Many owners dream of taking a walk with their canine companion without the tether of a leash, and those dreams are not impossible fantasies. Even the most stubborn dogs can be molded into quiet, obedient walking companions with consistent training. Teaching your dog to walk without a leash requires that you establish a solid on-leash training foundation first.
Secure a collar around the dog’s neck, and attach a leash to the collar. Even though your ultimate goal is to train the dog to walk off-leash, starting his training with a leash keeps him under control and boosts his confidence. Choose a flat, buckle collar and a flat, smooth 6-foot training leash; choke collars and chain leads may look nice, but they can be dangerous if used incorrectly.
Teach the dog a “watch me” command. This command teaches the dog to focus on your face and watch your eyes, which is important to keeping the dog’s attention when you transition to off-leash work. Call the dog’s name and hold a treat close to his nose. Say “watch me,” and bring the treat toward your eyes. The instant the dog looks up and focuses on your face, give him the treat. Many trainers will also say "yes" or click a clicker to mark the wanted behavior as they give the treat. Ask the dog to “watch me” frequently during training sessions until he maintains eye contact with each command.
It is important in this method of obedience training to find a kind of treat that the dog responds to with great enthusiasm. This kind of enthusiasm is more likely to be inspired by a tiny morsel of microwaved hot dog than a bit of dry dog cookie. Find out what really gets your dog jumping up and down. If your dog is just not enthusiastic enough about food to participate happily in obedience exercises, you may have to find some other kind of motivator, such as a tug or a thrown ball. Those rewards have the drawback that they interrupt training, while you can give small morsels of food without breaking your dog's heeling position. If you use a food treat as your reward, it is best not to feed the dog before your obedience session.
Stand with the dog on your left side, and ask him to sit. Hold a treat in your left hand, and raise it over the dog’s head while saying “sit.” Reward the dog in the instant he sits. The sit is an important tool in walking on- or off-leash. You are teaching the dog to halt forward momentum and retain the proper heeling position any time you stop moving. To do this correctly, he must be focused on you. At first, you must be happy if he just shows that he has learned to sit when you stop. As training goes on, you will use giving or withholding of treats to shape how he sits, how quickly he sits, and how precisely he holds his heel position with his shoulder next to your left knee and his eyes focused on you.
Walk forward a few steps, using the prospect of a treat to encourage the dog to move with you. Ease to a stop, and ask the dog to "sit" again as you come to a halt. Give him the treat when his hindquarters are firmly on the ground. Repeat the walk-and-stop process over time until the dog sits quickly without a command when you stop.
Encourage the dog to walk close by your side. Keep a treat in your left hand, holding it just out of his reach. Tell him “heel,” or “walk,” and step off, taking a few brisk steps forward. Speak in a happy, upbeat voice, and hold the treat so he can smell it but not obtain it. Slow to a stop, reward him with the treat when he sits, and praise him for remaining in position. Repeat the exercise, incorporating turns into the routine until the dog maintains perfect pace and position as he readily moves with you each time you say “heel.” There's a difference between when your dog is merely walking alongside you with his mind in neutral, and when he is heeling. When your dog is heeling, he is focused on moving with you like a dance partner. If he does not have this sharp mental focus on moving with you and doing what you tell him to do, he cannot go off leash.
Unclip the leash, and give the “watch me” command. Once the dog is focused on you, say “heel” in a happy voice, and walk forward. If the dog slacks or slows down, say “heel” again, and have a treat in your hand to tempt him. Walk on briskly until the dog maintains a steady pace in proper heel position. Reward him for that, then slow to a stop. Reward the dog when he sits. It is vital to reward the dog only when he maintains proper position, either in motion or when coming to a halt. If you slow your pace or give him a treat when he wanders, he’ll learn that he can stray when the leash is off.
Visit a local dog park or training club frequently once the dog is heeling flawlessly on-leash. Perform a few practice heels on-leash to make sure the dog isn’t distracted, then find a quiet corner, stop with the dog at heel, and remove the leash. Say the dog’s name to get his attention, ask the dog to heel, and walk forward. If he moves with you and remains focused properly during the entire exercise, give him a treat and plenty of praise. If he moves toward another dog or wanders away, immediately put the leash back on and heel him on-leash. The dog is not ready to go off-leash. Make your dog perfect in his focus and execution in the on-leash work before repeating the off-leash exercise. It is imperative that you never allow your dog to walk away from you under distraction, or he will learn that wandering away is permissible behavior.
Repeat all of the on-leash work with the dog off-leash until his execution is flawless.
You may reach the point where you feel your dog is so obedient off-leash, whether at heel or not, that a leash is superfluous. Nonetheless, have a leash with you at all times when you are training or just out and about with your dog. You should always be ready to snap the leash onto his collar if the need arises. And be aware of leash laws. No matter how confident you are in your dog's obedience, those laws still apply.
Avoid jerking or yanking on your dog. This creates a negative experience that not only frightens the dog but has the potential of causing permanent neck and throat damage.
Most kennel clubs offer low-cost, drop-in training sessions. These classes are run by professional trainers, and they offer you the opportunity to work your dog in a safe, friendly environment.
It can take weeks or even months to train a reliable leash-free walk. Each dog learns at a different pace, but consistency, patience and daily work can speed the training process.
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- black dog image by Penny Williams from Fotolia.com