How to Train Your Cocker Spaniel Dog to Walk Off-Lead

Medium
2-6 Weeks
Behavior

Introduction

When you train your Cocker Spaniel to walk off-lead, it gives you the gift of added mobility, less time fussing with leashes while enjoying the outdoors, and the peace of mind that your dog knows to stay close. 

Cocker Spaniels are usually quite easy to train. They are intelligent, they love to please, and most are quite motivated to work for food! In fact, if your Cocker Spaniel is on a diet, most will gladly train just for pieces of their regular kibble withheld from the daily meals. Of course, mixing in a few special tasty treats never hurts motivation either! 

This guide will explore three different methods to train off-lead walking so that you can choose a way that works best for your dog’s learning style. Although easy to train initially, walking off leash requires some dedication to lots of practice before your dog master’s this skill. 

Defining Tasks

Most people want something along the lines of a fairly obedient and tight 'heel' when training their dog to walk off-leash. However, it is your call! If you are satisfied for your Cocker Spaniel to stay within a few feet radius, you can use any of the methods described here, substituting your desired position or radius as the criteria to reward your dog at each stage.

Both the 'Drop Treat' and 'Baited Stick' methods start with your dog off-leash. These methods will require that you have a safe and contained space that is large enough to practice off-leash walking. Preferably, you will also have a fenced area to work on this behavior outside.

The 'Heel' method starts with leash work and only transitions to off-leash work once the behavior is already on command. It is a better choice if you are living in an apartment without regular access to secure spaces large enough to practice off leash.

Safety Precaution: Be sure to never expect your dog to heel in a potentially dangerous situation such as near traffic. Even the best-trained dogs can be distracted by something interesting like a squirrel and chase it into traffic.

Getting Started

Items you may need, depending on the method you 

  • Clicker
  • Treat bag with small pea-sized treats and/or some of your dog’s kibble
  • Walking leash
  • Long-line or rope at least 20” long
  • 3’ long dowel rod or yard stick
  • Peanut butter

Click/Treat

These methods refer to click/treat. A clicker is a very inexpensive training tool that makes a sharp sound used to mark behavior you like, followed immediately by a reward. If you do not use a clicker that is totally fine. Just use a word or sound of your own that you use just for training, followed consistently with a food reward.

Dropping Treats

Since Cocker Spaniels are such shorties, you will need a method for rewarding behavior you like without having to bend over and deliver it. In this case, you can stand up and walk normally, dropping treats after you mark the desired behavior with your clicker or your special marking sound.

It is okay if your dog has to go outside of your desired radius or position to get the treat. This will force them to choose to get back in position to earn more rewards, further reinforcing the desired behavior.

Let’s get started!

The Drop Treat Method

Effective
0 Votes
Step
1
By your side
Start with your dog off-leash in a comfortable, secure environment. Let them know you have your treat bag and you are ready to start a training session. Give them a few click/treats just for being excited and engaged in the training session. Turn so that they are on the correct side of you. Click/treat and repeat 10-15 times.
Step
2
Step off
You are ready to take a few steps. Point your finger down to the floor on the correct side. If your dog volunteers to join you, click/treat the instant they are in the right position. If not, hold a treat in your hand and try to lure them into position, moving your body if necessary to get them on the correct side. Try to stop using this “lure” quickly by transitioning it to a point at your side while you are standing erect.
Step
3
Raise the bar
Without adding any verbal commands, slowly raise the bar over the course of the next few training sessions. Keep clear about what behavior you are going to reward, and slowly start raising your expectations as your dog masters each level. In other words, while you rewarded simply being on the correct side at first, you will soon only be rewarding when your dog successfully takes a few steps in the correct position.
Step
4
Add a release word
When you are training your dog any continuous behavior that you expect them to give you after a cue, then you need to also add a release word that will let them know they can stop doing the behavior. Otherwise, you will be training them to guess when it is time to stop, encouraging them to break behavior on their own. In this case, just start saying “Okay!” every so often, praising and playing with your dog to let them know they are released. Resume your off-lead walk with your finger pointing cue.
Step
5
Add duration
Keep extending the time you wait before click/treating, although it is best to do so somewhat randomly. If you wait too long, your dog will lose interest. Keep your tone fun and excited, praising alongside food rewards. You want your dog to be wondering when they might earn that next reward!
Step
6
Add distraction
Once your dog “gets” that when you point to their position on your side they should walk next to you (notice: no verbal command needed), you can start to try the behavior in less familiar environments. Be sure your dog is in a secure location, or practice with a long-line leash to be safe in outdoor areas.
Step
7
Practice makes perfect
Continue to practice off-lead walking in various places and for longer durations until your Cocker Spaniel has mastered this behavior.
Recommend training method?

