Question: Our 6-month-old German shepherd is working on the leash pretty nicely. How do we begin working off the leash?
Answer: Before you can work off leash, your dog has to be able to do a number of things on the leash without too many corrections. He must consistently walk at your side on a slack leash, keeping his nose off the ground, and sit when you stop. He must disregard things you tell him to with the “leave it” cue, almost without a second thought, and he should turn in a coordinated way with you. The turning is the only aspect we haven’t talked about.
You may run into dog trainers who insist your dog notice every nuance of what you’re doing on the walk, and perform the prescribed action. Like stopping, starting and turning. I’ve noticed that at 2 years old, my dog pretty much accomplishes this, but we’ve been walking twice a day for over two years now, so she’s fairly intuitive. And I still give her verbal cues for basically everything.
My thinking is that Tillie is a pet and not a robotic military dog I expect to constantly keep her eyes on me. I’ve already dictated some fairly narrow parameters in some people’s opinion. I think it’s fine if she keeps her head up and observes her surroundings when we’re “on patrol.” Tillie always has a general sense of what we’re doing, but the verbal cue gives her a heads up on what’s coming next. This means we automatically work together in a pretty coordinated way because, even though she might not be constantly looking right at me, she’s listening to every little thing I say. This seems more natural to me.
Furthermore, there is no ambiguity in terms of what comes next when we’re on the walk. When we begin walking together with “heel,” she understands this is the commencement of the walk, and she’s not to get ahead of me. When we stop, I say “right here.” She knows she is to stop and sit right next to me.
To turn in a coordinated fashion with your dog at your side, simply say, “this way” as if to say “we’re going this way now.” Be sure to acknowledge good positioning with a simple “good boy.” On left-hand turns, it’s easier for your dog to remain at your side. You’re turning into him, so his positioning will more than likely remain good. In the beginning of teaching your dog to turn in a coordinated fashion with you, on right-hand turns, he may have a tendency to separate from you some. To keep him in tight at your side, give him a cue by patting your leg with your hand as you turn.
You can also add “c’mon!” It should not take very long before Max understands when he hears you say “this way,” a turn is coming. It’s up to him to figure out whether it’s right or left. I’ve seen dog owners say “right turn” or left turn” but that’s totally unnecessary. Max will figure out the direction. He only needs the cue.
At this point in his training, your dog should be responding to you almost completely from verbal cues and corrections, without much input on his collar. Once he does all the things prescribed above, one day as you’re walking together, he surreptitiously unhooked his leash from him. (The biggest test here will be the “leave it” command.)
Maintain the same dialogue you did when he was hooked up. Practice stopping, starting, and turning. Make sure to keep him advised of his good work by periodically telling him he’s a good boy. When you need to correct him, start with “ah, ah, ah.” If he doesn’t respond to that, be a little firmer.
In the beginning, keep your lessons short with much praise for good compliance. You may want to start this work in a large fenced-in area to be on the safe side. Obviously, working off leash requires practice to become proficient.
Originally from Louisiana, Gregg Flowers is a local dog trainer who “teaches dogs and trains people.” Contact him at [email protected] or dogsbestfriendflorida.com.