Teaching off lead heeling during the first session of a beginners course is one way in which some instructors are able to reduce the length of time it takes to teach their students how to train their dogs. By no means a new idea, except perhaps in a class situation, its merit has been documented by animal behavior scientists and it makes sense. The students in a beginner class want to learn how to control their dogs, including off lead. The sooner it is begun, the better, and teaching off lead control from the beginning has a number of advantages. The dog immediately learns that he is to assume some of the responsibility for the training. He quickly learns that in order to do the exercise properly he must pay attention for there is no lead to tip him off that his handler has changed direction or has stopped. It also avoids the creation of lead dependence, both on the part of the dog and the handler, a common impediment to off lead work.
The first time it is attempted, it is done on an individual basis and the handler is instructed to walk for only 5 or 6 steps with the dog being off lead. During the course, turns are introduced and the length of time the dog is off lead is gradually increased. At the end of the course, the dogs are expected to have acquired a passing familiarity with the exercise. Most will not be perfect, but they can be controlled off lead. There will also be one or two in every class who will be unsuccessful, but there is no need to hold back the rest of the class just because one or two need extra help.
Perhaps the principal virtue of this approach is that if the handler has not taken the loose-lead requirement seriously, the dog’s reaction when off lead will demonstrate its importance to him without the need for any further explanation from the instructor. Once the handlers have been taught the technique for teaching this exercise, they are admonished to practice away from distractions so that the handler becomes the dog’s center of attention and the dog can concentrate on learning the exercise. Distractions are introduced after the dog has become accustomed to the exercise and clearly understands the commands.
A similar technique is used to teach the recall. Many trainers have long maintained that a dog should be taught the recall off lead because he learns it more easily and more quickly when he is off lead than when he is on lead. When the dog is on lead, he can only go to the end of the lead, hence it is not particularly difficult to get him to come. Moreover, the dog knows that he is on lead and knows that there is no place to go. The trick, however, is to teach the dog to come when he is off lead. When teaching this exercise off lead, there will again be one or two dogs which will need help, but the rest of the class will have no difficulty. Instruction in a class should be geared to what the majority can accomplish and the one or two who are unable to progress satisfactorily should not be permitted to hold back the rest of the class. Instead, they should receive extra attention after class whenever possible or warranted.
©1975 J. J. Volhard