Ask anyone, including most dog trainers, what is the most essential offleash obedience exercise to practice, and 99 times out of 100 you’ll hear “Recall” (aka “Come”). “Come” is an extremely important command to have under your belt. I will lay out what I consider the best ways of cementing recall in my next post.
But there is a different, underappreciated obedience exercise that I consider even more fundamental and important to offleash control and safety than recall. It is what I call “Leading”: the ability to simply walk, and have your dog follow you.
What I mean by “Leading” isn’t the same thing as “Heeling”: your dog doesn’t have to be right by your feet. Pup can linger twenty yards behind you, or even run ahead of you to play or sniff. But when you turn, they’ll turn, and where you go, they’ll eventually come running. By instilling this kind of following you don’t need to worry that your dog will take off after a squirrel and disappear into the woods, or tear across the busy street to meet his friends.
Below are three tips that I find central to achieving offleash Leading:
1. In the rest of life, subscribe to the “No Free Lunch” Principle with your dog. In other words, before he gets any of the many things he loves, have him do something for it. E.g. go to his bed before you put down his food. Come to you before leashing up to go for a walk. Drop the ball at your feet and lie down before you throw it. By establishing this relationship you’ll teach your dog that you are the source of all the good things in his life (like it or not, it’s true; you have the opposable thumbs, the key to the front door, and the money to buy the dog food!)
2. Three long, fulfilling leashed walks every day, with your dog following behind you on loose leash. Notice that your dog must be BOTH behind you AND on loose leash: if you’re holding him on tight leash behind you as you walk, he still experiences it as pulling you along, not following; and if you can only get loose leash by allowing him in front, again he’ll experience the walk as leading you, not following. Good fulfilling leashed walks will teach your dog that following you gets him all the fun things that happen on the walk (of which there are lots!) — including new smells, sights, and sounds, sniffing and peeing on trees, physical exercise, and meeting other dogs and people. Following on leash is the first step to following offleash.
3. When actually offleash, work what I call the “Zig-Zag Lead”. First of all try to never walk directly toward your dog; don’t give him the feeling you’re following him. Instead, when he’s in front, veer off at an angle. If done with proper timing and excitement, he should change his direction and start heading where you’re headed. That’s a start. As soon as he gets almost in front of you again, veer sharply again. Whistle or shout his name happily when you do it, so he notices. Again if done sharply and at the precise right time, you should see him veer again. Don’t reverse directions entirely; that will frustrate him that you aren’t making progress. Instead choose one destination and generally head toward it, just veer and “zig-zag” to get there. You’ll start to see that even though he’s technically in front of you, and entirely off leash, he’s really following you — not the other way around. Eventually the gap between him and you will shorten up, and you’ll notice him start keeping his eye on you even when he’s off running, sniffing, or playing.
Have fun zig-zagging!