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Training for Off-Leash Walking

Top trainers answer your questions

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Header photo: Jose Gil/

Ask Jennifer Messer

Q: How do I teach my dog to walk off-leash beside me? The street kids where I live always seem to have the most well-behaved, street savvy, leash-free dogs.  -Mary-Ann, Vancouver, BC

A: I've marveled at the angelic street kids' dogs too… and I think there are a few layers to the answer of why their dogs seem so perfectly well behaved. First and foremost, these dogs are probably a very select sample! They are survivors, not the dogs that have been run over by cars or picked up by animal control. Those you see are the ones that made the grade a very select group of dogs that are compatible with a unique lifestyle. To think otherwise would be like watching the Olympics and thinking your boyfriend should swim as well as the competitors. Entirely different sample selection!

The second issue concerns how the "street-kid dog" lifestyle might change a dog's motivation to wander off. Despite all our love and good intentions, many pet dogs are quite under-stimulated. As modern pet owners, we often do a great job of providing food, love and safety, but have a hard time meeting their intellectual and physical needs for stimulation due to our time and schedule constraints. One of the biggest highlights of our furry friend's day is usually their walk, a chance to sniff, run, and explore a bit after a long day on the sofa. Should it really surprise us that they are more interested in investigating every last atom of odour and inch of ground on their walk, than to remain by our side?

By contrast, street dogs spend their entire day in an atmosphere that is buzzing with activity. They are mostly outdoors, often on the move, with new people and dogs coming and going a much more stimulating world than that of our pet dogs who spend much of their time in our home. This is probably why street dogs are often seen catching a few ZZZZ's, curled up beside their guardians and looking ever so angelic. They are more likely driven by exhaustion from a very busy day than "obedient behaviour."

Street dogs are also more likely to have experienced some of the darker consequences of wandering off, such as run-ins with law enforcement officers, been harassed or chased out of shops, hit by a car, or finding themselves cold, hungry, and lost. Many have probably learned the hard way what can happen if they take their eyes off their guardians. The average pet dog is usually sheltered from such trauma, so has good reason to believe that the grass is greener just beyond the confines of the leash, always wanting to pull ahead to see what treasures might lie just beyond reach.

We also need to consider the fact that most street kids and their dogs spend a great deal of their time in a group, so there are likely some pack dynamics affecting the dogs' behaviour as well. Benefits of sticking close to the gang might include things like access to food resources that are otherwise scarce, and protection from the elements. Harmonious and stable group living requires a minimum of disturbances between members; "fitting in" is important. Agitators, nervous ninnies, and aggressive dogs would not only cause unrest in the group, but also would draw negative attention that street kids and their pet companions can't afford. A process of natural selection favours the cool, calm, self-possessed ones.

That said, it is certainly possible to train a dog to walk politely by your side, on or off leash. In fact, most progressive trainers teach heeling off leash first, and only introduce a leash later in the process. But, to achieve reliable off-leash heeling requires a fair amount of skill and a pretty big time investment, and it is definitely not a safe way to get around with a dog on sidewalks amidst traffic and other dangers. To count on your dog walking at heel in town is asking for trouble. By all means, sign up for obedience classes at a progressive, dog-friendly training facility, just pick and choose where you want to strut your leash-free stuff!

Jennifer Messer is a veterinarian working in Ottawa, Ontario. She has an honours BA in psychology from McGill University and a DVM from the Ontario Veterinary College, and is curriculum consultant for Montessaurus Puppy School. She is owned by her Pit Bull, Charlotte, and her Beagle, Mr. F. Bender.

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