriate area to relieve himself.

All of these basics are teaching your puppy to start responding to you. A bond is established where the puppy learns you are good to be around. Please remember a puppy is still young with immature physical, mental and emotional development.

Do not expect him to perform miraculous feats of obedience or bladder control when he is simply not equipped for it. If you are still at this stage and need further help, please consult a trainer, animal behaviorist, or training videos.


Positive Training Approach

In years gone by, handlers used aversive methods involving punishment or reprimand by means of jerking dogs on leads, shock collars, etc., to train off-leash. These have been shown by more recent research to be inhumane and not effective in training.

Dogs trained using these methods learned by fear. Learning theory has demonstrated that positive reinforcement is a more powerful learning tool and results in a happier dog. In this article, we will use the positive method approach to describe teaching off-leash training.


On Leash Work With Your Vizsla

You can begin on leash work with your Vizsla puppy as soon as he is mature enough to concentrate for ten to fifteen minutes. Begin by getting him used to the collar or harness and leash and walking confidently around your house and garden.

Once he has received at least two vaccinations to prevent him from contracting diseases such as parvo and distemper, you can enroll him in puppy classes. The instructor running the classes will help you graduate your Vizsla through various courses to achieve on-leash training. (AKC training a puppy to a leash)


What On Leash Skills Should My Vizsla Achieve Before Moving Off-Leash?

It is vital that your Vizsla has learned certain behaviors on the leash before you consider moving to off-leash training.  These skills should include:

  • Heelwork
  • Loose leash walking
  • Come – recall
  • Sit
  • Stay
  • Extended Stay
  • Leave
  • Drop
  • Emergency recall
  • Look at me
  • Go to your place

We will not be looking in-depth at these skills as this article is aimed at off-leash training. If your dog has not achieved competence in these skills, find a competent trainer to help you put these basics in place.


A Cautionary Word On Off-Leash Work And The Law

Many states or counties have laws relating to leashing your dog. Make sure that you do not contravene any of these laws by working your Vizsla off-leash in an area where it is against the law. Always ensure that you are allowed to work your Vizsla off-leash in the area, or you may find yourself faced with hefty fines or even having your dog impounded.


Safety First – Working Your Vizsla Off Leash

A big mistake is that you go to an area and decide to release your Vizsla without first checking the site’s safety. This includes:

  • Boundary fences – many dogs have become lost during off-leash work because they have become intoxicated with the freedom of being off-leash. With no boundary fences to curb them, they run for miles.
  • If you are working your dog in a farming area, your dog may run amok amongst the livestock. This can enrage the farmer, damage livestock, and potentially put your dog in harm’s way if a farmer decided to shoot him.
  • Access to litter and unknown detritus could result in a sick dog and high veterinarian bills if he gobbles up something he shouldn’t eat.
  • Traffic accidents kill many dogs when they are off-leash in unfenced areas.
  • Dog fights from dogs running loose in areas where you are trying to train your Vizsla.
  • Scaring children or dog-phobic people if you are training your Vizsla in a park.

The right location is essential in choosing where to work your Vizsla off-leash.


What Equipment Do I Need To Train My Vizsla Off-Leash?

A valuable tool to transition from on-leash training to off-leash training is an extra-long length leash. These can vary in length, and you should choose one that feels most comfortable to you. A long leash is helpful when you are working in an unknown area. It also helps to keep some control of your Vizsla to bring his attention back to you if he becomes distracted.

Most trainers and handlers prefer to use a harness for off-leash work – especially if you use an extra-length leash. If your dog is in the act of running away, a sudden jerk when he comes to the end of a long leash could result in damage to neck muscles and the vertebra. These injuries can cause permanent damage to your Vizsla.

A reward marker such as a clicker or whistle indicates to a Vizsla that he performed a task correctly and a treat is coming. Reward markers are essential in off-leash training. Learning behavior theory tells us that to teach behavior, the reward must be given within one to two minutes of successfully completing the desired behavior.

If your dog is far from you in off-leash work, this time frame cannot be achieved. A reward marker tells the Vizsla, “Good job – your reward is coming.” It is essential to first pair the reward marker with the reward. The dog must know that the marker means a reward is on the way. Reward markers also allow the number of times a reward is given to be decreased as the dog matures and becomes more proficient in completing tasks. (Tips on clicker training)


Reward Hierarchy For Your Vizsla

Individual Vizslas value rewards differently. One dog might respond best to food, while another’s highest value reward may be a throw of his favorite ball or toy. It would be helpful to make a list of how your dog values rewards.