The Baited Stick Method

Effective
0 Votes
Step
1
Starting position
Using a long stick that has been baited with some peanut butter is another way to click/reward without having to bend down. Another advantage of this method is it gets you started with a lure system that will help your Cocker Spaniel get to the first level of off-lead walking sooner. Start by putting a small amount of peanut butter on the end of the stick on the side you want your dog to walk. This will bring them naturally into position by your side. Let them lick the peanut butter, and click/treat, dropping an additional small treat by their side.
Step
2
Fade the bait
You want to stop having to bait the stick as soon as possible. Usually within 5 repetitions of the first step, your pup will nose the stick when offered at your side even without the bait. Click/treat and repeat while walking very slowly, click treating every time your dog noses the stick (which will automatically put them in the correct position).
Step
3
Add distance and speed
Continuing to use the stick without the bait to guide your dog into position. Slowly add some distance before rewarding and a increase the speed of your walk. You can start to selectively click/treat nosing the stick as long as you keep the reward frequency high enough to keep your dog interested.
Step
4
Fade the stick
Once you have your dog reliably walking next to you at a comfortable pace, then it is time to start fading the use of the stick. To do this, simply start moving your grip down the stick so that it is lifted away from the floor. Switch the click/reward criteria to your Cocker Spaniel’s position alone, rather than expecting them to nose the stick. Continue to slide the stick up your arm until a simple point to your side with your fingers is enough of a cue to get your dog walking next to you.
Step
5
Add distraction and practice
Once your dog clearly understands that when you point to your side they should get in position, walking or not, then you are ready to practice this technique in a higher distraction environment. Keep rewarding great off-lead behavior but feel free to switch more to praise and pets rather than food rewards once the behavior is well trained.
Recommend training method?

The Heel Method

Effective
0 Votes
Step
1
Begin on-leash
Starting your training with the leash on gives you the luxury of working outdoors in non-fenced areas, since the leash will still prevent your Cocker Spaniel from getting into trouble. It also has the benefit of working on leash manners more generally speaking, something most dogs can stand to improve on.
Step
2
Get in position
Start with your dog on the side that you want them to walk off-lead, but with their leash and collar attached. Help them into position with slight tension on the leash. Release the tension and click/treat as soon as they are in position. Take a step and repeat this process until your dog is coming into position with zero tension on the leash.
Step
3
Stepping off
Start to add more movement by walking slowly. A little tension on the leash to guide your dog into position is fine. Be sure to release tension when they get into position before you click/treat. Never drag your dog on a leash. Ignore any positions that are not correct, and continue to click/treat when your dog is in the right position. Repeat until it is clear that your dog “gets it” and is enthusiastically taking position and expecting a treat.
Step
4
Add cue and release word
Most people use the cue “heel!” for this behavior. Start to give the cue, followed by 1 or 2 click/treats for good positioning as you walk. Then, give the release word “okay!” and play with your dog for a few seconds to let them know it is alright to break position after the release word.
Step
5
Drop the leash
Once your Cocker Spaniel is reliably giving you a 'heel' you are satisfied with, and also understands both the cue and the release word, you can either drop the leash on the ground or start working with a long line. Both of these methods give you some control should your buddy try to make a break for it. The long-line (or even just a 20 foot rope) will give you some time to regain control if your dog tries to bolt away in a non-secure area. In addition, you can now practice this off-leash all together as long as you are in a secure space. The sooner you get to off-leash work, the faster this behavior will become ingrained.
Step
6
Add distance and distraction
Make things more challenging for your dog by practicing this behavior for longer periods of time in new environments until you always get the behavior you want. Over time you can decrease food rewards and operate more on praise and pets to remind your dog you are proud of their good behavior!
Recommend training method?

Success Stories and Training Questions

Book me a walkiee?
Pweeeze!
Sketch of smiling australian shepherd