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Teaching a Dog to Come When Dog Is Off Leash

A Deaf Dog When Off Leash

We have a 19-month-old Labrador Retriever. We would like to be able to take her off leash and let her run. If she is following a scent, or chasing the swallows that fly just above the ground on the soccer pitch, she doesn’t come when called. I know she hears us because she will look over when we call, but she doesn’t obey. How do we train her to come off leash, even when she’s distracted?

C. and P.D.

Hi C. and P.D.

Teaching a reliable recall is easy but it takes a couple of years if starting from a puppy, probably a year for a dog your age. It may seem like a long time but it makes sense when you break it down from the perspective of nature’s template. Your dog will start coming much sooner than that but time is your insurance policy that there won’t be backsliding.

For me, “Come!” means the dog moves from point B (where it is) to point A (where I am) outdoors regardless of distractions – other people, dogs, squirrels at home or at the cottage etc. I’m not necessarily looking for sparks to fly beneath the dog’s feet on recall, but none of this, “If you’ve got a minute could you check your calendar and try and squeeze me in?”, attitude.

One of the tenets of my training philosophy is – “If a dog can’t be caught, the dog can’t be taught.” – and there is nowhere it applies more than when teaching “Come!” No primate, wolf, pet dog, or human has developing progeny that (until young adulthood) have greater speed than their parents. When we take in a dog we shouldn’t think that raising a dog is any different. If we do there are consequences and a dog not coming is one of them.

On average our dogs hit 16 weeks of age, at which point they start noticing that they can catch the squirrels the best and incidents start like kids waiting until their mom is in the shower to start yelling “Mom the dog got out! Save him!” The dog leads her on a merry chase dog the street and once a sufficient crowd has gathered decides to play tug of war with her bath towel.”

The only way to teach a dog to “Come!” is to not give it an opportunity to ever believe it means anything else and I do that by having the dog drag a long line as it grows up. If my adult Jack Russell, aka Elmo decided he didn’t like the way the back end of a skunk was winking at him and pelted off after, he came if I said, “Come!”. Not because I could catch him, but because by the time he was an adult he believed I could catch him. Until a dog is an adult, (or a year in your case) if you leave on a supervised long line and whether in the yard or on a hike frequently say “Come!”, (and if need be haul in the dog like a banker does a bailout); then love it up, or give a treat, throw a ball etc. and send it back on its happy way the sound of the word “Come!” will never for your dog mean, “Oh crap, old two-legs is party-pooping again.”

As your dog develops into an adult or if it already is, for a solid year keep it dragging a 30’ long leash. Contact me if you have questions about long leashes or anything else.

Pawsitively yours,

John Wade

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