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Off-leash dog training is easy if you follow these 5 tips

These tips will make this process smoother

a yellow labrador holds a blue leash in their mouth and looks off to the side
Jaromir Chalabala / Shutterstock

We’re going out on a limb here, but it’s safe to say that if you’ve ever caught the look on a dog’s face when he’s running off leash at the dog park, you’ve caught a glimpse of what pure bliss looks like.

As a pet parent, it’s only natural to want to see that expression more often. And, without disparaging the leashed walk around the neighborhood, your dog would probably tell you he’d prefer being off leash more often. Is that possible, given local leash laws and all the mischief your untethered pet can get himself into? Perhaps, if he is well trained.

Wondering how to train your dog to walk off leash? Here are five tips for off-leash dog training.

red jacket and brown dog on hike
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Make sure your dog can handle the experience safely

You can’t always trust children to control their excitement in a candy store, and likewise, not all dogs should be expected to behave themselves off leash. As a dog owner, you need to know your dog’s personality well so you can accurately assess whether off-leash training is a good idea.

Your dog might not ever be reliable off leash if:

  • He likes to chase things, like small animals or cars.
  • He is fearful and runs away when he is frightened.
  • He tends to follow his nose wherever it leads him.
A black and tan Cavalier King Charles Spaniel sits by his owner and follows obedience commands
Page Light Studios / Shutterstock

Make sure he knows and obeys basic commands

Since keeping your dog on a leash is one way of keeping him safe whenever he’s outside, it’s important he not only knows these basic commands but also responds to them immediately whenever they are given:

  • Heel. A compliant dog will walk in step beside you — not ahead or behind — when given this command.
  • Come. You’re really saying “come here to me this instant” and not “hey, when you get a minute….”
  • Leave it. This is important when your dog decides to investigate something he shouldn’t, like a snake or chocolate.
  • Look. It’s for when you need to get your dog’s attention by looking directly at you.
  • Stay. This command asks your dog to remain stationary where you’ve placed him until you tell him it’s okay to move.
Dog in Yosemite National Park on a rock
Genaker / Shutterstock

Practice makes perfect

The best way to know for sure if your dog will obey your command when he’s off leash is by practicing in a protected environment first. If he’s compliant on a standard 4- to 6-foot leash, graduate to a longer 15- to 30-foot leash to see how he behaves.

Once he’s proven himself with the additional freedom, try him off leash in a small enclosed area, such as a fenced-in yard or dog park. Add in distractions intentionally, like other dogs, rambunctious kids, and smelly treats. Practice until, no matter what, your dog heeds your command in any situation.

puppy learning to heel
tinyowl7 / Shutterstock

Always use positive reinforcement

As with all training, positive reinforcement works best. Keep his favorite treat in your pocket as a reward when he obeys on command. Use lots of praise. Negative reinforcement, such as yelling or striking, only creates fear and distrust. In an emergency, you want your dog to come to you immediately and not run away for fear of being punished. If he believes there is value in following your direction, he is more likely to obey whether he is on or off leash.

A woman sits on a park bench and pets her dog
Samson Katt / Pexels

Use your best judgment

Naturally, there are certain times when it just isn’t appropriate to allow your dog off leash:

  • In crowds. Even if your dog is the most mild-mannered pup on the planet, some people are fearful. Keeping your dog on a leash reassures them that he is under your control.
  • In traffic. Loud and unfamiliar noises can create fear and anxiety for even the most obedient pet.
  • When the law demands. Learn the leash laws and follow them. Not only do violations carry hefty fines and/or citations in some areas, but following the law also demonstrates that you are a responsible pet owner who has respect for others in your community.
A small golden puppy runs across a yard
Cristian Castillo / Unsplash

At what age do you start off-leash training?

Because you want a really solid training foundation, you shouldn’t begin this journey too early. Wait until after your beastie has a really firm grasp on those basic commands, especially come, which is essential for off-leash fun. We recommend working on off-leash play at 6 to 8 months, though it will depend on the individual animal.
Even if you practice frequently, it could still take a few months to work up to fully off leash in an open area. Never move a pup to the next step before they’re ready. Also, don’t get discouraged if your buddy runs off the second he thinks he’s free. Many youngsters struggle with impulsivity, which will decrease with age and training.

For safety’s sake, always keep a leash at hand and watch your dog’s body language closely. Even the most compliant dog can get startled, become fearful, or decide to chase something random at a moment’s notice, especially in new or unfamiliar surroundings. With patience, practice, and the use of good judgment, off-leash adventures can be rewarding and memorable for both you and your pet.

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