Out walking with my 10-week-old puppy, I am often told how brave I am to have her off the lead. Some people are so incredulous they insist she must not be a puppy at all, but a ‘miniature whippet’. I have been asked by puppy owning friends when you ‘can let them off the lead’, as though there will be a moment when the stars align.
Friends resent their dependence on extending leads, but cannot see a way to move beyond it. It feels so essential to maintaining even the most tenuous connection between themselves and their dog. Unleashing the dog is bound to feel fraught if you consider the normal baseline to be ‘dog on the lead’. But does it need to be this way?
No one denies that there are times when leads are necessary. Livestock and roads both demand them. We’re open to the idea that some breeds are difficult or impossible to let safely off the lead. The current pandemic has also led more people to rely on leads to make sure that they are able to social distance.
English government advice also suggests that the use of leads may support distancing. The suggestion that animals may carry coronavirus on their fur has created heightened worry about being approached by strange dogs, however benign their intentions. Keen in control, and to be seen as a responsible pet owner, many will default to a lead for most or all walks.
It’s a shame, though, if our caution deprives our dogs of freedom. No one who has seen their dog gallop across an open field powered by sheer exhilaration would argue with the idea that dogs are happier off lead. They are also calmer. Confident of being about to manage their own space and move away if necessary, the majority of dogs are far more placid in their encounters with other dogs if off the lead. They will also get more exercise and more mental stimulation as they can choose their own path, follow their own nose, and affirm their connection to you by freely coming to you when called.
Starting your puppy’s education unleashed takes a lot of the heat off. This seems radical because of the fear that the puppy will run away. But do dogs ‘run away’? The dog may run towards something interesting – another dog, a squirrel, a person – or it may dodge away from you because it expects to be grabbed or restrained by you.
These different motivations for absconding can be solved by the same strategy. Play. Animated praise when the dog returns to you, augmented with food and a favourite toy. To put it bluntly, to develop and maintain your relationship with your dog, you need to risk making a public fool of yourself by demonstrating enthusiasm and energy. And this is the rub.
Although we promote ourselves as a nation of dog lovers, to the casual observer we look more like a nation of dog ignorers, grudgingly circumnavigating the park at either end of a lead. In so doing, we deny ourselves the chance to deepen the bond with our pets, and we deny the pets the freedom that they relish.
To achieve a resilient relationship with your dog you may need to loosen your control of yourself. Allow yourself to be playful. It doesn’t always go right. It requires bravery to overcome our fear of being demonstrative in public. But the rewards are legion.