Whenever we meet a beagle for the first time the question their owners almost always ask is “Do you let them off lead?”.
The trouble with Beagles is that they have been bred to work independently from humans for hours at a time. Historically, they were required to cover great distances, single mindedly following the scents of wildlife. When researching the Beagle breed it soon becomes apparent that the consensus is that Beagles can never be trusted off-lead. Many sources claim that they should never be allowed off-lead except in a secure garden. Many sources list the Beagle as one of the ten most difficult breeds to train.
We’ve always wanted our Beagles to be…well, Beagles! Keeping them on lead never sat well with us and we’ve always been prepared to put a huge amount of work into ensuring they have freedom to satisfy their instincts whilst remaining safe.
The day we collected Beanie from her breeder at the age of 12 weeks we took her to the park and let her off lead. She was wonderful – she stuck to us like glue and obeyed every command….until the age of around 5 months when we lost pretty much all control. Despite this setback we still managed to have her playing off-lead safely in two or three of our local parks and the beach. We kept working on recall and encouraged her to ‘check in’ regularly by rewarding her for coming to us. We gradually got more and more control – yet as Beanie got older her tendency to wander (or should I say sprint at break neck speed whilst baying her head off) further and further afield increased. She always came back very quickly – at most a few minutes and usually less than two minutes. But she is fast and would quickly get out of sight. We weren’t happy about this. Gradually our range of ‘safe-off-lead’ venues diminished to just one very safe park and the beach.
By the time Biggles came along when Beanie was a year old we were still managing safe off-lead sessions each day in our local park. We used to meet up with a group of dogs and their owners and Beanie stayed with the group and never wandered far. Biggles slotted in nicely and things went very well until Biggles was 6 months old and Beanie started seeing him as a good pal. She lost interest in the other dogs and started leading Biggles off out of sight on wonderful adventures around the park. They always came back after two or three minutes but we felt we’d lost control – off-lead play was no longer safe. And it wasn’t fair on others as our dogs were exhibiting undesirable pack behavior (Best described as inciting other dogs to riot!).
We tried very hard to buy or rent a huge field or woodland that we could turn into a safe, secure playground for them. But there’s just nothing available in the area. So, around 6 months ago we started walking our dogs separately and working extremely hard on training them to stay close and respond reliably to commands. It’s a bit of a leap of faith really as we don’t know anyone that’s achieved the level of control of their Beagles that we feel we need (please get in touch if you have!!!). Everyone we know seems to either keep their dogs on-lead or else take a risk and let them off-lead despite less than perfect control. But neither of those options are viable for us.
Things are going very well, although we’re a long way from having reliable control in all situations and not 100% confident that we’ll ever get there.
Beanie now walks beautifully on a loose lead around the park and local streets. She trots beside me like a little dressage pony, looking up at me constantly for guidance. Biggles does the same, but a little less reliably as he’s more easily distracted. Yet take them somewhere new, and often (although not always) it’s back to square one. It seems that everything is contextual with our two!!!
When we meet other dogs – including over-excited off-lead dogs, we just tell Beanie and Biggles to ‘leave’ and they walk right past them. Even when we get harassed by particularly pesky dogs that just won’t leave us alone our two will obediently walk by our sides while the other dog jumps around us, on us and generally does every thing it can to get our attention. There was a time a while back where Beanie was getting snappy and aggressive with dogs that pestered us but now she’s completely relaxed no matter what the provocation – she just does as she’s told and trusts me to sort it out. Biggles is a lot less reliable than Beanie in these situations as he’s still VERY excitable. But he’s making great progress.
Beanie no longer jumps all over people we meet and raids their pockets for treats. In fact, if I see someone about to pop a treat in her mouth I can call her away from them.
We have 50ft long training lines and we spend time each day with the dogs on these. In a wide variety of venues they’ll behave like perfectly trained collies. They come when called, they stay close to us changing direction when we do and watching for guidance constantly. They’ll do remote sits, downs, stays etc. If a playful dog comes charging over we can put Beanie in a sit and tell her to ignore the dog. 95% of the time she does as she’s told. Biggles is probably 20% reliable in this situation – but making progress. We play a very disciplined game of fetch where we put them in a sit, run away from them until we’re almost at the end of the 50ft line and then release them and throw the ball. They hurtle past us, grab the ball and sprint back to us. Meanwhile we’re running at break neck speed in the opposite direction. You can’t help but feel proud of them as they respond instantly to commands, hand signals etc – often in the face of quite extreme distractions. Yet their capacity to apparently forget everything and behave like complete hooligans for no apparent reason never ceases to amaze me!
Off lead (individually) they’re frequently as good as they are on the training line. Some days we can wander around the meadow for 20 – 30 minutes without our dogs putting a foot wrong. We can call them away from other dogs, call them off scents, zigzag all over the park with complete confidence that our dogs are watching us and staying close at all times. From time to time they will get a little over-exited and run further away from us than we’d like or become unresponsive for a short time. But the ‘out of control’ moments are becoming less frequent. The longest they’ve been out of control (i.e. running too far away or not responding to commands) in recent months is probably less than a minute.
Lots of people we meet comment on how well-trained our dogs are. But they don’t know the full picture! We still couldn’t risk letting them off-lead anywhere other than our local park. If we let them off-lead together we loose control. If we don’t give them 100% of our attention we loose control (we don’t play with them or talk to them constantly, but we need to watch their body language and give commands at the right moment before they make the decision to be naughty). And when we loose control you’d think our dogs had never had a day’s training in their lives!
We really miss the freedom of just unclipping their leads and relaxing while they have fun. You’ll notice far fewer photos of our dogs at play on our blog in recent months – they’ve been playing, albeit to a lesser extent, but we can’t afford the distracton of photographing them. Their play has been much tamer than it used to be. They don’t get to sprint at break neck speed around the park baying their heads off any more. But we think we’ve reached a point now where we can start building up their off-lead activities again rather than constantly cutting back as we battle to gain control. Their training is really starting to work and they’re both maturing and calming down – gradually we’ll be able to trust them more and more. The last thing in the world we want is Beagles that stay close because they’re too dull, unfit and lathargic to do anything else!!!