How to Train Your Dog for Off-Leash Walks

What you - and your dog! - should know before taking an off-leash walk or hike.

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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. And adequate exercise can be a huge factor in the success of behavior modification programs.

But taking a dog for a walk or hike off-leash must be done appropriately and legally in order to prevent any number of risks to the dog, other dogs, or humans who may encounter the off-leash dog, as well as livestock or wildlife in the area. 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.

Readers of WDJ will likely appreciate another hazard of off-leash dogs: The unfettered approach of an off-leash dog can trigger all sorts of behavioral issues in dogs who are being walked on-leash. Service dogs, for example, should never have to be distracted by, much less defend themselves or their human partners against an incursion by an off-leash dog (whether its exuberantly friendly or attacking!). Dogs who are anxious about, terrified by, or even offensively aggressive to other dogs and are being treated for these behaviors can suffer long-lasting or even permanent behavioral setbacks following even just one untimely, uncontrolled approach by a loose dog.

Mandatory Prerequisites for Off-Leash Dog Walking

We assume that you, as a caring, responsible dog owner, are as concerned about the safety and well being of other dogs as much as your own. Before you even think about taking your dog off-leash anywhere other than your own safely fenced yard, you should be able to accomplish the following prerequisites.

■ Know your own dog’s personality and temperament well. Your dog must be dog-friendly and human-friendly if you are going to take her off-leash anywhere. There is too much risk, and too much to lose, if your dog attacks another dog or bites a human.

■ Teach an excellent recall. You must be able to call your dog back from any temptation – wildlife, small children, grannies with walkers, other dogs, etc. Even if she is dog-friendly, there may be other dogs who don’t appreciate her attentions. And – heaven forbid she chases a cow or deer deep into the woods, never to be seen again. Note that in some places, it is legal for anyone to shoot a dog that is chasing livestock or wildlife.

For more information about teaching a fast, reliable recall, see Whole Dog Journal‘s articles on this topic by three different trainer/authors in the September 2015, September 2014, and September 2012 issues.

■ Know and obey leash laws. Regardless of how friendly and well-trained your dog is, you must obey local leash and control laws. The consequences of any incident that might occur are greatly magnified if you’re in violation of local animal control laws. Make sure your dog is currently licensed and wearing her tag!

■ Learn about the hazards in your potential off-leash hiking areas (and how to avoid or combat them) before you take off your dog’s leash there! We wouldn’t suggest taking off your dog’s leash in any place you hadn’t been before, unless you are with another dog person who is familiar with all the potential hazards and can alert you to them ahead of time.

Before the leashes come off, you should know what, if any, potentially dangerous conditions are present in that location. A few of the possibilities include things such as:

  • 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.

If you are aware of these hazards, you can proactively prevent your dog from going near them, or respond quickly and effectively if a potentially dangerous encounter happens despite your best efforts.

Which Dogs Should NEVER Go Off-Leash?

There are a few canine behaviors that absolutely preclude off-leash options for your dog, other than your own safely fenced yard, including:

  • Strong, uncontrollable predatory behavior
  • Strong, uncontrollable scent-tracking behavior
  • 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.

Sample Leash Laws

bird nesting leash laws

Most state laws have some form of dog control laws that prohibit an owner from allowing a dog to “run at large.” In addition to state control laws, counties and local municipalities are also free to pass more restrictive leash law ordinances – and many do. Know your local laws – and obey them! Here are some examples:

State of Delaware: No dog shall be permitted to run at large at any time, unless the dog is accompanied by the owner or custodian and under the owner’s or custodian’s reasonable control and is licensed in accordance with county ordinances. (Note: This is a “control” law; the dog does not have to be leashed, but must be under the owner’s/ custodian’s immediate control.)

Marin County, California: Dogs shall at all times be kept under the immediate control and direction of a competent, responsible person who is capable of controlling such an animal. Any dog which is not subject to such control and direction may be seized and impounded. (Again, this is a “control” law, it does not state that the dog has to be on a leash. However, most of the cities within Marin County have actual leash laws.)

Alachua County, Florida: A dog owner has a duty under Section 72.12 to maintain “physical control” of the dog when the dog is off the owner’s property. “Off the owner’s property” includes streets, parks, public property, and private property of others. Physical control means immediate and continuous control through the use of a leash or continuous control through the use of an enclosure. (This is an actual county-wide leash law.)