You might find that different food items are placed at different levels on a reward hierarchy. A dog food kibble might be lower down on the reward hierarchy than a chunk of freshly cooked chicken. Keep your food rewards small. It is best if they can be swallowed easily and quickly. A large food treat will take time to consume and will interrupt the flow of training.

When training off-leash, use rewards of different value for your Vizsla. This practice keeps your dog’s interest as he is never sure what reward he will get. High-value rewards can also be used for complex tasks or when working in surroundings with high distractibility.


What Kind Of Rewards Can I Use With My Vizsla

Food Treats can usually be divided into three groups: high value, medium, and low value. High-value treats are generally high protein moist treats. Medium value treats are drier with less protein, and low-value treats are dry, biscuit type treats. This can vary amongst dogs.

Toys such as balls, frisbees, and tug ropes are popular amongst Vizslas. Again, individual dogs will have different preferences, and surprisingly, some dogs will place toy play higher than food treats.

Attention and praise from an owner can be more rewarding to some dogs than any other treat.

Free play is highly motivating to some dogs. The chance to just be off-leash and have a wild play can be invigorating and highly rewarding to some dogs.


Distractibility List For Your Vizsla

Try to establish what kinds of things distract your Vizsla. He is likely to find birds taking off in flight highly distractible. Sometimes it might just be the sound of certain birds. For others, children or other dogs might be the most distractible. A list of what he finds distracting will allow you to take preventative action before he becomes distracted.  Always work from low distractibility to high distractibility when you are training off-leash.


Be Aware Of Your Vizsla’s Body Language

It is essential to be aware of your dog’s body language. It will give you some foreknowledge of when he finds a stimulus very distracting, or he is not paying attention to you or is about to run off. You will help yourself train your Vizsla off-leash if you spend some time studying your dog, noting his body language before he reacts to something. It will enable you to step in and redirect his behavior before he becomes too distracted.


Starting Off-Leash Work With Your Vizsla

Off-leash work with your Vizsla should begin in your home. This is a safe, contained area where you know that your dog will not come to harm. When handlers train their Vizslas, they often unknowingly give physical cues through the leash to their dog.

These cues can be subtle pressure on the leash, slight tightening, or beginning to move the leash in a specific direction. Although you may not notice these cues, your Vizsla will. When you take off the leash suddenly, that communication avenue is removed, and the dog is left confused. This is why it is vital to do off-leash training at home.

You can begin this simultaneously as you are doing formal on-leash training outside of your home. You should include off-leash training in his daily play and feeding routines. Once your Vizsla is competent and responding consistently to commands inside the house, you can move your training outside to your enclosed garden.

If you have a separate backyard, begin there first, as there will likely be fewer distractions. Once you have achieved success in the backyard, moved to the front yard if it has good boundary fences.


Games That Facilitate Off-Leash Training With Your Vizsla

Several games can help you establish the basics for off-leash training. They should all begin in the home and can be moved to outside areas.

Call His Name Game is a perfect way to ensure that your Vizsla is focused on you. Use this game in various places with different distractibility levels. Start with your dog on the leash. When he is responding reliably, you can unclip the leash. Call his name. When he looks at you, give a treat. Repeat this four or five times. It is also an excellent way to teach a new Vizsla puppy his name.

Catches is not only a good game for children. With your Vizsla on a leash, call his name. Wait until he looks at you, then run a few steps and either call “come” or whatever word you prefer.  When your dog runs after you, reward him by either giving praise and attention or a treat. Increase the length of your run, and then ask him to “come.” Eventually, unclip the leash. Runoff a little way and call “come.”

Bounce is a game where you need some assistants. Ask your assistants to stand at varying places. Call the Vizsla to yourself. When he comes, reward him. Get one of the assistants to call him to themselves, and when he comes, reward him. This activity should continue with different assistants calling the Vizsla to them. The game is sometimes called hot potato. It is generally best to use assistants the dog is familiar with, such as family members. It is a

great way to incorporate children into your Vizsla’s training.

Hide and seek is a good game to play once your Vizsla puppy knows his name.  Go around a corner and call his name. If he does not respond, tug his leash gently to get him moving in the right direction. Initially, keep it simple and just go out of his sight.

Once he gets the idea, you can unclip the leash and begin to increase the complexity of where you are hiding. Please note the dog must find you; otherwise, it defeats the purpose of the game. This game is useful for teaching the dog a recall when he cannot see you.

It is also beneficial for dogs that naturally scent as they begin to smell to discover where you are. If you have decided to use a whistle for training, pair this with calling his name and gradually reduce the use of his name and just use the whistle.


