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FAQ: I’m anxious about letting my dog off-lead for the first time. Can you help?

One strategy would be to…

Teach the recall or ‘Come’ command, first at home without too many distractions. Rehearse this always just before you put on his lead, before you play games with him and just before he gets any treat or positive feedback.
Try to walk with other people and, preferably with their dogs – but you should do this strictly on-lead for a week or more, as this kind of activity will get your dog into the habit of listening to you when other people and their dogs are around, teaching him the important lesson that he shouldn’t ‘tune you out’…no matter what’s happening.
Start off by letting your dog off-lead in a safe enclosed area – a garden or tennis court, for example, and try to have at least one other dog present who gets on well with your dog and always comes back when called. Practice giving off-lead time in short  2 minute bursts, always rewarding a prompt recall with a juicy treat and lots of affection.
Have confidence. If you get tense and anticipate a negative behaviour when you’re about to let your dog off-lead, then this is not a good starting point for you or your dog. Try to relax and pass confident vibes to your dog.
A key point here is that you must get into the habit of letting your dog off-lead only when he is relaxed. He must be asked to ‘Wait’ and ‘Sit’ for example, then wait for about 10 seconds of quietness/patience before letting him have a ‘play time’. In this way you have started the off-lead behaviour by asking him to relax and listen to you, and he is rewarded as a result…so he’ll be more likely to listen the next time you want his attention.
Use a training-lead (a very long lead that attaches to the dog’s collar and trails behind) if you feel it will help or give you more confidence.
Training any dog correctly to a whistle is definitely worth considering too – using a whistle effectively is likely to significantly improve most dogs’ recall skills.
Build up the frequency of your ‘off-lead play-times’ gradually and before you know it your dog will be enjoying himself off-lead in the park

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