New York City: A person who owns or controls a dog may not allow it to be in any public place or in any open or unfenced field abutting a public place, unless the dog is effectively restrained by a leash or chain no more than six feet long. (This is a city leash law.)

You can find your local ordinances online on government websites, and/or ask your local animal control agency for a copy of local animal control laws.

Things to Teach Your Dog for Off-Leash Reliability

It’s not enough, however, to have a friendly and well-trained dog; you need to keep your dog’s responses to your cues sharp and fresh. Here are things to practice regularly so she doesn’t lose her edge:

Regular, automatic check-ins.

Your off-leash dog should stay fairly close to you, and frequently turn back toward you, or, better yet, return all the way to you – all without being prompted to do so.

Anytime you notice your dog turning toward you and/or looking at you, 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.

On the trail, you can encourage your dog to stay close to you and keep glancing back toward you by paying close attention to her and marking/reinforcing her check-ins.

Another game you can play to encourage your dog to keep an eye on you is to occasionally step behind a tree or duck behind a boulder on the trail; when she glances back and doesn’t see you, she will likely turn and run back toward you to locate you. Don’t make it difficult to find you; you don’t want her to race past you in a panic! Instead, as you hear her approach, you can step out of hiding and throw an enthusiastic reward party! Note that this should be a fun game, not something that makes her anxious. Skip this game if your dog suffers from separation anxiety or gets panicky if you step out of her sight.

You can also do unannounced U-turns and playful changes of pace – breaking into a jog or even taking off in a little sprint. Most dogs will respond to these behaviors by speeding to find or catch up with you. When your dog does this, reinforce her well with high-value treats and/or preferred play.

Emergency sits and downs.

These can sometimes work better than a recall in an emergency. Practice at a short distance (perhaps five or six paces away from you) and gradually cue her for these behaviors at greater and greater distances, until she 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. Practice, practice, practice. Reinforce, reinforce, reinforce. Use whatever your dog loves best in the world for off-leash recall rewards.

Walk Aways.

My new favorite! The Walk Away behavior can be used to cue your dog to quickly turn away from any potential hazard you (or she!) just noticed. When you want your dog 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. 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.

off-leash dog walking

Here are some situations where Walk Away could be used:

  • You see your water-loving dog running toward a pond that is covered with a dangerously thin sheet of ice. Say “Walk away!” and when she swivels her head toward you, run away to encourage her to run after you, away from the pond. When she reaches you toss treats on the ground or feed from your hand and throw a happy party. Good dog!
  • A horseback rider appears around a bend in the trail just 20 feet away. Your dog perks up and starts to move forward. You say “Walk away!” and when her head swivels toward you, step off the path and feed treats from your hand as she follows you. If necessary, continue to feed treats until the horse is well past.

I provide step-by-step instructions on teaching this behavior in the September 2018 issue.

In Case of A Dog Attacking YOU

I’ve heard a disturbing number of reports in recent months from clients who were walking their dogs on-leash in areas where dogs are legally required to be on-leash, when their dogs were attacked by loose dogs. In most cases, the attackers were either dogs who were walking off-leash with their humans or dogs who charged off of their own properties at passers-by. But sadly, I have also heard about these incidents happening in places where it is legal to have your dog off-leash – dog parks, for example, private fenced yards, playgroups, open space areas where dogs are allowed off-leash, and jurisdictions that don’t have leash laws.

It pays to be armed and ready if you take your dog anywhere – on-leash or off – both to be able to prevent encounters as well as break up a fight if one occurs. Of course, prevention is the much-preferred option! These are all things you do before the other dog gets close enough to make contact:

1. Be an assertive advocate for your dog. If you see someone with an inappropriately off-leash dog headed your way, loudly (but not angrily) call out, “Please put your dog on a leash!” If you get the “It’s okay, he’s friendly” response, answer, “Mine’s not!” (Even if she is.) This might work. And it might not. Be prepared.

2. Use a noise aversive. Potential noise aversives include a marine air horn, a loud whistle (my favorite is the Storm Whistle), loud hand-clapping, or a variety of party-favor style noisemakers. With any of these, as with other suggested aversives, be sure to condition your dog to the sound first, so you don’t scare her in the process.

