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All training disappears when my gundog is off the lead!

How can you make sure your dog is as obedient off the lead as on it? Paul Rawlings gives some sound advice.

Spaniel off the lead

On the lead my 17-month-old springer spaniel is obedient, walks to heel well, sits on the whistle and is steady. Off the lead he is like a different dog. He runs away and won’t stay close to me. He does understand the turn whistle and will eventually obey it after a bit.

I need to ensure that he is steady both on and off the lead. Can you help me please? (Read how to use a slip lead correctly.)

gundog training together

Off the lead training

Off the lead training

These issues suggest to me that sufficient close mutual trust has not been developed during your spaniel’s early training. (Read how to get your dog back on the lead after exercise.)

He is being obedient on the lead because he has no other option, not because he wants to please you, his master. Perhaps you do not reward him enough or motivate him to do the right things.

If that is the case, then when the lead is removed he just wants to escape from the unwelcome discipline associated with restraint. If he will not stay close willingly, you have no control to be able to enforce compliance with any commands, such as the turn whistle.

I have retrained dogs that have developed this problem, and I use an environment where the dog can be off the unwelcome lead but not escape, namely a narrow exercise run (about 10ft wide and 60ft long).

I allow the dog freedom to do as it likes and offer no control at all. I completely ignore the dog when it is away from me, but if it comes near I give praise at once, and stop if it looks away.

If it comes in close it gets a tasty treat as well, and then it is ignored again. After two or three weeks, the dog will have its eyes fixed on me, pleading for some more attention.

I can now introduce simple controls, such as no reward until it sits and looks at me. Once trust has been restored, obedience using positive motivational methods can continue.

This article was originally published in 2014 and has been updated.