Dogs need regular physical exercise and mental stimulation to be healthy and happy — and to be a welcome companion. Bored, restless dogs are the ones likely to dig up the garden, chew the sofa and piddle on the rug. Off-leash dog training is a fun way to achieve well-behaved companionship status.
Start With the Leash
Before you start checking off that goal, “train dog to walk off leash,” make sure your dog walks comfortably on a 5-foot or 6-foot leash, not far from your side. The two of you need not be in perfect sync, but the furry one should understand the basics of responding to human commands and body language. The dog should think it’s fun being outside with its human.
The next step involves a longer leash — 15-30 feet. Head for your backyard or park at a time when few distractions are likely. Eventually, you’ll view the distractions of people, critters or vehicles as training opportunities. Be sure to start with baby steps. Stash yummy treats in your pockets beforehand. Hold the leash, but keep it slack while the dog sniffs around, exploring.
After a while, call “come” or “here” in a happy voice. Hopefully, the pup will bound toward you. If it doesn’t, pop the leash a few times and applaud it for moving in the correct direction. Don’t repeat the command, however. Your canine companion must learn to respond to the first call, not the 15th. When the dog is at your side, immediately present a treat. Praise your dog and lavishly scrabble its fur. Let it know how wonderful it is, even if it took your dog forever to comply.
Immediately let the leash go slack once more. That way, your dog will learn that responding to the recall doesn’t mean losing its freedom to explore. Repeat this drill a few more times.
You can also train indoors, in a closed room, without any leash. Let the dog explore for a while. Then, say your command just once. When the dog responds, give it a treat, praise it, then let your canine resume its independent exploration.
The First Off-Leash Training Session
For the next phase of loose-leash walking training, choose a safe venue like a fenced yard, (empty) tennis court or playground. Load up with extra-special treats beforehand, but keep them out of sight. Walk the dog, on leash, into the area and quietly unclip the lead. Let your furry friend wander within the confines.
Look for an appropriate moment for the recall command, to maximize your chances for prompt compliance. If your puppy is intently sniffing the bushes, wait until it stops sniffing before calling it back. As your dog moves toward you, praise it. Once it’s at your side, whip out that treat, pet your dog and praise it some more. Then, let it go its way once again, so it doesn’t equate the recall with the end of its fun. When the session is over, and the dog is back on the leash, walk around with it a bit more, and offer plenty of praise.
If the dog completely ignores your recall, stay calm. If you’ve chosen your venue wisely, the risk is minimal. If you sound angry or worried, you’re hardly approachable. Instead of moving toward the dog, move away briskly, playfully. That will trigger the dog’s spirited curiosity to find its human.
Repetition is key to reinforcing the idea that it’s rewarding for the dog to return to its human. How long will it take before you feel comfortable in an off-leash situation posing interesting, but potentially risky distractions? Dogs with strong prey drives may take longer to train than, say, herding breeds. But they’ll all get there, with patience and persistence.
The Reward of Off-Leash Training
It’s such a joy to see your dog romping and stomping and exploring the world, with the knowledge that it’ll happily return to you on command. There’s nothing more hilarious than watching the goofball splash through mud puddles and creeks and sprinklers. If you’ve been smart enough to pack The Absorber dog towel, along with all those yummy treats, you can handle the mess before it gets all over your car or house. Just cloak the furry one in The Absorber and watch the wetness get sucked away, without tangling fur or straining puppy patience.