As the sun sets on a warm summer evening, you and your furry friend venture out into the vast open field behind your house.
The grass is tall and swaying, the air is filled with the sound of crickets chirping, and your dog is darting around, nose to the ground, tail wagging with excitement.
Suddenly, your dog looks up at you with a glint in their eye and takes off running, galloping through the tall grass with reckless abandon. You watch in amazement as they bound and leap, chasing after a butterfly or maybe just the wind.
At that moment, you realize that your dog is truly happy. They are free to roam and explore without the constraints of a leash holding them back. And you know that this is exactly what they need.
Off-leash training lets your dog explore freely while remaining safe and under control. It involves teaching basic commands like “come,” “stay,” and “heel.” Off-leash training offers increased exercise and mental stimulation and strengthens the bond between owner and dog. However, there are risks, such as injury or danger from other animals or people. Consider carefully before off-leash training and follow proper training procedures for your pet’s safety.
North America tends to be the country that predominantly focuses on leashing dogs. However, Europe and other parts have a much different approach.
In this article, I will explore the idea of off-leash training your dog, from the pros and cons all the way to the training itself!
Ready? Let’s dive in.
To validate this statement, let’s go back in time.
The dog is an animal that was domesticated by humans between 18,800 and 32,100 years ago. In this process, dogs became our loyal companions, our side-by-side hunters and workers, and a bond was formed that we still benefit from today. Many dog breeds were developed with specific purposes in mind, such as protecting livestock or tracking rabbits.
This leads to dogs being kept independent and off the leash, free to do their duties with the trust that they would remain loyally by our side. From ancient civilizations thousands of years ago to modern rural towns, dogs remained free to make their own choices, knowing they would benefit all.
Then cities came to be, an environment that wasn’t very conducive to keeping dogs, and leashes were a more prevalent sight. The world may have changed, but the dog’s inner instinct certainly did not - which is why pups that can explore off-leash with their owners tend to be happier than those who are not awarded such luxury.
Wes Siler wrote an essay in Outside Magazine called ”Why Dogs Belong Off-Leash in the Outdoors”, providing a slew of evidence to support such a statement. The primary takeaway revolves around dogs developing a much stronger bond and confidence during off-leash romps and the training required, creating a much happier pup.
Some other benefits to off-leash excursions that lead to happier dogs include unrestricted exercise and the mental stimulation and freedom to explore the outdoors.
We can’t always keep up with hyperenergetic dogs, so letting them run ahead and get that energy out is great!
Equally, getting mental stimulation from exploring and sniffing the various outdoor areas does the same great benefit without us needing to stress about keeping up.
However, there is a reason that we keep our pups on a leash (especially for those that live in cities). There are some significant risks to letting your dog off leash that need to be considered and accounted for.
There is no way to, without a shadow of a doubt, be certain your pup won’t get into harm’s way off-leash.
No matter how well-trained your dog is, you cannot control the world around you.
A dog can get spooked and dart into traffic, be bitten by a venomous snake, or be attacked by wildlife. A dog can wander into a dangerous trap or get shot by a hunter in more rural areas.
Next, is that your dog could make other people around you uncomfortable.
Not everyone appreciates an off-leash dog. If your pup is particularly fond of being friendly, they can be a pest to others trying to enjoy the area. This can also ring true for being in the same area as dogs that are reactive and unhappy about seeing other dogs around, especially those romping about without the tether of a leash.
Also, some breeds are simply not good at being off-leash due to their characteristics.
For example, sledding breeds like Siberian huskies tend to be terrible at off-leash romps because of their natural instincts for bolting and being highly independent. These are admired traits in the breed for those that continue using huskies for sledding but make for terrible candidates for off-leash adventures.
Breeds with high prey drive, such as Sighthounds, are another risky type of dog for off-leash training, as these dogs are fast and hyper-motivated to chase. Same with terriers whose instincts to hunt can often override their brain and ears.
Finally, off-leash romps aren’t legal in all areas. Make sure you are versed on the laws of the area you are visiting and only let your dog off their leash in legal spots. Otherwise, you can face some serious fines.
Much like teaching Fido how to walk on a leash, being off-leash is not something your dog naturally understands. Therefore, a training process is involved to ensure that your pup can be off-leash with as little risk as possible.
As much as it may seem counterintuitive to teach your dog to walk on a leash first, this is actually laying the main foundation for off-leash training. As such, before even considering off-leash training, make sure your dog fully understands leash walking.
