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Off-Leash Training Is for Adults Only

Patience is a virtue lost to the average American. When everything we want to know can be gained as quickly as typing a few letters in a search bar or delivered within two days for members of Amazon Prime, why do we need it? Today, it’s all about speed: faster Internet, faster checkouts in real stores, faster deliveries from online stores, faster weight loss, faster, faster, faster. The faster, the better, and the list of things that need to go faster keeps growing.

Unfortunately, dog training has been added to the list. We want our “best friend” to be on his “best behavior,” and we want it pronto. We want to speed through the pain of puppyhood and create a no-biting, no-jumping, no-going-potty-in-the-house, no-chewing-on-my-stuff, and no-waking-me-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night great dog. Is asking for it to be done in less than two weeks unreasonable? We hope not, because in less than a month, we want him to also be sitting, lying down, walking with us, staying where he’s put, and coming to us when called; and we want it all to be done off leash.

That’s right: skip the leash. It’s too much of a hassle to hold onto while texting. Certainly this can’t be too much to ask. After all, professional dog trainers guarantee they can train our dogs to do so. We want to believe them, and we sign our dogs up for one of their misguided programs faster than we can select the “add-to-cart” button.

Life comes hard and fast to a wolf cub. They don’t ask for this speed or for things to be so hard, but they’re both there because that’s the way of things for a social predator in the wild. Merciless winters, predation by humans, and the competition of pack members or alien wolves for territorial rights and food create a fast survival learning curve. Even so, wolf cubs are sheltered by the adult pack members who feed them, protect them, and tutor them until they’re old enough to able to do so for themselves, usually at about a year of age. These adult wolves are patient and endure the pain of feeding, protecting, and teaching the young for their first year, because they instinctually know the cubs are only able to retain so much input during specific developmental periods. Mistakes made in the wild often lead to death, so teaching is slowed just enough to allow the cubs time to develop the needed knowledge and skill set that will keep them alive.

Life doesn’t come so hard and fast for our dogs, which are domestic wolves. There’s no need for them to be self-sustaining at 9 to 12 months of age, because we protect them, feed them, shelter them from the elements, and provide them a safe dwelling. All they have to do is conform to our human existence, not very dangerous or stressful. Over the course of thousands of years, our beneficence has increased the lifespan of our dogs and, subsequently, has prolonged early developmental periods. By comparison, a wolf ages physically, emotionally, and developmentally at a rate of twice that of our dogs’.

Is it possible to train a dog to perform a set of cues off leash before the age of 1 year? Yes, but is it sustainable and at what cost? Competing motivators, such as other people, other dogs, squirrels, cats, bicycles, etc., may not be much competition when your off-leash-trained dog is 6 months of age, but they certainly can be at 2 years of age. Your-come-when-called off-leash command could fail you just when your dog, who used to not care about squirrels, sees one on the other side of a busy road and must have it. I remember when my son was 7, he didn’t give even so much as a glance in a girl’s direction. When he turned 17, I had to threaten him with life-long grounding to keep him away from them long enough to concentrate on his schoolwork in which he was gifted. He could have easily entered college almost two years early, but because he was not emotionally ready for the sudden and drastic changes of college life, he stayed in high school where his maturity was allowed to develop at the proper pace.

With our young dogs, our impatience can force them to undergo the sudden and drastic changes that the accompanying stressors of college-level work such as going off-leash requires when they’re only developmentally ready for elementary school or on-leash behavior. Wolves develop twice as fast as our dogs, but they’re not required to undergo college-level training until they’re almost a year old. Why? Because patience is a virtue not lost to adult wolves. Nature, the master teacher, taught them thousands of years ago that speed, in this case, kills.

Domestic dogs are not ready for off-leash training until they’re well over 1 year old. Even if it’s accomplished at an earlier age, it will not remain reliable for the next few years, and the stress incurred from the rigors of the training at an inappropriate developmental period will have a lasting, detrimental effect on the the dog. Take your cue from nature and take dog training off your speed list. In the case of your young dog, patience is not just a virtue; it’s being responsible.

Bryan Bailey is a nationally-recognized, award-winning animal behaviorist, as well as the author of Embracing the Wild in Your Dog. His upcoming second book is The Hammer—Understanding Canine Aggression. Together with his wife, Kira, they own ProTrain Memphis and Taming the Wild. Learn more about Bailey at www.TamingtheWild.com.

Main article photo by: PHOTO CREDIT: 123RF Stock Photo