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How to accomplish off leash dog training

The essentials

  • There are benefits and risks to letting dogs off-leash — While socialization and exercise are perks, unleashing your dog could also lead to potential dangers like getting hit by a car or encountering a wild animal. 
  • Start in an enclosed area — Before letting your dog off-leash, train them in an enclosed space like a fenced-in yard or dog park.
  • Always make sure off-leash dogs have proper tags — Identification tags and/or a GPS tracker on your pup’s collar increase the chance of them returning home safely in the event they take off.

It’s every dog owner’s dream for their furry friend to walk alongside them without the restriction of a leash, blissfully ignoring all the squirrels and bikers you pass along the way. Unfortunately, dogs don’t speak the same language as you, so telling them they better stay close doesn’t exactly translate. 

Instead, you’ll have to undergo off-leash dog training. As with any dog training method, a whole lot of patience and consistency will be necessary to best ensure your pup’s safety as you grant them this newfound freedom.

👉 Want an extra hand in your off-leash training? You can search for professional dog trainers near you and set up a consultation on the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT) website.

Benefits of off-leash dog training

You may be asking yourself if letting your dog off the leash is even necessary. What was the point of all that time you spent leash training if now they get to run amok? For starters, you’ll have to consider what this practice entails. 

As the name suggests, off-leash dog training is teaching your dog to move around an unenclosed area without a leash clipped to them. This frees them up for all sorts of rewarding activities that can’t be achieved when leashed.

  • Socialization. Without a leash, your dog can run and play with fellow off-leash dogs. Socialization can increase joy and reduce behavioral problems in dogs, as well as teach them the boundaries of playtime with other pets.
  • Stimulation. Once you unclip them, your dog will also be able to explore new smells that stimulate them mentally. Our furry friends have up to 300 million scent receptors, so this is a particularly pleasing activity for them.
  • Exercise. No matter how much you try to keep up with your dog while they run on a leash, you’ll always be holding them back a little. Many pups are exceptionally fast and agile and move best when unrestricted.
  • Space. Teaching your dog to explore off-leash can also be beneficial to apartment-dwellers who don’t have access to an enclosed yard for their pup to play in.
  • Bonding. Off-leash training itself can be beneficial too, as it creates a strong bond between dogs and their owners.

Risks of off-leash dog training

Of course, there are obvious risks associated with letting your canine pal off-leash. “Some of the most common injuries veterinarians treat are due to dogs being off-leash,” says veterinarian Dr. Dwight Alleyne. “So if you plan to train your dog to be off-leash, it is highly recommended a pet insurance policy is purchased.” 

Owners will want to familiarize themselves with everything that can go wrong before deciding to let their best friend run free.

  • Running away. If your dog wanders off too far, they are at risk of getting lost. Once they are no longer supervised, you won’t have any control over the dangers they’re exposed to, like wild animals, toxic foods, or inclement weather.
  • Injury. By letting your dog off-leash, you’re also putting them at risk of serious injury. “Some of the most common risks with letting dogs go off-leash include being hit by vehicles and dog fights,” says Dr. Alleyne.
  • Prey drive. Many dogs like foxhounds, English pointers, labrador retrievers, and boxers have a strong prey drive due to their origins as hunters. These types of breeds may have an instinct to take off after squirrels and other critters you encounter in your off-leash travels.
  • Noises. There are a lot of sounds that will be out of your control when your dog is off-leash, such as a truck backing up or a train going by. If your dog gets scared or stressed easily, they may run away to escape these loud noises.

Leash laws in your area

Another consideration before letting your dog off-leash is whether or not it’s allowed in the area you’re planning on doing it. In addition to your obligation to keep your dog safe, you also have to keep your community safe and be respectful. Most parks, hiking trails, or campsites will have signage or online information pointing to their policies.

Pet ownership laws vary in the United States from place to place, but generally speaking, most states require an owner to be present when in an off-leash-sanctioned area and that the dog wears tags that display proof of rabies and/or other vaccinations.

Determining if your dog is ready to go off-leash

Before you begin your first off-leash dog training session, you’ll want to make sure your dog is up for the task. To do so, you’ll have to take into account where you stand with previous training, their temperament, and medical history. 

