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How to Train Your Dog to Walk Beside You Without a Leash

Side by Side, Out in the Busy Streets.

It's easy to teach a dog new tricks, but the hardest part is actually making that trick stick. I taught Maui how to heel, how to start walking beside me, and how to sit when I stop. He's more than happy to do so. I can tell because his eyes widen when it's training time, that glint of joy he always shows when we start our training session is either because he likes the training process, or he's after the food rewards. I've been using the Pet Resolve Shock collar for reinforcing it too, and so far it's worked enough for me to call it "The Ol' Reliable." 

The Ol' Reliable will be put to the test today. I'm planning to train Maui outside because the holidays mean there won't be many people in my neighborhood, almost making it look like a ghost town if not for the parked cars outside and the random neighbor playing loud music. 

I could train Maui all I want indoors, but outdoor training is a whole new beast, especially for Maui. No walls and open streets mean he can really stretch his legs and bolt as far as he can. Since he won't be wearing a leash, I need to make sure the shock collar can reach him. 

All his training will be put to the test now. Recall, Heel, even just making eye contact with me when I call his name. Based on my vet's advice, you just need to take the wonder and curiosity out of the dog first, which sounds slightly horrible, but it just means to let them play, mark their spots and run around a bit. Once all the pent-up energy is released, I can go forward with the off-leash training

A big change in our local government also happened that made this slightly more challenging. They've deployed actual dog catching trucks for stray dogs now, and it had something do to with our city tightening rabies control as other places in our city started having cases. I spoke with our local representative about my plans for off-leash training and I had to present that Maui has his vaccinations in line and a letter of my intentions to be signed. Since the dog-catching has a hefty fine on it, it's possible that the dog catchers will do what they can to secure payment of that fine. I could just not do it, I could just take Maui on a leash and job around like we always do, but I want that leash-less park activity. Call it a dream.

The day came and I prepared the day before. I charged both the collar receiver and the remote control. I prepared the treats, which are currently boiled and chopped chicken gizzards. It's not his favourite treat, but it's certainly part of the high-value treats I feed him. He already had chopped liver the last time. I went out to check the neighborhood with my wife and daughter joining me to get some nice morning sun, and after confirming that our stretch of the street is empty, I let Maui out with both the leash and the shock collar on. 

Since the idea is to let Maui do what he wants first, we went on a family walk around the street, letting Maui investigate as much as he wants. He marked a few trees on the way back and after we've fully circled the place, it was time to train him. As a warm-up, we did the heel and walk with the leash still on. There are still times when Maui would investigate something else, but thanks to the shock collar "pressuring" him to do the actions fast, he does what I command him to, it's just that as soon as he gets the tasty treat, he tries to do other things, like marking a certain tree again. 

We did a full round of training, stopping every now and then to train him to sit. He does it every now and then, but I sometimes have to remind him to sit beside me. 

This reminds me of the time when I thought shock collars were part of the punishment of "carrot and stick" training, where you praise and reward good behavior and punish bad behavior. This is vastly different. I see that Maui has some level of control over the shock. He expects it because there are two conditions to it: He's wearing the collar, and it happens as soon as I say the command. It stops when he performs the correct behavior and it's not like he doesn't know what the correct behavior is. Best of all, he's given a tasty treat after performing the correct behavior. If he doesn't do the right thing, I tell him "No!", give him a bit of time, then state the verbal commands again. I usually just do this twice before stopping the sensation entirely. So far Maui's negative experiences with the shock collar are kept at a minimum, though he did have a few, and that was because I wasn't attentive enough. 

After we circle back with the training, it was time to unleash him, literally. I need to first reinforce recall. A reliable recall skill is invaluable for my plans. I took his leash off, then he blasted off. 

Of course. No matter how we do frequent walks and jogging, nothing beats the idea of being able to bolt at full speed. Part of me wanted to panic, but another part waited for that moment, the sign or body language that means he's not off to suddenly run away for good. After gaining a large distance between me and him, he stopped and looked back, as if he was expecting me to run after him. This was the sign I was waiting for, and I quickly activated the beep. He still kept on running. Knowing that the shock collar has insane range, I activated the shock, a nick just to get his attention, then did the beep, followed by the shock. I couldn't do both at the same time, but that's fine. He stopped in his tracks. He seemed confused at first, so stopped the shock, then proceeded with the beep for three seconds then held the shock button again. As soon as I saw him going back to me, I stopped the shock. He stopped so I pressed the beep again, then the shock. 

This worked before but it was over very short distances, now we're training over long distances. I have to say, being able to control Maui way past 100 yards is amazing. The device's total range is 3/4 miles, but even with realistic expectations like 1/2 miles, that's still pretty darn far.

Eventually, Maui started running back to me and I had the food treat ready. When he was closing in, I tossed the gizzard to him, making him jump a bit, and as soon as he approached me, I praised him and gave him a belly rub because I was so proud. With him around now, I started walking, made the collar beep, and as soon as he approached, I said "Heel!". 

He didn't do it. As soon as he went to me, he walked beside me for maybe two seconds before his attention was caught somewhere else. Dogs are truly mercurial creatures. It was like training him all over again, but this time I'm training him to keep his focus. 

The training steps were the same. The treats and the collar keep him around. The only problem is that he can't keep his attention on me so I have to keep repeating the steps as fast as I can, while also letting him have a break for short periods of time. 

After a surprisingly long training session of half an hour, only then did I notice Maui start losing interest, which is fine as I am running out of gizzards. That means off-leash time is over and it's time to let him back into the house. What's amazing is that when my family and I were heading in, Maui followed us in, even going in before me. It was either he knew that it was time to rest, or that he was quite thirsty already and wanted to drink from the cat's water bowl. 

I'd like to think it's the former even though he's already lapping all the water off the small bowl. I hope this was a happy time for him. I'd like nothing more than to let him run like the wind, as long as he can come back to me and stay around me. With this kind of control, I believe I can level up the training and put him in training situations with common distractions, or additional distractions like being in a slightly unfamiliar place. 

Honestly, with the control alone, I'm confident enough to control Maui in a fenced park. I still want to fulfil my goals of properly training him because ironically, the true goal of shock collar training is to use it until you don't need it, almost like a crutch.

 

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