3. Use a visual aversive. A pop-open umbrella may effectively startle an approaching dog who is getting close (remember to condition your own dog to love the umbrella first!). A loud “Go home!” accompanied by an angry face and arm motions also might work for an unaccompanied dog who charges off his property.

4. Block with a physical barrier. You can block an approaching dog by stepping in front of yours, using your own body as a visual/physical barrier. Alternatively, you can teach your own dog a “get behind” cue so you can ask her to step behind you. Keep an eye out for natural barriers the two of you can get behind (or on!) – cars, trees, garbage cans, fences.

Too Close for Comfort

When all else fails and the other dog is clearly going to make contact, all bets are off, and force-free/pain-free goes out the window. The following are products that you can use to deter an approaching dog (they are obviously never to be used on your own dog!), and that I would never recommend for any other purpose: SprayShield Animal Deterrent (citronella spray) may be effective, and the Pet Corrector shoots out compressed air while making a hissing noise. Carry a stout stick, and don’t hesitate to use it if necessary.

Transitioning from On- to Off-Leash

Once you are certain that you and your dog possess the basic prerequisites for off-leash walking (you know your dog well, she has a reliable recall, you know the local leash laws, and you are aware of the potential hazards in your walking destination), and you are equally certain that she poses no danger to anyone else, you are ready to introduce her to off-leash hiking.

How you begin depends on your dog and her level of energy and excitement on the trail. Mature dogs and inexperienced puppies may be inclined to stay close to you regardless of their energy levels and can be let off-leash right away. In contrast, if you have an athletic eager beaver, and her enthusiasm may carry her too far from you too quickly, begin the walk with her on-leash, at least until some until her raw energy has dissipated a bit. Reward her amply for checking in. Practice Walk Away a time or two.

When your dog has demonstrated that she’s listening and responsive to you, quietly unsnap the leash and continue walking as before – rewarding her for checking in and occasionally practicing a recall or Walk Away.

Continue to pay close attention to how your dog responds to the environment and other people and animals. If she begins to get overstimulated, paying less attention to you and a little too much attention to those ducks in that nearby pond, take the next opportunity to reward her for checking in or coming to you, and cheerfully snap the leash back on for a little while.

Keep the on-leash experience very positive and let her off-leash again as soon as she has calmed down and is once again responsive to your cues; you don’t want her to think that every time she comes back to you she might be put on leash for the rest of the walk. To that end, make sure every time you leash her you are happy, using a cheerful tone of voice, and delivering lots of reinforcement.

Do NOT Do These Things with Off-Leash Dogs

While there are a number of things that should be practiced at least once during every off-leash walk, there are also things that you shouldn’t do while walking your dog off-leash.

Focus on your mobile phone. Your dog is your first and primary responsibility. If you must answer your phone, keep the conversation short and keep your eyes on your dog at all times. No texting, no Googling, no game-playing.

Socialize and fail to closely monitor your dog.Your dog is your first and primary responsibility. Keep your eyes on your dog at all times, even if you are chatting with other dog owners or hikers.

Ignore hazards. Do not fail to take action to prevent a potentially dangerous encounter. If you see a bicyclist, horse, another dog, a frozen pond, or some other attraction in the distance, call your dog to you and keep her safely secured until the hazard has passed.

Off-Leash Walking is the Best!

There are few activities more rewarding and enjoyable for you and your dog than a long off-leash hike in the woods, up and down hills, through meadows, across beaches, and anywhere else that the two of you can enjoy the natural world at its best and your dog gets to just be a dog. Conversely, there are few experiences more traumatic than losing your dog – either because she runs off, gets gravely injured, or is impounded after attacking someone else’s dog. If you use common sense about whether, when, where, and how to allow your dog off-leash, and always remember that your dog is your first and primary responsibility when you are out and about with her, you should be able to enjoy her company for many outings to come.

Author Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT‑KA, is WDJ’s Training Editor. She lives in Fairplay, Maryland, site of her Peaceable Paws training center. Miller’s newest book is Beware of the Dog: Positive Solutions for Aggressive Behavior in Dogs.

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