A happy dog - is a happy home...

Safely going off leash

Making the most of being at the beach


The desire is understandable, to be hiking down a trail in the wilderness with your canine companion running along with you, free to chase down every smell. Or maybe, to be racing along the beach shore, chasing the water birds or tasting the surf. Anyone who enjoys the outdoors and has one or more dogs knows the allure to share those moments and allow them to run off-leash and enjoy the freedom.

Knowing your dog's limitations

No amount of training can guarantee against the unexpected. Without a leash, a dog is free to make his own decisions and act on them. For this reason, anyone choosing to allow their dog freedom from a leash must understand the risks and have made an effort to train their dog so as to minimize the risks. One could also argue, there is no guarantee your dog will never accidentally get loose. It happens all the time and for those dogs that are familiar with being off-leash the event may not be a big deal. Whereas, for the dog that never is allowed off-leash, the new found freedom can be intoxicating as they chase every new smell they come accross.

Your dog's breed may also influence how easy it will be to train them to remain with you off-leash. Many breeds were specifically bred to be runners or hunters, thinking independently. Think huskies, sight hounds, scent hounds and retrievers.

Whether off-leash is a good idea or not really boils down to how well you know your dog.

Starting out

Probably the most important attribute to look for is whether your dog is focused on you, will follow you regardless of what else is happening.

Start early, practice often. Always try to do all of your training off-leash. When training any of a number of commands with a leash, the dog learns to respond to subtle cues in the feel or tension in the leash. If you plan to take your dog off-leash, then you want them learning from the start, training cues that are not dependent on a leash.

Begin immediately with a reward system that is not dependent on them seeing a treat in your hand. Your goal from the start is you want them to learn that coming back to you results in something exciting. The key is they never know what to expect.

It goes without saying, training your dog to have perfect recall is an absolute must for going off-leash. When you first start with training recall its acceptable to show them the treat, to lure them back to you with an obvious treat reward. However, once they start to get the idea, start mixing it up with the type of reward. Sometimes it will be a treat, sometimes its excited praise, sometimes its their favorite game. Its important that you keep them guessing. Practice recall often and at unexpected times. Get your dog responding to you no matter what they are doing at that moment because you will make it worth their effort.

The response to recall must always result in a positive experience. Never use your recall command to discipline your dog. Depending on the situation, use a command such as "no" or "leave it" or "quiet" but never recall them and then scold them.

If your dog likes to play fetch this is a perfect opportunity to practice recall. See our discussion on how to use the game of fetch to reinforce the recall command.

How well does your dog walk on a leash? If your dog is more interested in checking out the smells and everything around you as you walk, you will need to devote a lot more effort in training for off-leash. If on the other hand, your dog walks well at your side, totally focused on you as you walk then training for off-leash walking will be a little smoother.

There are several techniques you can use to encourage your dog to pay close attention to you when walking on a leash. Bring along some treats with you. Watch your dog closely as you walk. The moment they look at you, without stopping, praise them and give them a treat. Also, you want to be sure that your dog is following you and not the other way around. Make frequent stops and frequent changes in direction and when you do make sure they follow immediately. With practice this is very effective in getting them to pay attention to you.

Testing the water

A responsible first step is taking your dog to a local dog park. This is a good test of how your dog does around other dogs and people off-leash in a controlled setting.

Pay attention to your dog's body language as they interact with the other dogs. Sniffing with a relaxed posture are good signs. Now is a good time to practice your recall training. Their response needs to be immediate. Be prepared to praise and reward. You don't want them to forget that even in the midst of this stimulating environment, you are the most exciting.

If this is your first trip to the dog park, don't get frustrated if the response is not what you hoped for. In the beginning, try and hit the dog park when its not busy. You may have to do a little reconnaisance ahead of time to know whether early, late or midday are better suited.

This is a training ground, even if no one else is there your dog will be overwhelmed by the scents of other dogs. If your dog plays fetch, be sure to have his favorite toy to chase. Have a pocket full of high value treats. If at first they ignore you, don't tire out your command. Let them run around and explore a bit before trying to recall them. Remember, the bar has been raised for you to appear more exciting. Pay attention to when they may look at you and keep moving around. Moving around makes you unpredictable and will increase they're need to pay attention to you. If they stop and look around for you or look at you, this is the moment to recall them. This is the moment you need to appear more interesting than whatever they were just sniffing.

If you've given it your best shot at being the most exciting spot in the dog park and the recall is not perfect, return to a more isolated place like your backyard and continue to work on recall.

Transition to off-leash

The next step is a transition from a secure location like a dog park to an open setting but with a safety net. Once you think your dog has reliable recall and you are ready to test them off-leash, pick a location that affords some natural security. You want to be away from major roads and other people. Ideally the location may offer natural boundaries, like a shoreline, riverbank or maybe cliff walls that limit the direction your dog can move. Be sure to have an ample supply of a very high value treat but don't over do it. You want to keep them guessing as to when they will get some.


using a long lead for off leash training

Using a long lead for off leash training

Until your dog is very comfortable being off-leash with you, using a Training Lead is recommended. This is a leash that is usually about 20 feet long. They come in longer lengths but too long and it becomes cumbersome for your dog. Using this as a leash, walk your dog to a location where you are away from roads and then let go of the long lead and keep walking. Let your dog drag the lead. The long lead will be easier to catch if you need to secure them.

Continue the same training you used in the dog park. Your goal is to continually reinforce your dog's need to know where you are. Don't let them get to far away. Move unpredictably and recall and reward them when they return to you.

Incorporate games your dog loves to play during off-leash walks. This is a good time to have your dog's favorite tug rope or a ball. Wait for the moment they look to see where you are and then recall them. When they arrive, greet them with excited praise and then reward them with their favorite game. Fetch off-leash is an ideal time to work on recall in a setting that is maximally distracting.

After many off-leash outings using the long lead you can decide whether your dog is ready to be completely off-leash. Only you can know when the time arrives.