Connect the leash, disconnect with your dog.

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Why is it that I feel more connected to my dog when we are not physically connected? I think about this a lot. When I am planning my outings with my dog I am certain to try to do one thing at some point on our walks and hikes, remove the leash. Yes, I said it. My dog goes to a lot of public spaces (duh dun duuuuuuunnnnn!) off leash (insert dramatic gasp here).

I hike with my dog a lot and to me, a good hike is one where we get a lot of alone time, off-leash walking, exploration and some kind of payoff like a great view (of course captured to be self-aggrandized on Instagram @doctrdrewlittle). I find I am so frustrated if I have to be on the leash the whole time and you know what, so is my dog.

When I take my dog off the leash and he starts exploring the environment I find he does one major thing that he doesn’t have to do when he’s on the leash, check in with me. I was trying to measure how frequently my dog looked for me, hurried to catch up to me, and walked close to me (within 10-15 feet) but what I discovered what these things happened to frequent to try to quantify.

Of course getting the dog to “off leash” is a big goal for a lot of pet owners but there is one major thing standing in the way and that is FEAR.

What if my dog runs away, what if my dog doesn’t listen, what if my dog eats something, what if my dog bothers someone, what if, my dog gets hurt. These are all real concerns and risks. But at some point, you will need to take at least calculated risks if your goal is to have off leash control or as I like to call it, a healthy off-leash relationship.

I grew up in the country, our dogs did not spend any time on the leash. It was something we tried to find if we had to take our dog to the veterinarian or on a trip. I try to continue this practice with all dogs I share my home with and train to some extent where we spend more time together off-leash than on. The problem is, I no longer live in the country. I live in the city of Denver. It is very difficult and dangerous to be off leash around Denver.

For many urban and suburban dogs, the first time they are getting off the leash is if they go to a dog play environment (dog park or daycare environment) or if they go up to the mountains and take the risk. If a dog doesn’t spend time off the leash or participate in any learning off the leash, how can she ever be expected to “succeed” by our human standards when the leash comes off.

My last puppy was Ozzie (actually Oswaldo Alonzo, Ozzie for short- go Sounders!). Every day would start with an off-leash walk with some hand feeding. This means we would wake up, grab some food (kibble), a long leash (10-15feet long), I would hook it to his collar and drop it on the ground and walk away. He loves to be close to me, if he caught up I would feed him and tell him what a clever boy he was. If he ever wanted to dash off, I simply would step on the leash and re-direct him back to our walk. As the walk went on and his behavior became more predictable, the leash went away. We did this every single morning. We didn’t go very far but we did it EVERY DAY, after a few weeks, we had a culture of not only following me off leash but checking in and paying attention when we would go exploring.

This morning (some 6 years later), I took Ozzie and his Cardigan Corgi friend, Benji to a nearby park. This is a regular park (not a dog park), it was early in the morning and cold, no one was there. I strapped the leash to ME and told the dogs to go explore. I set off walking and said “let’s go boys”, ten minutes into the walk we saw two dogs in the distance approaching on the sidewalk. I called my dogs, they ran over, put on the leash and we walked past the dogs under control. As soon as the dogs were past us, I unclipped the leash. We had a wonderful walk, nothing crazy, not a ton of steps but lots of exploration and fun was had.

To me the key to this is autonomy! The dogs are allowed to make decisions which dramatically increases their quality of life.

I realize this is not practical for a lot of people if your dog in newly adopted, has a history of running away, if you have a park near your home where they ticket off leash dog owners, if there is a busy road next to the park, if there are far too many distractions (goose poop, squirrels, other dogs) for your dog to be interested in you, but you have to start somewhere. Check out tennis courts, baseball fields, or get in the car and drive to an open space and grab a long leash. If you can do this with a high frequency your training and quality of life will improve dramatically.

Dogs on leash are so frustrated! They are always confined. They start the day in the home (sometimes in a crate), where they move to the car, then the leash, then back to the house, they are never off the leash. Imagine if you did the same boring walk through the neighborhood two times a day, every single day. What a drag.

If you really want to connect with your dog you need to try to disconnect that leash.