Letting puppies loose

Most pictures of Grace in the first year were like this – I considered it success if she was actually IN the picture, including head, and not a blur 😂 She was off leash from the third day after she came to live with us aged 16 weeks and she has been that way for roughly 90% of her life. We have never had problems with her venturing far away. Of course, you could say having an older dog helped with that, but even when Nell went to investigate something or even took off after a pheasant, Grace has always stayed close.

I felt a moment of unease when I let her loose as a puppy, but I had read that the best time to train recall is when the puppy is very young – as young as possible so they are more keen to follow you closely because the world is still a scary, unknown place. So I did, and it’s still the best piece of advice I’ve ever read on puppies because the benefits accumulate over time.

Later I realised that the problem many people have with recall is one they create for themselves – without knowing it at the time. We break our dogs’ trust step by step when we follow some of the traditional advice and one of the tangible outcomes of that comes up in recall issues – not just a question of training but the overall relationship that underpins everything. Let me explain…

When a puppy first arrives, we are advised to make them sleep through the night in a crate and typically told to not respond to their cries – they need to learn etc. In reality, the puppy is likely confused and terrified in this new life without his dog family, and the first lesson they learn is “there’s no point communicating with humans, I’m all alone” – we introduce a fundamental fracture in the relationship from the beginning.

The next thing most people do is train their pup/teen to walk nicely on leash, and treat it as a prerequisite to “earning” off leash time. Inevitably, most people get frustrated because walking next to a human at their SLOW pace is incredibly hard for any dog beyond the small ones and the world is an especially exciting place for a teen.

We spend months and months struggling with this and again our dogs learn big lessons: “being near the human is often unpleasant” (because we restrict them with various tools like haltis – common advice on spaniel groups) and “humans = no fun when outside”. In short, we assume loose leash walking is a pre-skill to off-leash skills when it’s actually the OPPOSITE.

When we have finally succeeded in wrangling our dog to walk “nicely” on leash right next to us like dogs “should”, we conclude it is the time to let them off leash and we’re SHOCKED that our dog shoots off to the distance and ignores our calls.

But we shouldn’t be surprised – after all, we’ve painstakingly taught them that being near us is no fun at all (at least compared to adventures outdoors) and there’s no point listening to us because, well, we don’t listen to the dog either. It’s only logical- that’s also what humans do once they’re adults if their family was boring/ controlling (e.g. go to university and listen to absolutely nothing their parents say).

None of this is fun to hear for a dog owner when they arrive at the door of a dog trainer they just want a SOLUTION that works fast. But in reality it’s a problem they have created for themselves by introducing deep fractures early on into the relationship and then making the crack wider over time.

#notalldogowners obviously – I’m talking about following traditional advice, so it’s not about anyone personally. How would we even know to do better when we’re new to this job of dog guardianship?

Back to Grace: I didn’t ask her to heel nor walk nicely at all until she was close to 12-14 months. She spent most of her life off leash, and when she was leashed she was in a flexi which allowed her to explore, zigzag and sniff without creating tension on the leash – as such we don’t have that fracture in our relationship (although did have that with Nell early on!).

Being off leash, she learned to CHOOSE to be with me and near me – that it’s a good place to be, which made leash walking much easier when she was mature enough to have the patience to focus and slow down for the Stupid Slow Human.

The window of opportunity with puppies being off leash closes around 6 months – at that point, they’re too confident and will be less inclined to stay close to you so it’s the worst time to start. Yet that is exactly when manu people do it, having wasted the precious months before that in efficiently training their young dog to dislike being near them and giving them maximum reason to make the most of their freedom… Timing is everything, because like small children, young puppies have an instinct to stay close to safety – it’s an evolutionary mechanism to keep pups alive when they live in the wild until they’re just old enough.

The MOST important work we can do in the first year of our dog’s life is to establish that we are their safe haven, no matter what the faster we can teach our – puppy that they’re safe near us, the more closely they’ll stick to us when they’re free to choose. Later on when they become more confident and safety isn’t enough anymore, we add “being fun” in the list of reasons to stay close to humans.

This wasn’t the lesson Nell learned when she was young – instead, she learned that humans call her back for no reason, that we are really quite boring, and there’s no point listening to us. We struggled a lot with leash walking, pulling like a train and with off leash trust but one baby step at a time she gradually, stealthily taught me the lessons I’ve shared here and I’ve applied them with Grace.

As hard as it may sound, this foundation reaps huge rewards down the line: your relationship with your dog is more solid and positive throughout testing teenage times (research shows that a secure attachment will protect the relationship, just like in humans) and the ability to let your dog be free outdoors allows you to go on adventures together with less stress, further strengthening your bond. Any training you do will be easier if your dog’s fundamental view of the world is that being close to their human is the best thing and where they are safe.

So, let the puppies be loose (safely).

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