Don't always keep your dog on a leash if you want him to be attached to you.
When I was a kid, we never let our dogs "off-leash." In truth, we
were lazy dog owners. We seldom walked our dogs at all, but when we did, it was
strictly on-leash. The typical scenario: a 60-pound kid being pulled along on a
taut leash with an 80-pound dog lunging at the other end. Who was walking who?
But the leash gave us an illusion of control.
I loved those childhood dogs fiercely, and I couldn't imagine letting them
off their leashes. What if they left and never came back? So I clung to that
leash. No way could I let go.
When I began working with my latest dog, a handsome Irish wolfhound I named
Finnegan, I decided it was time to give my dog a little more freedom to be a
dog. I decided to invest the time necessary to do some off-leash training.
Learning To Let Go
I knew from the start that it was ME who needed the training. Dogs love to be
with us; they love to make us happy. They will cheerfully obey our commands if
we are firm and consistent. And brave enough to let go.
Finnegan entered my life two years ago, a 10-week-old, 35-pound bundle of
puppy love. Two years ago, I was also caring for my elderly diabetic mother,
who was in the middle stages of dementia. I really didn't need the
responsibility of a puppy, but I couldn't resist having someone so sweet to
come home to -- someone who, unlike my mother at this point in her decline --
both knew who I was and appreciated me.
I worked with Finnegan on-leash first, teaching him the basic commands and
reinforcing his good behaviors. I worked with mom during this time to help her
accept her limitations and to establish the routines she needed to get her
through her day safely.
Gradually, I began to let Finn off-leash in isolated places where traffic
was not a complicating factor, relying on the strength of our bond and our
training sessions. Gradually, I began to accept that my mother was going away
-- that she was becoming the child and I had to be the adult. I began to let
Really Letting Go
Over the next year, Finnegan and I had our ups and downs. I left town for three
weeks and we lost a lot of ground in our training consistency. He developed
some headstrong "teenager" behaviors. Most of our time together was
on-leash, but gradually I began to try off-leash training again. Sometimes it
went well, other times he took off like a rocket, scaring the hell out of me
and whomever he was charging. In my heart, I knew if I could just "let
go" without panic, he would consistently return. But it was hard.
My mother's path continued downhill and we had our ups and downs as well. She
forgot to eat, forgot to take her meds. She refused hired help, refused to
relocate to a more controlled environment. Finally, she took a fall and ended
up in the emergency room. I couldn't help her, couldn't be everything she
needed anymore. I had to let go and move her into a nursing home. She hated the
move and fought back with her only weapon: she refused to eat. I pleaded, I
scolded, I cajoled, but in the end, I had to let her go, but it also was hard.
The week after my mom died, I took Finnegan to the Oregon Coast. For a week,
I let him run free on the beach every day.
Real Control: An Attitude, Not a Leash
It has not been a linear progression, but on the whole, Finn and I are moving
toward an exceptional relationship of pet-and-master respect. I don't let him
off the leash every time we go out. Sometimes there are too many other people
around; sometimes I'm frightened by nearby vehicular traffic; sometimes I'm
just plain insecure. In the end, it's a control issue.
Dogs pick up on our body language and attitude: when I feel calm, confident,
and in control -- when I'm playing the part of the alpha female, in other words
-- Finn pretty reliably behaves well off leash. When I'm feeling needy or
panicky, he senses that, too, and it's a bad time to let him off the leash.
Control, or lack thereof, seems to be a repeating theme in my life. Not six
months after my mother's death, I find that my husband of 15 years -- a man I
thought I knew -- wasn't who I thought he was. So now I'm going through another
"letting go." Soon, I will be motherless AND husbandless. But I will
have my dog. On my sad days, my fearful days, I keep him leashed and close. On
my confident, expansive days, I let him run free.
Sally O'Neal has been contributing to The Sportsman's Guide's website since 2000. She
lives, writes, and learns life lessons from her home in southeastern Washington