Right now, my girlfriend and I are busy turning our 15-week-old puppy from a tiny ball of furry terror into a trustworthy adventure companion. And a big part of that is making Bowie reliable off-leash. Here’s how we’re doing that—and how you can, too, no matter your dog’s age.
(Why do dogs belong off-leash outdoors? I’ve previously spelled that out in detail.)
When Is It Appropriate to Go Off-Leash?
Let’s clarify that we’re talking about taking your dog off-leash in the outdoors, while hiking and camping, and in places where it’s legal to do so and that aren’t crowded. Use a leash anywhere your dog may be at risk from traffic.
We live in Los Angeles, so like most city dwellers, most of our walks involve city streets. So, to practice off-leash, we head to a nearby park that encompasses several miles of hiking trails, and which allows dogs to go leash-free. Even there, we seek out the least-used trail and visit first thing in the morning and last thing at night, at times when virtually no one else is around. That trail runs up the spine of a steep ridge, limiting the distance that a dog can stray off-trail. Even with all that working in our favor, we’re still taking the pup off his leash only for short periods and only when he’s demonstrating attentiveness.
The idea here is training, not just letting your dog run around unsupervised. Like any training session, you’ll benefit from teaching your dog to walk off-leash in the most distraction-free environment possible (at least to start), keeping sessions short, making them positive, and setting up your dog for success.
What Should You Expect from an Off-Leash Dog?
One thing we’re benefiting from while training this puppy is that we already have an exceptionally well-behaved adult dog. Like humans, puppies can learn by emulating another dog’s behavior.
Wiley’s a good role model for going off-leash because he comes when he’s called, doesn’t stray far from us, knows to stay on the trail, and is calm and friendly around other animals and humans. That’s the off-leash dog you should be setting out to create.
Achieving that isn’t an overnight process, but rather an iterative development in which the dog’s behavior and reliability will improve incrementally over months and years. Adopting a dog is a lifelong commitment, one that involves a huge payoff but also requires a ton of patience. Before Wiley was a dog I could utterly rely on, he was one that, if I let him, would chase other dogs unchecked and chase wild animals and their scents uncontrollably, and his curiosity put him in dangerous situations multiple times. You can’t expect to skip through those phases of development. Instead, seek to control and limit them, and use them as learning experiences both for you and the dog.
Taking a dog off-leash in the outdoors isn’t just a case of letting the dog choose its own adventure. You, the owner, need to remain not only aware of your dog’s location and what they’re up to, but also in control of their behavior. The City of Boulder, Colorado’s Voice and Sight program for licensing off-leash dogs is great guidance. As the name suggests, an off-leash dog should remain as much under your control as it would be on-leash.
The Training Process
The process of training a dog is easy. The level of consistency and patience it requires is hard.
The foundation of training a dog to go off-leash is, obviously, the recall. To teach that, you call your dog and give it a treat when it comes. To maximize the effectiveness, use a single, clear command for “come” that you don’t mix with any other commands, and make sure you mark the desired behavior with immediate reinforcement the instant the dog comes to you.
This positive reinforcement is the cornerstone of dog training, but you shouldn’t confuse the approach with simply showering your dog with praise and treats. Rather, the positive reinforcement approach should revolve around teaching your dog that nothing in life is free. If they want something, they need to do something for it.
Start small and work up. In a safe, distraction-free environment, start doing short, 60-second sessions of calling your dog and rewarding it. As their attention span and comprehension of what you want increases, also increase the duration of training sessions, add in more diverse commands, and practice in more complex environments and over longer distances. Eventually you’ll be pretty confident having your dog off-leash more often, but you should continue to bake training into your walks and other activities, simply by practicing and rewarding the commands. Yeah, your pockets are going to smell like boiled chicken; get used to it.
One thing a lot of new dog owners miss about training the recall is that “come” always needs to be a positive thing for the dog. They shouldn’t associate it with an end to a fun play session (play should include coming) or getting back into the car after an afternoon in the woods (walks should include coming). “Come” should only ever mean reward and praise. Take special care to make sure “come” never comes to mean punishment.
What do you do if your dog doesn’t come while you’re training it? Catch the dog, put it on the leash, and move on to other activities. Revisit training another time.
The other big factor in building a reliable off-leash dog is socialization. Is your dog confident in diverse environments and situations? Is it friendly with other dogs, animals, and humans? Is it confident enough not to get scared and run off? Socialization is the key to all this, and it is possible to socialize an older rescue dog.
There’s obviously more to walking off-leash than being nice to other dogs and coming when called. Learning to handle all those extra factors—staying on-trail, not eating horse poop, staying within a certain distance, etc.—are all just a case of practice. You and your dog will get there through “no,” “come,” “sit,” “good dog,” and whatever else you choose to learn and practice. Start small, be patient, and never give up.
Taking Your Off-Leash Dog into the Real World
I think the scariest moment I ever had with Wiley was during a backpacking trip, when, without fully thinking it through, I took a half-decomposed bighorn sheep leg (gross!) out of his mouth and chucked it off a cliff. At six months old, Wiley thought it was a game and gave chase, nearly jumping into a chasm that was hundreds of feet deep. I caught his tail just in time.
There is no approach to building an off-leash companion that will not involve some risk, some hairy moments, and probably even some cuts and scrapes—probably to you, as you chase your dog through brush, trying to get it off the scent of a rabbit. Limit the risk by taking your dog off-leash in environments that fit its reliability, and always be prepared to instantly render any situation safe.
Your relationship with your dog is based on trust, and trust is something that develops with experience. By allowing your dog to fully realize its potential, make decisions for itself, and interact with its environment on its own terms, you’re displaying an immense amount of trust in your dog. If you get this right, your dog will, in turn, trust you immensely. At that point, you won’t need a leash when your bring your dog along on adventures.
Start small, create situations in which your dog will be successful, and scale the difficulty and risk levels over time, as appropriate to your dog’s development. Building a reliable off-leash dog will take years of work, but it’s worth it. To me, having an off-leash companion in the outdoors is the whole point of having a dog.