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Graduating to Off-Lead Control


In This Chapter

No one can underestimate the pleasure of living with a well-trained dog. In Chapter Training through Your Pup’s Growth Stages, I cover leash-training techniques; master those exercises before you begin the exercises described in this chapter.

Whether your goal is to have your puppy off-lead around the home or be responsive when you’re on a hike at a park, the most considered question is “How will you know when you and your puppy are ready for off-lead-control training?” Well, there’s no magic age or season or day: Readiness is something you gauge by experience. If you practice giving these directions and your pup shows signs of stress (licking her lips, hyperactivity, fixated chewing on the lines, or nipping), she’s giving you a signal to lower your expectations for the time being. Puppies show readiness with concentrated eye contact and responsiveness that’s quick and cooperative. A puppy has her own timetable for readiness: Off-lead work requires impulse control that emerges anytime between the ages of 6 and 18 months. Read on to get started.

Getting Mentally Prepared for Off-Lead Control

To have off-lead control, you must earn it. Remember, dogs are drawn to confidence, so you need to act with authority and self-assurance (even if you have to fake it).
However, as you work toward off-lead control, don’t get too bold too quickly. When the leash disappears from around your pup’s neck, you may notice a strong lurching fear in the pit of your stomach, and your dog will note that you suddenly have less control. At that moment, your puppy will make a choice: If she doesn’t want to come and she’s free to run, you may be standing there helpless. Off-lead control means constantly reading and rereading your puppy and being aware that your puppy is also reading you. To have control, you must look like a leader and you must be confident and selfassured so that your dog can trust your judgment.


To further your mental preparation, keep these three suggestions in mind:

Stay cool. Frustration makes you look weak. As you work toward off-lead control, your puppy may act confused and unresponsive because your guidance is gone. You used to give the direction and guide her with the lead. Now you don’t, and it feels awkward to her. Whatever your pup’s reaction, stay cool. Any corrections add to her confusion. Jazz up your body language and use some pep talks to encourage her toward you.

Stay focused. Eye contact communicates control. Your puppy should be watching you. If the reverse is true, you’re the follower. To avoid being the follower, make sure you work in a confined area or on a long line so you can ignore your dog when she disobeys. If you’re near your house, walk inside.

Step back. Your puppy is responding beautifully off-lead . . . until someone rings the doorbell, a chipmunk runs across the driveway, or another dog comes trotting past the gate. Then everything she’s learned goes out the window, and you’re back to being ignored. Let me tell you a secret: Off-lead control takes time. If your puppy is good but is still having trouble in a stimulating situation, review on-lead exercises in distracting situations (see Chapter Training through Your Pup’s Growth Stages). Using a lead helps control the situation and at the same time conditions more appropriate behavior.

So what goes into making your pup mentally ready? Maturity serves your offlead goals well. As your puppy passes into doghood, you’ll note a calm predictability. Wanderlust and mischief will have most likely lost their thrill. Your dog’s joy will manifest in silent teamwork and shared activities. The stages your puppy follows to maturity aren’t so different from the ages and stages of a child growing into adulthood. If you think you love your puppy now, just wait — the love continues to grow. Soon, the two of you will be thinking and working harmoniously.


Consider your puppy’s breed instincts when working toward off-lead reliability. For xample, a terrier, who was bred to follow his hunting instincts independently, is far less impressed with your direction than a Shetland Sheepdog, who lives for the camaraderie and guidance of a shepherd. Hound and Nordic breeds are other pups who must be monitored closely because their instincts can override your direction. Do some research to discover whether your puppy’s breed was bred to work in concert with man or to work independently. Independent thinkers may need more persuasion to focus (a clicker and some food can work wonders). With an independent thinker, understand that 100 percent reliability may not be a realistic goal.

Buying the Right Equipment — and Using It Correctly

As you work toward off-lead obedience, you practice exercises that extend your control greater and greater distances. Before you start, round up these items (each of which is discussed in more detail later in this section):

Retractable leashes: The retractable leash is invaluable for advanced work. Remember — the longer, the better.

Indoor drag lead: This item is a 4- to 6-foot light leash worn around the house.

Short lead: This lead should be long enough to grab but short enough not to distract your dog (8 inches is a common length).

Tree line: Attach a 20-foot lead to a tree. Use this stationed area to practice distance “Stay” directions. You can use a simple canvas lead, or you can make your own out of a clothesline attached to a single-headed clip found at most hardware stores. Use the tree line for distance control with “Wait,” “Heel,” “Down,” and “Come” directions.

Long line: Purchase a 25- to 50-foot canvas lead or use a clothesline.


