One of the most common questions I have from new puppy owners is ‘When should I let them off lead outside?’
There are still some outdated views on this, so here I will examine the old fashioned advice and why I think they are wrong, and what I normally answer to my clients.
Outdated view 1 – when your dog has 100% perfect recall. Really?? Show me a child/human that responds to their name 100% of the time, every time, and I will agree with this view. But reality is different. Our dogs are living, breathing, thinking animals, they are not robots. Can any dog be 100%? No! But can we train them to be as good at recall as we can get them? YES!
We can aim for a high percentage, but you need to always be savvy to the small number of occasions that your dog may not have good recall, especially if instincts take over, and manage that situation eg. put on a lead when approaching a field of sheep.
Outdated view 2 – keep them on lead for 1 year. Oh no! So your pup is so keen to explore the world, and you keep them restrained for a year. Just like a prisoner able to see the sun and trees but never to go near them. Just when they are at the peak of adolescence, and full of confidence giving hormones, you finally let them off as a 1st birthday present… FREEDOM AT LAST!
And so they go, and they go, and they go. Why should they come back? They only know you as their prison guard and dread the thought of having to spend another year on the lead if they come back to you, or more as your confidence will be in tatters. They are then destined to never run, explore or interact with the world.
So what is the answer? I always tell my clients NOW!
Having a new puppy is daunting, and we want to protect them as much as possible. It’s a scary big world out there and we worry they will run off, get lost or come to harm. That’s natural but at the same time, your pup for the first few months of life has an inbuilt survival programme that means that they will not want to lose you – or they will die. They cannot manage without you. So as long as you are in a safe open area, with good visibility, and not too many other dogs as distractions, then let them off lead.
To encourage them to keep looking back at you, (partially) hide behind trees, or change direction quietly. They will quickly learn to check in with you and praise them when they do. Whilst they are clingy, make the most of this time with recall training. Practice calling them back, put them on lead, give some really tasty treats, walk 2 steps and then let them off lead again as a reward.
You need to also engage with your pup on the walk. Don’t just wander aimlessly or be engrossed in your mobile or a conversation. Be there for your puppy. It is essential to build your relationship – the stronger it is, the more chance you have of your puppy wanting to be with you. Whenever your dog returns to you (even if not called), go crazy with praise, high value treats or a game. Be so much fun!
But be safe too. Be aware of where you are and your surroundings. If you need to put them on a lead, do so. You may need a harness and a longer line to walk them if there is livestock or roads near (hold onto the lead – you will never outrun a dog trying to grab the end of a long line!). Many owners are not very confident, so why not hire an enclosed field and practice there – take treats and toys and have fun, knowing your pup cannot escape. Many such fields are now popping up for dog owners to use. They are great to build your confidence too! (There is a good Facebook page called Dog Walking Fields that lists fields nearby).
As your dog approaches adolescence, their confidence hormones kick in and they will go further away from you. Keep the recall training to basics and keep going. You many need to change your cue word – Come may soon change its meaning (to your dog) as run and sniff, not to run back to your feet! Just do your recall training from the start with a new word or sound.
Recall is something that you need to practice throughout the dog’s life – if you don’t practice, they will forget it. Similar to languages you learnt at school – if you don’t use them, years later you struggle to string a few words together.
Re-homed older dogs are more challenging, as depending on their background, they may have a strong flight instinct and they no longer have the puppy survival programme. You will have to really keep them secure when out and about for some time, or maybe even not walk them for weeks or months when you first get them home, but put in the work, use secure fields, and you will get there with hard work.
So bite the bullet, and let your new young pup off the lead and watch them explore the world.
Staying safe when out on walks is a topic that I will cover soon.
Pippin Pets Dog Training 2019