What Commands Should I Teach My Vizsla For Off-Leash Training?

Think about what skills you feel your dog should know when he is off-leash. What dangers are you likely to encounter, and what happens in the hunting field if you hunt your Vizsla. It is  recommended that you teach at least these basic skills:

  • Reliable recall
  • Stay
  • Walking at heel
  • Left and right
  • Go out
  • Go around
  • Drop or leave

If you wish to teach other commands, follow the basic principles of first introducing the skill to your Vizsla when he is on a leash or near you. Slowly increase the distance and the complexity of the task.

Reliable Recall

A reliable recall is essential and probably one of the most life-saving skills to teach a dog off-leash. Start with your dog attached to an extra-length leash.  Allow him to go a little way off and call him with whatever command word you have decided. If he does not come immediately, gently tug on the lead. When he comes to you, give a reward. Gradually increase the distance.

Once he is coming reliably from longer distances, go out of his sight and call. When he completes out-of-sight recall reliably, you can let him off leash and repeat the exercise. Remember to start in a safe, enclosed place where he cannot run away.

Stay

Stay is essential for gun dogs during a hunt. Begin this by teaching a stay command in close quarters. It can be a sit-stay or a down stay. Once the dog has learned to stay, give the command and walk off a few steps. Then call your dog and reward. Repeat this until you are out of sight of your dog. Your dog should stay until you either come back to him, give a release command or call him to you.

Stay is absolutely vital in hunting dogs. You do not want your dog creeping forward during shooting. If he gets into the wrong position, he could be shot, or if he advances towards the front of the gun, his hearing could be damaged by the sound of the muzzle blast.

Walking At Heel

Gun dog handlers do not always emphasize heel walking. Some handlers feel that a dog that is too ‘bound to the owner” may not be a good gun dog. If trained correctly, however, this should not be a problem.

The benefit of teaching a heel command is that it keeps the dogs safe from other hunters shooting and from interfering with other dogs on the hunting field. It shows good field manners on the part of the handler and the dog. This is an easy skill to teach off-leash. Establish a heel command on the leash. Remove the leash and practice the command in a safe area. Gradually increase the distractions around the Vizsla.

The ‘call his name game’ described above is a useful resource in establishing this skill. Some handlers will use this game as a reinforcement tool whenever they enter a hunting field to ensure their Vizsla has his attention focused on them.

Left And Right

Left and Right directional cueing. Start by throwing a toy to the dog’s left or right. Choose one direction to work on at a time. Use only this direction until your dog knows the commands. Throw the toy to the dog’s left and say “fetch left” or whatever command you choose. Increase the distance.

Once your dog is responding to this, place the toy where your dog cannot see it. Start him off in a position where the toy will be on his left. Give the instruction. When the dog is reliably retrieving from the left, begin work on training him to retrieve from the other side – in this case, the right.

An important note for all of us with dyslexic tendencies: ensure you throw to the dog’s left or right and not yours. Some people put a little mark on the dog’s ear with chalk or other harmless substance to ensure they are throwing the toy to the correct side.

This skill is valuable for retrievers working at distances from their owners. If the dog struggles to find the downed game, you can give cues from where you are standing to assist your dog. This game can also be practiced in water for duck hunting and water retrieval.

Go out

Go out is a valuable command on the hunting field. Start this training by teaching your dog to target – touch an object. Gradually increase the distance of the target so that he has to go further to touch the target. When he is reliably targeting at some distance, remove the target. Practice giving a command at a distance. The command could be stay or down ( which he should have learned on the leash during basic training).

Go Around

Go around is a command that shows a dog he needs to circle some obstacle. Start at home using a table or a chair. Place or throw a toy onto the opposite side of the obstacle and give the cue “go around.” Initially, you may need to walk with your dog around the obstacle. Continue until he is reliably going around the obstacle. Change obstacles and gradually increase the complexity of the task.

Leave Or Drop

Leave or drop is crucial to keep your dog safe when off-leash. This skill should have been trained on the leash. To train off-leash, begin by increasing the distance you are from your dog when giving the command. Gradually increase the distance and the attraction of the object you want him to drop.


Conclusion

Training off-leash should be preceded by on-leash training and basic training around the home. The training should always be enjoyable for the dog. Use rewards that the dog values and use a reward marker for training your dog at a distance from you. Slow, gradual increases ensure success. If you try to make the steps too big between stages, you will run into problems and have to return to earlier stages to correct your mistakes. Enjoy training your Vizsla off-leash!

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