By: Erin Wigginton, CPDT-KA
Over the summer I took my “Big Dog”, Andre, to an obedience practice and tried something new and a little scary. I took off the leash.
Let me give you a little history on my relationship with my “Big Dog”. I adopted Andre in October 2009 and hoped to jump into training immediately with the goal of someday soon competing with him in the obedience ring. Within a week of bringing him home I became aware of some significant behavioral issues, including severe separation anxiety, which would prevent us from entering competition for the foreseeable future. To make a long story short, it took over 18 months to sufficiently rehabilitate Andre so that we could actually participate in an obedience show. He was my first 100% force-free trained dog. I have never used a physical correction on him.
Fast forward three more years and it is the summer of 2014 and Andre has, so far, acquired two titles and is on his way to a third. We went to a practice session at Purina Farms’ beautiful Event Center in July and I got brave. I thought, “I’ve got an excellent relationship with my dog, he’s well-trained and is almost always immediately compliant…I bet I could take off his leash and he’d be good.” Never one to set my dog up for failure, we were all alone in a large practice ring at the end of the enormous room. Although there were dozens of other people and dogs at the other end, Andre was attentive and followed me closely.
Then, I did it.
I took off the leash and a part of me panicked just a bit. What if he runs off? What if he goes to greet another dog inappropriately and won’t come back? But you know what? He didn’t. He sniffed the artificial turf, “reading the doggie newspaper” as we call it, but never strayed more than a few feet from me. I asked him for sits and downs and stays and he did them all perfectly, just as he does them at home and at other on-leash practices. I called him from long distances and he came directly to me and offered a lovely sit every time. I was so immensely proud of my once-anxious-now-confident boy; I was positively jubilant!
As I released him from his final stay and reached for his leash, which was lying on the turf, it happened. My worst fear. Another dog and handler entered the ring next to us…and Andre noticed. He straightened up, ears perked, eyes intent, and started off trotting toward the flimsy accordion gate that separated the two practice rings. Despite me inner desperation and fear, I managed to draw on my many years of practice and call sweetly (not scolding), “Andre, leave it. Come!”
I stood almost dumbfounded as my 85-pound, imposing, beautiful dog happily pranced in a u-turn and came directly to me just as I had asked. I was beaming. I threw him a party, right there on the turf in the ring. We danced and laughed and ran and played – all on-leash, of course, since fate is not to be tempted twice. We left that practice joyfully exhausted and I with a new-found respect for and trust in my canine companion. All the time and effort had been worth it and had done exactly what I set out to do – develop a loving relationship with my dog upon which I would be able to rely when the time came. The time had come and my relationship with my dog had won the day!
There is little else that is as rewarding as seeing proof that your dog not only answers you when you ask him to but that he does so, not because he fears the consequences of failure, but because he loves you as much as you love him.