Part of this actually rolls right into the second step, which is to train basic commands; if your dog understands leash walking, some of these basic commands will already be well-trained. You can then transition your dog to off-leash training with the understanding that there are rules and boundaries to being outside.
Next, you must make sure your dog knows and understands fundamental basic commands that can be the difference between their safety and something bad happening! These commands include:
A recall is a command in which your dog comes to you when called. This is very important as you must ensure you can get your dog back no matter what. Therefore, your dog’s recall should be absolutely solid!
Heeling is when your dog is walking parallel to you with no more than six inches between you. In a proper demonstrative heel, the right side of your dog’s head is lined up with your left leg, but in practical use, as long as the dog is walking with your leg, you’re doing a heel.
The heel teaches your dog not to pull on a leash (when leash training), to walk at your side respectfully, and is great for times when you need to walk your dog in a controlled way. Heeling is a way to make sure your dog walks by your leg when off-leash.
Self-explanatory, but you must make sure you can command your dog to leave wildlife alone, not stick their head in a hole, drop whatever they picked up in their mouth, and more.
Ensuring your dog is motivated to listen to a Leave It or Drop It command is another fundamental training aspect for off-leash work. Plus, these commands are also useful indoors in everyday life!
Another self-explanatory command, asking your dog to stay, that helps you maintain control over your pup’s movement (for their safety). This is a basic useful command to have your dog understand for all walks of life as well.
A unique command, Watch Me tells the dog to look at your face and pay attention. Most average pet owners haven’t heard this one yet because it’s predominantly used in dog shows and dog sporting events. Still, this command is a very beneficial one for off-leash training.
This training mechanism is also frequently used when handling distracting environments, such as other dogs walking around or loud noises. To train Watch Me, just reward your dog with a treat every time they look at you after saying that statement.
Once you have the above training commands down, it is time to practice off-leash walking in a safe environment. Start inside your home and then begin migrating outside.
Regarding practicing outside, it is highly suggested to find a large open space with a fenced enclosure, such as a backyard or farm property (good time to call up friends who have properties!). Here, you can practice with the confidence of knowing your pup cannot go anywhere should they falter to listen.
If you cannot find a large open space that is fenced, practice in a long line. A long line is a massive leash that still allows you emergency control in making sure your dog can’t go too far but is so long and light that your dog will likely not even feel like they are on a leash.
Just like leash training, make the training time fun, engaging, and rewarding for your pup! Validate their good choices and don’t give heed to the bad ones. Practice all of the commands from Step 2 in an outdoor environment.
It’s also a good idea to practice the above commands on a leash in a busy and distracting environment to help protect your dog from potential risks when going off-leash.
If your pup can listen to you well during a very distracting moment, you can be more trusting that they will listen to you in a non-distracting environment.
In the process of training in a controlled environment, remember to consistently reward your dog for staying close to you. You want to validate this behavior, so you don’t need to fret about Fido wandering too far away.
Remember to use high-value treats, so your dog is extra excited about doing good! You will continue encouraging your dog to remain at a proper distance by rewarding the staying close behavior indefinitely through your off-leash adventures.
The final training phase is ensuring your dog understands how to behave if encountering another person or dog on an off-leash trail.
The ideal behavior is to completely ignore the person and/or dog and not approach. This can be challenging if you have a particularly friendly dog, but it’s a necessary endeavor.
The same applies to wildlife, as the goal is to keep your dog from disturbing the natural world on whatever adventure you want.
Using a solid recall command, Watch Me, and Stay are best for getting your dog to ignore people and dogs they may meet. In a successful off-leash excursion, your dog should not approach others they meet.
If you find that your dog isn’t as reliable as you would like (and after a while, there is little to no change), you can consider training on an e-collar. Of course, E-collars are a very controversial training tool because of their potential for abuse and misuse. Still, if used properly, e-collars are not damaging to your pup.
If you set the e-collar to vibrate (most think of this as a shock collar, but you can simply set it to vibrate instead), you can use the e-collar similarly to how you would use the Watch Me command - simply to get your dog’s attention. This could mitigate issues of your dog not being reliable in listening to you.
Before engaging in an e-collar for training, it is best to consult a professional dog trainer to help with this process.
The most difficult part of training your pup off-leash is sorting out when your dog is truly ready to explore the great outdoors with you without a tether.
If you find that your dog is listening to you each time you issue a command in a safe training environment, your pup may be ready for the ultimate test outdoors.
Equally, your dog needs to be good at ignoring wildlife, people, and other dogs they may meet in whatever area you are exploring.