When you first allow your dog off the leash outside you should be confident that all the basic commands, especially the command ‘stay’ have been mastered by your pet. It is also important to choose a quiet locality for this purpose. Try to avoid an area where there are many other dogs being exercised, since they will inevitably prove a distraction. You may want to take your dog out earlier than normal if it is difficult to find a quiet spot. You must also choose an area where there is little traffic, with no busy roads nearby. If you do opt for a place in the countryside however, be certain that no farm livestock is in the vicinity either, as sheep especially may prove an irresistible subject of curiosity for dogs which have not encountered them before, and this can escalate to sheep-worrying.
It is usually a good idea to walk with your dog in the usual fashion at first, working through the basic commands. Then repeat the ‘stay’ command, having slipped off the leash. Call the dog to you, and encourage it to walk with you for a distance before repeating the process. It is likely that at some stage the dog will run off some distance away.
The one thing never to do if your dog starts to stray from you is to chase off after it. Otherwise, it will think that you are playing a game, and will continue running, leaving you outpaced. Instead, stand still and call the dog back to you. Alternatively, you can call it to ‘stay’, but in the excitement of the moment and in strange surroundings, the dog may not comply. Again, wait a few moments before walking towards the dog, assuming it does stay, so as not to cause it to bound off.
A dependable means of retaining your dog’s attention when it is first let off the leash is to take along a ball or flying disc. You can then encourage the dog to return to you without difficulty, by making a game which will entail the dog bringing the toy back. Do not be tempted to throw the toy too far ahead as this will be counter-productive. Always praise your pet when it returns to you on command.
You can also introduce a whistle to the training process at this stage. This can be especially useful if you are walking through an area with plenty of ground cover where you could lose sight of the dog. Special high frequency dog whistles are available for this purpose, which although virtually inaudible to the human ear, can be heard by dogs with their more sensitive hearing a good distance away.
It is a good idea to familiarize a dog to the sound of the whistle while it is still close to you. Establish a routine by calling the dog’s name, and then giving a set number of blows on the whistle. Then even if you and the dog lose visual contact, the dog should hear the sound and return to you.
A dog which is being exercised off the leash will cover considerably more ground than if it is walking with you. In this early stage, once the dog is running free, you will probably find that it is more settled at home. This is because young dogs, from six months old, tend to need more exercise than other individuals. Nevertheless, aim to give the dog a good run every day, rather than undertaking a marathon at the weekend, for example. Excessive exercise can be damaging, especially for the giant breeds, particularly while they are still immature. In moderation, however, plenty of regular exercise will help to decrease the dog’s destructive instincts around the home, as well as being essential for the smooth working of its cardiovascular system.
The dog will soon come to anticipate its walk eagerly, and rapidly settle into the routine of having a run before returning to you. There may be odd days, however, when a problem arises. The dog might pick up and follow a scent, before you are aware of this, and disappear into the distance. Continue the walk as normal, pausing for a time at the spot and call the dog back to you, rather than trying to pursue it. The dog should return within a few minutes, but if not, search in the direction where you last saw your pet. Repeated calling and whistling should entice the dog to return before long.
There is then little point in scolding the dog, and in fact this may well be counterproductive, because there is then less incentive for the dog to return in a similar situation if you become angry with it. The same applies if the dog returns with a dirty coat. This typically occurs just after you have given your dog a bath. Washing the coat removes the natural scent, which is important to the dog’s status. As a result, it will seek an alternative pungent odor when roaming free out on a walk, and horse droppings and cow pats may prove irresistible. You should try to prevent this situation arising, possibly by exercising the dog on the leash for a day or so if it has shown a tendency to behave in this fashion in the past. Clearly, should this occur, you will have little option but to wash the dog again.
If you take the same walk every day, try to vary the routine, introducing and reinforcing training procedures, since this could be vital at other times. As stressed earlier, it is particularly important to persuade the dog to stay without any hesitation on its part. If you are on holiday with your dog, for example, you may encounter a canal or a similar stretch of water unexpectedly, and it will be important to ensure that your dog does not plunge into its depths, as this could be dangerous. Some breeds show a much greater desire to enter water than others, with retrievers tending to be especially keen. Aside from the fact that it may be difficult for the dog to get out of the water or escape from a strong current, the water itself might also be polluted, with equally serious consequences. Be as cautious with a dog as you would with a child.
Similarly, if you are on the beach, you should discourage your dog from drinking the water, or plunging straight into an area where the swell may be dangerous. People have died in such circumstances where a dog has leapt into the sea, encountered difficulties and then its owner has been swept away while trying to rescue their pet.
Before exercising your dog on the beach, you should check that this is permitted. In some areas, notably close to towns, dogs are banned from beaches. Always take a bowl and a bottle of clean drinking water for your pet so that it will not be tempted to drink salt water. Some dogs become very excited when they are first taken on the beach, so it may be advisable to keep your dog on its leash at first.
Again, when you do let it run free, try to choose a quiet spot away from people as much as possible. There is nothing more likely to cause ill-feeling than a large dog rushing through, demolishing a child’s sandcastle or trailing sand through a picnic!
Another lesson which will need to be taught in these surroundings concerns pebbles. Some dogs appear to find them irresistible, although they show no interest in garden stones at home. Apart from the possibility of injuring their teeth quite badly by trying to gnaw them, there is also the distinct likelihood that some will be swallowed, causing an intestinal blockage. If your dog tries to pick up pebbles, you must command it to drop them before any harm results. It is much easier to prevent this situation developing by being firm from the outset, rather than trying to remedy it later. Playing with pebbles is unlikely to prove a novelty which will simply wear off. You can develop the sit and stay routine with the dog off the leash, walking a considerable distance away before calling the dog to you. Always give plenty of praise when the dog sprints towards you.