Here’s a checklist to get you started:

  • Your dog is fully up to date on vaccinations and preventatives.
  • Your dog is spayed or neutered.
  • Your dog is microchipped.
  • Your dog has completed a basic obedience program, including leash training.
  • Your dog has experience socializing with other dogs.
  • Your dog responds reliably when you call them.
  • Your dog has good impulse control and doesn’t take off after other animals or objects.
  • Your dog has never run away from home.
  • You are familiar with leash laws in your neighborhood.

How to train your dog to go off-leash

Teaching your dog to be off-leash is considered an advanced method of training. But much like potty training, it becomes a lot less daunting over time if you’re patient and keep at it consistently. If you need to take a step back to ensure your pup is getting it down right, doing so will only keep them and others protected in the long run.

1. Take advantage of basic obedience training

Whether you’ve done group classes, private lessons, or trained on your own, the work you’ve already put into teaching your dog basic obedience has laid the groundwork to make off-leash training a lot easier. Before letting your dog run free, be sure to nail down these essential cues either with voice commands or a clicker.

  • Sit. Getting your dog to stop what they are doing and sit down “resets” them, so to speak, which allows you to redirect them away from trouble.
  • Stay. Keep your dog from running off by mastering the “stay” command ahead of letting them off-leash.
  • Leave it/Drop it. Always start with a “leave it” command when trying to stop your dog from picking up something they shouldn’t, then use a “drop it” cue as a last resort if they do it anyway.
  • Come. Perhaps one of the most important parts of off-leash dog training is making sure your dog comes to you when they’re called, no matter what. A long training leash can be extremely beneficial for recall training. While typical ones are 30 feet, they go as high as 200.

2. Use treats for motivation

If you want your dog to stay focused during your off-leash training, you may have to up the ante. Treats go a long way in getting your furry friend’s attention. Start with high-value treats like “people food” or pungent commercial dog treats. As they get better at each command, you can slowly transition away from high-value treats to lower-calorie ones or excessive praise.

The goal is for your dog to listen to you while off-leash the same way they do when they’re on the leash or at home. If you find yourself having to consistently “bribe” your pup to get them to do what you want, you’re not quite there yet.

3. Teach “emergency” commands

Think of an emergency command as a last resort when your dog is heading towards certain trouble like the street or a dead animal. After your dog has begun successfully responding to the basic commands listed above without the reward of high-value treats, you’ll want to retrain them to do the same moves but with a different cue word (ideally one they don’t hear often), or a new sound like a sharp whistle. Only this time, you won’t wean them off the high-value treats.

Your dog must know that every time they respond to these emergency cues, they will get a big prize. This is especially important for recall training. If your dog isn’t responding to regular recall, you must have an emergency recall command in your back pocket to save them from dicey situations.

4. Start in an enclosed space

Think of letting your dog off-leash in a park or on a hike as the “big leagues.” Before they go pro, they’ll first have to prove themselves in the “minors,” AKA a fenced-in yard or other enclosed space. If you are a city resident and don’t have access to one, try training them in the dog park when it isn’t crowded so they don’t get distracted easily. Practicing in a secure outdoor space leaves room for error while you’re still nailing down commands.

As your dog improves in this setting, you should add more obstacles and distractions to strengthen their focus on you. Another training technique is to ask your neighbor to come pass through the yard and see if you can get your dog to ignore them. You can also try scattering some enticing (but safe) objects or toys on the ground and practice the “leave it” command. The better they do in a controlled setting, the better they’ll do in public.

