You all know how I feel about people who are irresponsible with their dogs, whether that means not cleaning up after them, neglecting them, or letting them off leash in public places. But for the last few weeks, I’ve been doing the latter. No, I haven’t become one of those “off-leash regulars” I see all too often, but I have, in a very limited way, been allowing Bodhi to be off-leash.
It’s been over two years since we adopted him from the shelter, and Bodhi has come a long way with many issues, including leashwork. At the beginning it was apparent that walking on a leash was a concept he’d never encountered, and for the longest time he couldn’t understand why I’d want to stop him from lunging and barking at other dogs. But we kept at it, and he can now walk nicely next to me and even stop and sit in the vicinity of other dogs—including Darth Vader, as I’ve nicknamed the poor, sweet black Lab who just plain sets Bodhi off for reasons known only to him. Anyway, having a malamute mix who is good on leash the vast majority of the time is a beautiful thing. But I also believe that dogs should be trained to off-leash reliability; you never know when you’ll need it.
We started months ago with a long-line, practicing recalls, attention, and “with me” (my cue for walking by my side). Fortunately, Bodhi is more of a stick-with-you type than a take-off-when-the-leash-comes-off kinda dog…but still, I don’t take unnecessary chances. We frequent the park at the crack of dawn when there are very few people around, and because of the park’s large, spread out areas, it’s easy to see people approaching from a great distance. So a few weeks ago, in one of those safe areas, far from the parking lots and the more populated paths, I undid Bodhi’s leash. His first reaction was priceless…it was as though he was trying to figure out how it was possible that he was suddenly unencumbered, moving at the pace he’d always wished he could, if he didn’t have that sleepy redhead attached. He pranced happily forward a few feet—and then turned to look at me. Yes! Beautiful! I smiled and he came running back, and promptly received a hot dog with a side order of enthusiastic praise.
Our walk quickly fell into a pattern of Bodhi walking a few feet ahead, peeing on something or just exploring, and then running back to me. Each time, he got a reward. And when we re-entered the part of the park where people normally walk or jog, the leash went back on. (Oh, and by the way, once the leash was on and we passed a familiar woman, she said, “Look at the adoring way he watches you.” Yep, he was right next to me, gazing into my face, all right…wishing for a hot dog.) Since that first walk, whenever we do the off-leash thing, the joy on Bodhi’s face is unmistakeable. But something else has happened that I hadn’t anticipated: not only did those experiences please me from a training point of view, but they’ve actually made me feel closer to Bodhi. There’s just something about an animal who has the freedom to choose where to be, and chooses to be with you. I love that he doesn’t just think, Woohoo, free at last! and disappear into the nearest hillside.
Now, I would never do this with Sierra. As you may have heard, the girl has a prey drive from hell. She’s a little wild thing, and although we’ve done plenty of training and she’s got a pretty spectacular recall, I don’t have such an inflated opinion of myself that I believe I can compete with a squirrel. Not yet, anyway. We have, however, been practicing with the long line.
I’m not suggesting that anyone allow their dogs to go leashless, or to take chances they shouldn’t. But for us, the freedom those short off-leash jaunts have given Bodhi, and the joy they’ve given us both, have been great rewards in and of themselves.