Attach all lines to your puppy’s buckle collar, not her training collar.

Off-lead puppies aren’t created overnight. Training is a step-by-step process. Use your new equipment to increase your puppy’s focus, but don’t get itchy fingers. Just because she behaves well on her retractable leash one day doesn’t mean she’s ready for an off-lead romp the next. Take your time. Even though I explain how to train with each piece of equipment separately, you can use them interchangeably to vary your puppy’s routine to keep her interested, engaged, and on her toes!

The retractable leash

The retractable leash is a great tool for distance training when you’re working alone in an open environment. In fact, that’s the only time I ever recommend its use. This lead allows your pup limited freedom to explore while enabling you to enforce directions the moment you give them. As a training tool, you can use the retractable leash to reinforce the following directions:

<Name>: Call out your puppy’s name enthusiastically. If she looks at you, praise her. That’s all that’s required — just a glance. If she ignores you, tug the leash, say “No,” and then praise her after you have her attention.

Wait: Begin to direct your puppy to stop 3 feet in front of you with this direction. If your dog continues forward, tug the leash and say “No, Wait.” Increase your distance to 6 feet, 8 feet, 12 feet, 16 feet, and 26 feet in front of you.

Sit-Stay: Use the retractable leash to increase your distance control. Increase your distance incrementally. (To accustom your puppy to the pull of the retractable leash, pivot in front of her and slide the leash out a few times.)

Heel: Use this direction to call your puppy back to your side. Call out her name and then direct “Heel” as you slap your leg. Praise your puppy as she responds, and then walk a short distance before you stop to release her.

No: Whenever your puppy’s focusing on something she shouldn’t be concentrating on, tug the leash and say “No.” Immediately refocus her attention with a toy, a stick, or another direction.

An indoor drag lead

Use an indoor drag lead (made from a lightweight puppy lead or rope, between 4 to 6 feet long) to keep an eye on your dog in the house. Throughout the day, stand by the lead and give a direction (“Sit,” “Down,” “Wait,” or “Come”). If your pup looks confused, step on the lead and praise her as you help her into position. For example, if you give the direction “Down” and she gives you a blank stare, step on the lead to stop her, and then praise her as you guide her into position. Your understanding can help her overcome her off-lead confusion.


If your puppy gives you some defiant canine back talk (a bark or dodge), step on the lead and tug it as you say “No.” Then station and ignore her for 15 minutes — the canine equivalent to being grounded with no TV.

A short lead

After your puppy’s reliable on the drag lead, use a short lead to reinforce your stationary directions: “Sit,” “Stay”, “Down,” “Wait,” “Heel,” and “Come” (refer to Chapter Training through Your Pup’s Growth Stages for more on these directions). The short lead adds weight to her collar, reminding her of the security of on-lead direction as well as giving you the ability to guide her calmly should she get confused.
In addition to using the short lead around the house, do a lesson once a day. Bring your puppy into a quiet room and practice a simple directional routine. Initially, hold the short lead but then drop it after you’ve warmed up. Slap your leg and use hand signals and peppy body language to encourage your dog’s focus.

A 20-foot tree line

Tie this line to a tree or post. Secure all knots. Leave the line on the ground and follow this sequence:

1. Warm up with five minutes of regular on-lead practice.

2. Stop your puppy next to the 20-foot line and attach it to your puppy’s buckle collar discreetly.

3. Remove her regular lead and place it on the ground in front of her; keep your hands free.

4. After you direct your puppy to “Stay,” walk 10 feet away.

Extend your distance as she gains control. Run your fingers through your hair and swing your arms gently back and forth to emphasize that the leash is out of your hands.

5. As your puppy improves, practice an out-of-sight “Sit-Stay,” practice “Down” from a “Sit-Stay,” and practice a “Down-Stay.”

You can also practice the “Come” lesson, though you should never call at a distance greater than the line can reach lest your puppy artfully dart away and successfully ignore your direction.
If she takes this opportunity to ignore you and darts for a quick getaway, wait until she’s about to hit the end of the line to shout “No!” Return her back into position and repeat the exercise at a closer range.


If your puppy disobeys, determine whether her response is motivated by anxiety, confusion, or defiance. If she’s confused or anxious, her posture will shrink, her tail will lower, and both her eyes and her ears will flicker distressfully. Don’t issue a correction: doing so may only create more stress when you’re separated. Calmly return to her side and reposition her gently. Repeat the exercise at close range.


