4 Things Your Dog Needs to Ace Before Going Off-Leash

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

train dog to walk off leash

Story at-a-glance -

  • All dogs enjoy off-leash time given the chance, but if you want to allow your pet to walk or hike with you off-leash, there are many steps you’ll need to take to prepare for a safe experience
  • Some dogs are better candidates for off-leash adventures than others, depending on temperament, training, breed, and other factors
  • Any dog going off-leash should reliably stop and return on command, do regular check-ins with his human, and perform emergency sits and downs

Walking on a leash isn't natural for canines (which is why they must be taught how to do it). It's also not an ideal way to exercise most medium and large dogs, because they can't run full-out or engage in natural play behaviors. As professional dog trainer Pat Miller notes in a recent article for Whole Dog Journal:

"There is no doubt that it's immensely beneficial for dogs to be able to run off-leash. Most dogs cannot even come close to getting adequate exercise on the end of a leash, and lack of exercise contributes to a whole host of behavior challenges."1

Best-selling author and applied animal behaviorist Patricia B. McConnell says off-leash adventures can be beneficial because in addition to needing lots of physical and mental stimulation, all dogs also yearn for a measure of independence and self-sufficiency:

"… it is my belief that one of the things dogs want more than anything in the world is a certain amount of autonomy. Some dogs have a ton of it, others almost none, but surely every dog wants to be able to do what she wants to do, when she wants to do it, at least some of the time. Being off leash fulfills that to a great extent, but it also puts dogs at the potential of risk."2

But as both Miller and McConnell also make clear, there's a right way to take your dog for a walk, run, hike, or other outdoor activity off-leash, and a wrong way. If it's not done appropriately (and in accordance with local laws), it can pose a threat to your own dog, other dogs, humans, livestock, and wildlife.

"Off-leash dogs may run off and get lost, run onto roads and cause serious accidents, cause hikers to fall and bicyclists to crash, and chase or even kill other animals," says Miller.

It can also create problems when an off-leash dog excitedly approaches an on-leash dog, a service dog, or a dog who finds others of his kind intimidating or threatening.

If you're looking for more detailed information on how to train a recall and other ways to prepare for off-leash adventures with your dog, veterinarian Dr. Jason Nicholas, Chief Medical Officer at Preventive Vet, offers a good resource: 6 Tips for Taking Your Dog Off Leash.

Must-Haves Before Allowing Your Dog Off-Leash

Before you even consider letting your dog run around outdoors off-leash, she must be well-trained to stay right beside you or under your voice control at all times. She should possess a 99.99% foolproof recall so you can call her back from virtually any temptation or danger

In addition, she should be in excellent health, have an even temperament, be dog-friendly and human-friendly, have a minimal prey drive, and display no aggressive behaviors or the urge to wander off. It's also important to familiarize yourself with all the potential hazards in the areas where your dog will be allowed off-leash. Just a few of the possibilities listed by Miller include:

Venomous snakes

Pond ice that your dog could fall through

A spot along the beach where the ocean undertow is unusually strong

Ponds that sometimes contain toxic algae

Cliffs, caves, or abandoned mine shafts your dog could fall into or over

Wildlife predators that could grab your dog

A gap in a boundary fence near a busy road or highway.

It's also important to be aware of and follow local leash laws.

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All Off-Leash Dogs Should Be Trained in These Verbal Cues

To properly maintain your dog's off-leash training and skills, you'll need to keep his responses to your verbal cues tuned up. Some things to practice regularly, according to Miller, include:

Regular, automatic check-ins — When your dog is off-leash, she should stay fairly close to you, and turn back toward you frequently, or return all the way to you without prompting.

"Anytime you notice your dog turning toward you and/or looking at you," writes Miller, "mark the moment with the click of a clicker or a verbal marker (such as the word 'Yes!') and give or toss her a treat. The more frequently the checking-in behavior is reinforced, the more frequently your dog will offer it.

This valuable behavior should be kept fresh with frequent reinforcement, whether that means treats, a quick game with your dog's favorite toy, verbal praise, and/or petting."

Emergency sits and downs — Practice at a short distance (e.g., five or six paces away from you) and gradually increase the distance until he will sit and/or drop to a down immediately on cue, even at a distance.

Reliable recalls

"A fast, reliable recall is worth its weight in gold," says Miller. "Practice, practice, practice. Reinforce, reinforce, reinforce. Use whatever your dog loves best in the world for off-leash recall rewards."

Walk aways — This behavior can be used to cue your dog to quickly turn away from any potential hazard.

"When you want her to actively avoid going near something, you say, 'Walk away!' and move away with her, feeding a jackpot of treats from your hand or tossing treats out in front of her," Miller writes. "It's a fun and dynamic behavior — and because it's unlikely that it has been "poisoned" (associated with a potentially aversive result, making the dog speculative about the cue), it may work more effectively than a recall."

Learning This Cue Is Just as Important for Your Dog as a Good Recall

McConnell advocates first teaching your dog to stop on cue before a recall.

"Asking a dog to stop on a dime might be critical for the dog's safety, and if you think about it, that's a very different exercise than asking a dog to come back to you," she writes.

"Besides being a handy cue, I've learned it is much more effective to ask a dog to stop first before calling him to come back to you, especially if he is moving fast in another direction. Think about it: If a dog is running away from you, in order to come back to you she has to 1) stop, 2) turn around and 3) move toward you. That's three things, right?

I've found it far more effective, especially with dogs who love to run, to teach them first to stop on cue before asking them to do a recall. It's not all that hard to do: Just let your dog get a step or two ahead of you and say "Whoa!" or "Stand" and then reinforce with something ridiculously wonderful. Gradually use the cue when the dog is either 1) farther away from you and 2) moving faster.

Try to keep those 2 components separate as much as you can, and gradually build up to asking the dog to stop while tearing off in another direction. Manage this carefully by setting your dog up to win: Don't yell "Whoa" when your beagle is disappearing into the woods after a rabbit if you haven't gotten full compliance at a much easier level."

Dogs Who Should Never Go Off-Leash

Miller lists three types of canine behaviors that absolutely preclude going off-leash beyond the safety of your own securely fenced backyard:

  1. Strong, uncontrollable predatory behavior
  2. Strong, uncontrollable scent tracking behavior
  3. Aggression toward other dogs or humans

"Unless or until these behaviors are modified and you have trained a superbly reliable recall, you have no business having your dog off-leash anywhere in a public or private place where you might encounter/threaten the safety of others or of your own dog," says Miller.

Make Off-Leash Training and Practicing a Lifelong Pursuit

If your dog is a good candidate to get some occasional off-leash time, it's important throughout his life to regularly practice and positively reinforce off-leash training commands in an enclosed area.