Just about every day someone remarks at how amazing it is that Sadie follows me around without a leash. Every dog I’ve helped raise or own has been an off-leash dog. I used to think I was just a pretty darn good trainer, but I’ve come to realize it’s more that I’ve been blessed with smart dogs. Having a smart dog certainly helps with all of the relevant training – no surprise – but there are still a couple of basic rules when training your dog sufficiently for not requiring a leash everywhere you go.
First, if possible, start immediately with not putting your dog on a leash every time you go outside. Of course, if you’re walking them along a busy street or a crowded area, this isn’t the best advice, so please always take into consideration your surroundings. If possible, take them to parks and trails where they can’t get hit by a car, bike, person, etc. When they’re young, it’s true they’re easily distracted, but they’ll recognize you as the leader of the pack and it’s their instinct to go where you go.
Second, when they do stop to sniff a flower, or inspect an ant hill, or watch a squirrel scamper up a tree, try to resist calling to them whatsoever. Just keep walking. It’s a huge leap of faith on your part, and you’ll have to keep your ears and one eye on the back of your head open, but just keep walking down the path as you were before they stopped. It will be of more concern to them that their leader is moving on without them and they’ll again pay attention and catch up. I swear it’s true. If you stop to wait for them, they learn you’ll stop and wait for them. The tables will quickly turn on just who is leading the expedition and you’ll forever be sorry.
If you must call to them, maybe because a bicycle is coming down the trail and you want them close to avoid any accidents and such; try to only call to them once. At this time you can stop and turn to them and stare until they come to you. When they do so, of course greet them with enthusiasm and let them know just how pleased you are to have them arrive.
Why only call once? In a dog’s mind, when you call more than once they learn you didn’t mean it the first time. Or, more to the point, that it is the melodic repetition of your calling their name that is the signal to return to you. So instead of the command of “Sadie, come” being recognized, she has now learned the new command is really “Sadie, come – Sadie, Come – SADIE, COME!“.
Another side effect is they’ve now learned they don’t have to so much watch for your departure as listen to your voice. So as they continue to run and play and you try to continue down the path and repeatedly call their name, they get to use your voice as the gauge of where and when to come back to you. Your voice has, in effect, become the 20, 30, 50, 100-foot leash they will use at their discretion to follow you. It happens with Sadie and me on the path all the time. When we approach another dog and person walking the opposite direction, we don’t always stop but instead say our friendly hello’s and continue on our way. Inevitably, the other dog will want to hang around with Sadie a bit longer but she continues to follow me, so the other dog starts to follow her. The other person will stop and start to call to their dog, but the dog is like “uh-huh, okay, I hear you, just keep calling my name and stay right there until I’m done”. It’s funny to me but real frustrating and bit embarrassing to the other person when I basically start walking away with their dog in tow.
So, in short, when possible, start when they’re young and let their natural instincts to follow you guide them. Always watch your surroundings and still use a leash when the environment calls for it (I put Sadie on a leash at times not because I worry about her running away, but because I worry about a bicyclist possibly hitting her). And finally, don’t repeat commands. They don’t hear it as repetition but instead as a new variation of the same command.