If your puppy breaks defiantly, she’ll either trot off ignoring you completely or try to engage you in a game of keepaway. Her head and tail will be held high, eyes either avoiding contact or mindfully baiting you with a defiant focus. Either say “No” firmly as she hits the end of the line, or if she’s baiting you, return quietly and tug the leash as you say “No.” Either reposition and repeat the exercise at close range or go back to practicing on-lead exercises.

A 30-foot long line

Attach your puppy to the 30-foot long line and let her roam free as you keep a watchful eye on her. Engage her by playing with a stick or ball and investigate your surroundings together. Avoid giving too many commands. Just hang out and enjoy some free time with your pup. Every five minutes, position yourself near the line and give an enthusiastic but clear direction.


If you’re issuing a stationary direction, such as “Sit,” “Wait,” or “Down,” stop abruptly as you signal and direct her simultaneously. If you’re issuing a motion direction, such as “Come” or “Heel,” run backward as you encourage your puppy toward you. If she races over, help her into the proper position and give her a big hug. If your puppy ignores you, quickly step on the line and say “No.” (Don’t scream; just speak sternly.) After your correction, give your dog the opportunity to right her reaction before lifting the line to tug it or reel her in. End your session with a favorite game.

Gauging Your Pup’s Personal Reactions

When practicing various exercises, you’ll notice that your puppy is in one of two camps: the excitable explorer camp or the more timid and clingy camp. Neither reaction is preferable. Both warrant gauging if your goal is to enjoy this time together. A radically excitable puppy is difficult to focus and will likely dart away if not taught better impulse control. On the other hand, a puppy who’s nervous when you’re out of sight won’t enjoy the splendor of an off-lead stroll and may appear reactionary to passersby. Keeping your puppy focused on you, regardless of her personality or the situation, is the key to happy off-lead experiences.


If you suspect that your puppy’s distracted, do a quick exercise to decide for sure. Either decrease your speed suddenly or sidestep away from her. Does she follow your rhythm and direction or skip to her own beat? Give her a quick tug if she needs a reminder and praise her when she refocuses.

An excitable explorer

You know if you have a puppy with this personality because she’s outgoing, social, and insatiably curious wherever you take her. Hesitation isn’t in her vocabulary! Before practicing an off-lead exercise with your excitable explorer, tire her out a bit. Play games (indoors or out) that don’t require strict conformity to detail. Soda Bottle Soccer and Two-Toy Toss (see Chapter Ten Fun Games) are wonderful options. At first, practice your lessons before your puppy’s meals, using either her kibbles or special treats to enhance her focus and cooperation.

Your puppy is watching

Do you know that your puppy can read you as well as, or maybe even better than, you can read her? If your timing is off by a hair or your mind is drifting, she’ll notice and modify her cooperation. She takes advantage of you less out of disrespect and more out of her need to learn the rules of this new off-lead game. Practice your lesson only when you can be mindful to detail and use a long line to prevent any mishaps. In case you become truly out of control, have a few backup plans, such as running to the car, mocking a tremendous accident, or shaking a treat cup. Be positive when reunited so that she doesn’t lose faith in your reconnection.
A clicker (flip to Chapter Using Cool Tools and Groovy Gadgets) can often add a spark to lessons as well. If your puppy is too excited to respond, practice on-lead for half the lesson or return to the basics for a few more weeks.

A more timid pup

If your dog is cautious, she’ll be less inclined to romp when you unclip the leash. Her tail may immediately attach itself to her underside, her ears may pin back, and her eyes may dart around looking for a familiar place to hide.


Don’t soothe your timid pup. Act with confidence as though nothing’s changed — this reaction will impress your puppy. Up until now, her leash has served in the same way that a child’s security blanket would — it created a sense of safety until the moment it disappeared. The goal is to help your puppy have faith in your presence and your direction. Try the following to get your pup to have faith in your direction:

– Increase visual hand signals.

– Use a treat cup or a click-and-treat combination (provided the sound of the clicker doesn’t startle your puppy).

– Respond in ways that pique her curiosity, such as playing with a stick or toy or showing mock interest in a scent.

Getting the Emergency “Down” Down Pat

Chapter Training through Your Pup’s Growth Stages covers the “Down” direction. But for off-lead safety, you need to take it a step further with the Emergency “Down” direction. The Emergency “Down” (see Figure 15-1) is a high-fired version of the “Down” direction that’ll have your puppy hitting the dirt midpace. It can be a real lifesaver. I used it to stop one of my puppies who broke her “Stay” to greet my husband, who was walking home across a busy street.


