So what to do if you're reading this as the owner of a boisterous, young, adolescent dog rather than a malleable, fluffy bundle of small puppy?
Well first off I might surprise you and say that it's very little about what you do when you let your dog off the lead, and more about their behaviour when they're safely attached.
In my training classes I am very keen on making sure that the dogs I teach understand that they will only ever be asked to do something ONCE and that they will be expected to do that straight away. So if I ask for a Sit, then the dog gets one shot, if I ask for a Down then that means now not in 5 minutes time.
What has my dog being able to Sit or Lie Down got to do with their recall I hear you ask - I want them to come back to me when I call them! Well everything as it happens - imagine the scene from their point of view..
They're in a training class and there's lots of other things going on - other dogs, other people, an exciting instructor - and they vaguely hear you say something about a Sit in the background. As there's other stuff going on which has captured their attention, they don't Sit straight away but continue lunging forward on their lead to see the dog opposite who seems to have some very tasty treats and a super cool training toy.
Because they haven't sat straight away, you raise your voice a little to make sure that they heard you, and perhaps tug on the lead a little. This invokes something called "opposition reflex" - you pull on them to take them away from something they like, not only do they pull a bit harder, but now they want what you're pulling them away from all the more!
So your dog still isn't sitting, and you're getting a little flustered and embarrassed so you repeat in an even louder voice! At this point your dog might turn round with a "There's no need to shout" expression on their face, and finally plant their bottom on the floor in order to earn that treat in your hand.
Science tells us that...
"Reinforcement builds behaviour"
So that treat you gave your dog for finally sitting rewarded a slow response to your Sit cue, and in your dog's eyes made it unnecessary to respond to the first verbal cue that you give them. Which you might not feel is a problem when it's only a Sit you're asking for, but unfortunately their expectation rolls out into when they hear their recall cue too. Make sense?
In order to get fantastic behaviour from our dogs when they are off the lead, we have to have to expect pretty awesome behaviour from them when they're with us on the lead too. If your dog can Sit even though another dog is walking by, a toy is being thrown, food is dropped on the floor beside them - that understanding of "I should Sit even if there are distractions around me" will easily roll out into an amazing recall cue too.
So brush up on the basics, and push yourself and your dog - don't settle for "Well we can do it with no distractions" - create distractions, make the basics difficult and increase your dogs understanding of your expectations.
Most importantly, don't forget to have FUN whilst doing so - your dog is much more likely to want to come back to you in the face of distractions if playing training games with you is a whole lot more fun than anything else going on in the environment.
When you do start letting them off the lead for the first time, think about putting them in a harness with a long line attached to them as a back up. You might want to wear gloves when doing so to avoid any hand injuries should you need to get hold of the long line quickly.
Go somewhere quiet and test your on lead skills first to remind them that you expect great behaviour here too - it's not just a game to be played at home. And if you get success CELEBRATE with treats & toys, and be genuine about it - dogs know when we're faking it ;)