5. Going off-leash in uncontrolled settings

When you feel your best friend is ready to conquer the great unenclosed outdoors, you’ll want to keep initial off-leash sessions short. The more your dog proves their ability to be off-leash in brief periods, the longer you can extend their off-leash time. Here are some areas you might consider for your first time unclipping your furbaby:

  • Hiking trail. If you find a wooded hike that allows dogs off-leash, it may be a good place to start, as dogs will typically want to stay on the trail to track scents. That said, you may also be surrounded by wildlife, so exercise extreme caution and be ready to put their leash back on if you encounter other animals or hikers. Make sure they’re up to date on their distemper shots, as well as flea and tick preventatives.
  • Field. An open field is also a good place to experiment as you’ll likely be able to keep eyes on your dog wherever they go. This also gives them more room for a zoomies burst. Fields are a good space to practice with a long lead as well since there will likely be few trees or bushes for the leash to get caught on.
  • Small parks. Before bringing your dog to a big park with tons of dogs, kids, and bikers zipping around, you can seek out a small, nearly empty park to dip your pup’s paws in. The less distractions you have the first time letting your dog off-leash, the better. Then you can ease into more active environments.

6. Check-in regularly

As with all dog training, you’re never fully finished. Be prepared to continue implementing these techniques even after your dog has demonstrated an ability to be trusted off-leash. Make it a point to regularly call them over and give them a treat. Put them in a sit, ask them to lie down, or tell them to stay even if they’re not heading towards anything bad.

The more often you reinforce good habits, the more they become ingrained in your dog. Likewise, you need to always be vigilant and on the lookout for potential threats in the vicinity.

👉 Training methods that focus on rewards and praise have proven to be far more effective than outdated fear-based tactics or punishment. You want your dog to have a positive association with being off-leash, otherwise they will grow anxious and possibly run off when given the chance.

What to do if your dog takes off

Every dog parent’s worst fear is their canine companion getting lost. Just reading this probably conjures a little anxiety, but it’s important to know what to do in the event your dog is starting to get away.

Remain calm — This first step is probably the hardest. If your dog is getting away, it’s natural to panic, but doing so can scare your dog and prompt them to keep going.

Get their attention — Another instinct you may have is to chase after your dog, but they might interpret this as part of a game and start running even faster. Instead, try to get their attention with a high-value treat or toy. If you don’t have any on you, pick up a stick or handful of grass and pretend it’s a treat.

Go in the opposite direction — Once they look at you, start moving in the opposite direction and call their name. This will hopefully entice them to come over to you.

Approach them while ignoring them — If the above tactic doesn’t work, you can try approaching them without looking at them. The attention is validating their behavior, so pretending you don’t see them might prompt them to run up to you and get back on your radar.

Whether you’re nervous about letting your dog off-leash or eager to do it, it’s important to take the necessary steps to set this important member of your family up for success. Most dogs are household pets, after all, so exploring the outside world will be an adjustment. When it comes to unclipping your dog’s leash, safety for your pup and others in your community should always be the utmost priority. As long as you build a strong foundation with your dog ahead of time, you can feel more comfortable granting your dog this freedom regularly.

Frequently asked questions

How do I know my dog is ready to be off-leash?

Before letting your dog off-leash, they should have demonstrated a high level of obedience, have strong recall and impulse control, understand basic commands, and have an ability to stay focused on you in an enclosed outdoor space.

What do I do if my dog starts running away?

If your dog starts running away, don’t panic as it will only likely stress your dog out more. Instead of chasing after them, grab their attention with a treat or toy, then start moving in the other direction when they look at you. This will hopefully entice them to follow after you.

How do you teach a dog to be off-leash?

When off-leash dog training, start in an enclosed area and use high-value treats to maintain their focus. You also use a long leash while you work on recall and other commands like “leave it” and “stay.” Add more distractions over time to make it more challenging to them.

What do I do if my dog has zoomies on leash?

If your dog has the zoomies while they’re leashed, they likely have a burst of energy and want to run free. But it is important not to let them off-leash unless they’ve been trained properly. You have no control over how far they’ll run off, especially if they have the zoomies. Instead, try to redirect them with a toy, or toss treats on the ground to give them something else to focus on.

Can a puppy go off-leash?

You should wait until your puppy is at least one year old before letting them off-leash, which would technically make them a young adult dog. What’s more important than age is training experience, so make sure your puppy or young dog has demonstrated good behavior when off-leash in other scenarios, like in the yard or at daycare. Another thing to consider is that puppies have underdeveloped immune systems, so you’ll want to exercise caution before exposing them to environments where they can be exposed to potential illness triggers.