In the beginning, your puppy may be a little confused, so be patient and positive throughout your training sessions. Don’t start practicing this exercise until your puppy has mastered the “Down” direction (see Chapter Training through Your Pup’s Growth Stages). To teach your pup the Emergency “Down,” follow these steps:

1. Stand next to your unsuspecting puppy.

2. Suddenly direct “Down” in an urgent tone and point toward the ground.

Use the type of tone you’d use if a loved one were about to walk off a cliff.

3. Kneel down quickly and help your puppy into position if she looks confused.

4. Act like you’re being bombed, too, by kneeling down next to your pup.

Figure 15-1: The Emergency “Down” can save your dog’s life time and again.
Soon your puppy will catch on. After she does, begin extending your distance from her as you direct “Down” in your most urgent tone.
It’s true — the Emergency “Down” really does save lives. Once I was leaving my training classes with my husky, Kyia, when a tennis ball slipped loose and started rolling toward the road. Kyia, the sweet thing, wanted to help and ran innocently to collect it. In a panic, I shouted “Down,” and she dropped like a rock. What a good girl!


The Emergency “Down” exercise is very stressful. Limit your practice to one out-of-the-blue Emergency “Down” sequence a day.

Knowing When to Trust Your Pup: FAQs about Off-Lead Training


Before I address frequently asked questions (FAQs) about off-lead training (OLT), let me warn you: It only takes one mistake to lose your puppy. Until she’s an off-lead expert, she may get confused. Or she may turn into a little comedian and bound away from you just for fun. So practice all initial training in an enclosed area. Keep the situation safe until she’s reliable.

You may be wondering many things about OLT at this point. Here’s a list of questions that I’m asked most often:

When will I know I can trust my dog off lead? You should feel it. It’s never a smooth road in the beginning; some days you get a quick and happy response; other days feel more like your first lessons together. Stay cool, though — frustration is a sign of weakness, and you can easily lose your dog’s respect. You’ll gradually notice your dog’s hesitation diminish. She’ll respond happily and without consideration, and you’ll get a fluid feeling that she enjoys being near you and listening to you. Until this point, keep your puppy in an enclosed area or dragging a long line as you practice so that if she starts to act cocky, you can retreat immediately. And don’t hesitate to go back to the long-line or on-lead exercises for quick review.

I get so frustrated when my puppy ignores me that I sometimes feel like hitting her. Is it ever okay to hit her? Feeling like hitting is fine. Actually hitting her isn’t. If you hit your dog, you erode your relationship and diminish her off-lead trust. If you’re really angry, walk away calmly. Remember, a graceful retreat is not a failure.

My puppy breaks every time I leave her in a “Sit-Stay” on her retractable leash. What can I do? Increase your distance slowly. For example, if your puppy gets up every time you walk out 15 feet, practice at 10 feet for a week, then at 11 feet and 12, and so on.


In addition, don’t face your puppy as you walk out. Walking backward invites a “Come” response. Instead, walk out confidently, with your back toward your puppy, and pivot at your final destination. Remind her, “Stay.”

Sometimes my dog crouches and barks at me. How can I make her stop? Don’t look at her. She’s trying to turn all your hard work into a game. Ignore her until her antics subside. Work on-lead at short distances if she’s being impossible.

Dog-to-dog greetings

If you meet up with an off-lead dog, stay calm. Tensions can get misconstrued, prompting two otherwise peaceful dogs to tussle. Here’s what to expect:

Normal greeting: When meeting for the first time, it’s normal for dogs to posture considerably, which may include raised hackles, tail flagging, jumping, pawing, growling, staring, or mouthing. When two dogs meet in an open space, they’ll generally race at an angle to one another and circle, assessing who should be in charge. After the roles are established, the dogs can be expected to get along unless human interference stresses the situation.

Abnormal greeting: A dog usually won’t make a beeline for another of its own species. This reaction highlights an attack, which may be prompted when a dog is protecting her young or her perceived territory. This reaction is occasionally seen in poorly socialized animals or dogs who have experienced excessive isolation. When this type of confrontation occurs, the only hope may be for the other dog to lie still in complete submission or turn and run away, which may or may not happen. If you have any control over the outcome, retreat from the aggressive dog and the situation immediately. Encourage your puppy to avoid any direct eye contact (and look away yourself), which would be perceived as confrontational.

Don’t the lines get caught around trees and doors? Yes, they do. Clip all lines to the buckle collar and never leave your puppy unsupervised.

When I place my puppy on the short lead, I can’t get near her. Should I just give it up? You need to work on your drag lead for another week or so. When you try the short lead again, put it on with your drag lead and correct her by stepping on it when she darts away.


You should not do off-lead practice in an unconfined area. Your puppy’s a fragile jewel that you must protect.

Sarah Hodgson

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