Eventual off-leash control may be in the distant future for a young dog or a dog new to training, but even as you start work, it’s helpful to have it on the radar. Some of the “off-leash” lessons can be implemented early and some “off-leash problems” can be prevented if you keep it in mind even during early training.
At the core, off-leash control is about attention to you. It is not simply having the dog respond to obedience commands when it’s not wearing a leash. After all, on an off-leash hike it’s things like “stick around,” “check in with me,” “don’t go too far” that will have much more importance than things like “lay down” and “sit-stay.” Specific skills to observe and reward in your dog that will apply directly to off-leash work include 1) turns (if you change direction suddenly without notifying your dog, does he notice and quickly attempt to catch up? 2) stops (if you suddenly stop while on leash does he notice and stop with you? 3) Automatic “leave it’s” – if you are moving by an interesting object, can you observe him looking at it and choosing to stick with you instead? A lot of this is “dog’s choice” type stuff – the dog will need to eventually make the right decisions all by himself, so the training should be as much dog’s choice as possible – you setting the situation up so it’s likely the dog will do it right, and then rewarding heavily when he does it.
One of the early concepts for eventual off-leash work is…do not get too reliant on your leash! What are some signs that you are too reliant on your leash? Things like giving cues “Let’s go,” and then not waiting or letting the dog actually do it before moving it with the leash. Using the leash to pull the dog into position. Letting the dog pull on leash and not requiring that it stay close without leash pressure. If you are relying on the leash too much – your dog will rely on the leash too much, also! Then it will be hard for both of you when it’s time to shed it.
There’s a deep-down core of trust that you need to have about whether or not your dog will come back to you, or run off and be difficult to catch. When your gut instinct is "he'd come back to me" -- not qualified by "if" statements ("if there's nothing else going on...if I've got treats..." you will know you're on the right path. This gut-level safety feeling is important to have, because if you do let the dog off-leash and you are nervous about whether he’s going to come back, your nervousness will bleed through and color your emotions and interactions with the dog. Dogs are so sensitive to this; if your voice is different, your movements are different, you are suddenly more strict with the dog or being chatty/talkative/praising more than your dog is used to – many dogs will be confused by this and will naturally move away from you or be suddenly uneasy to get in too close. So you have to remain your same confident self off-leash as on-leash, and to have that level of confidence you really need trust, and to have that level of trust you really need to have a reliable dog, and to have a really reliable dog you really need a lot of practice under your belt. Practice in all kinds of situations! Calling and rewarding in the house does not necessarily promise reliability in the park. You need to be doing it in a wide variety of locations, and until you’re satisfied at the gut-level that he’s ready for it, off-leash work will make you nervous and that’s no good. But having that deep-down feeling of trust in your dog is a good sign that you’re ready or close to ready.