Gracie running up the hill in our backyardThere’s a dog that was a recent addition to our neighborhood. He lives just two doors down and goes by the name of Vegas. He’s a sweet puppy, but a big puppy although I don’t know what breed he is. He has the coloring of a Doberman, but his ears are a bit floppy. I’ve heard that Dobermans can get their ears trimmed to give them the upright ears they are know for and maybe his haven’t been trimmed. I don’t know, I’m no expert, but whatever breed he is, he’s sweet as can be.
His owner gives him a lot of room to run – the whole neighborhood in fact. Just about any time of the day, I can expect a brief visit from Vegas. He’ll run up, his tale wagging with bright happy eyes that seem to be saying “Hey! What cha doin’? Need any help?” I don’t like how he sometimes tramples our garden in order to come say hello, but he’s just so happy to see people that it’s hard to stay mad at him. Often times, as I see him run back to his own home, I wish that I could give Gracie some room to run and let her off the leash a little bit. I would never give her full run of the neighborhood like Vegas’ owner does, but some freedom would be nice.

Part of my resistance has been due to Gracie’s propensity for running to greet new people and/or animals. When I have her attention, she usually minds me, but when she’s been on the leash and a squirrel darts across our path, I’m thankful that she’s tethered to me. Walking through the neighborhood during our evening walk, I’ve felt the temptation to unhook the leash and let her run free a little bit, but my overwhelming fear that Gracie would tear off and not come back is too strong. I’d like to think that she’d stay close, but it’s such an unknown and if she were to run away, or get hurt, I don’t think I could take it.

The two of us did go through “puppy training” at the local PetSmart many months ago, so she does have some of the basics down. Then about month ago, I put up kiddie gates at each end of the deck behind our house. My idea was to give her a safe and secure outside area in which to play. In my mind this was the first step in letting go. When I would mow the grass, I’d let her run around on the deck. Since the deck equates to almost half of our backyard, she had plenty of room to run around. At night, if I went outside to smoke a cigar, Gracie would come with me and explore while I puffed away. The one thing that came out of all this was that it looked like I had a lot more work to do with the command “Come here.” Gracie was fairly hit or miss on this command and I simply didn’t feel confident that I could get her to obey once there were other things to attract her attention. I figured that there would have to be a lot more training if we were going to try taking off the leash. Gracie on the other hand had other ideas. 🙂

One afternoon I was going to the mailbox to retrieve the mail. The front door was open, but the outside screened glass door was still closed. Vegas came to say hello, like he usually does and when Gracie saw him, she went nuts like she usually does. As I walked back to the door, my attention was more on the mail than on Gracie bouncing like a spring behind the screen door. Before I knew it, as soon as I cracked open the door, Gracie was past me like a shot and running down the street. I didn’t panic, but I was scared as hell as I dropped the mail and took and walked back to the street. Trying to remain calm, cool and collected, I stopped at the street and just observed what was going on.

Gracie was running in huge circles around the cul-de-sac with Vegas right on her tail. Her ears were swept behind her head like pig tails as she ran as fast as she could. The had a look of ecstasy on her face as ran and ran and ran. It was as if she had this secret desire to run free. All the times she’d seen Vegas running untethered had built up a deep longing that was finally being set free. Vegas is about 3 times her size, but he couldn’t catch her as she made one lap after another. I simply sat on the curb and let her go.

After awhile she started tiring and Vegas began to catch her a bit. So instead of the long sweeping laps, she began dodging left and right as if they were playing tag. When she was finally getting tired, I opened my arms and yelled “Come here Gracie!” in the manner in which we used to do in puppy class. Her head perked upright upon the sound of her name. Snapped from her reverie, she saw me as shelter, or home base and made a bee line right into my arms. I said a prayer of thanks as I wrapped my arms around her. She was panting and her tongue was hanging out and her eyes were just ablaze with the rush of being so free to run where she liked.

Once back in my arms, I took the opportunity to bring her back inside where she was once again safe and secure. Although the result came out OK, I was still in a bit of shock about the whole adventure. As the day wore on, my mind kept turning over the details looking at all sides of it. What stood out was that she stayed in the general area where I felt it was alright for her to run free. Secondly, she did come when called, so much to my surprise the command did work in the real world and lastly, I did have Vegas’ help. Although I may think that Vegas has a bit too much freedom in the neighborhood, he is a good done and he does follow most basic commands. With the two dogs playing together, I knew that Vegas would come when called and that was a nice backup to have. Even if Gracie wouldn’t come, Vegas would and he’d bring her in by proxy if necessary.

So later that afternoon we gave it another shot. We went outside with the leash on and went out to the street. A quick whistle to Vegas and he was over in a heartbeat. Gracie was bouncing like a rubber ball, but I eventually got her off the leash and off they went again. After all the running in circles, both dogs came over to where I was sitting on the curb and they began to play all around me. I became part of the tussle as Gracie used me as a spring board to jump all over Vegas. Now it was my turn for that crazed look of ecstasy, because is there anything more exquisite than playing on the ground with dogs? 🙂

Since that fateful day of Gracie’s semi-independence, we’ve continued to work on Gracie (or is it me?) becoming more comfortable with being off of her leash. We’ve worked in the backyard going up and down the hill and learning where her boundaries are as well as continuing to play with Vegas when he’s around. One great tool that has come in handy is an extendable leash that my Mother purchased for us. It gives Gracie a good 30′ of line and has helped make for a smooth transition. Now when she’s on her leash, she has a lot more play and it’s closer to being untethered as possible. There’s still some work left to be done in regards to training. She still has a tendency to charge when she sees another dog, or a cat, or a person for that matter, but she’s getting much better.

I suppose I needed that “jump into the deep end” experience that chance happened to provide. As much as Gracie needs training, I think I’ve needed just as much time to get comfortable with the idea. It’s still a little scary to unhook that leash and let her go. Yet as soon as I see that look on her face when she’s free as a lark, it’s all worth it.