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Training tips: When can a dog be off leash?

I’m hoping to start a discussion about when it’s OK to allow a dog off leash.

When I chose my dog Ace, it did not matter to me if he could ever be trusted off leash or not. It just wasn’t something I thought about.

However, the day after we adopted Ace my husband walked through the door with our dog and announced, “He plays fetch!”

Josh had discovered our dog’s tennis ball obsession, and within a few days we realized this dog will not go anywhere if there’s a ball around. From there I started working with my dog on the basic commands, including coming when called, to reinforce what he already did naturally – stay close.

My dog Ace gets to be off leash

Today I can trust Ace off leash in nearly every scenario. He’s almost always on a leash just in case, but I know if I remove the leash he won’t run away.

I’ve called my dog to me while he was in mid chase after a jack rabbit in the country, and he actually came back immediately. I was shocked and quickly rewarded him by tossing the nearest stick while also yelling “Woo! Yeah, Ace! Such a good boy!” He forgot about the rabbit, because sticks are just as fun!

So, my questions are:

1. How do you know when a dog can be trusted off leash, if ever?

2. What steps do you take to reach that point?

For me, it’s something like this:

1. Lots of general obedience – sit, stay, come – in short sessions every single day.

2. Establishing a good relationship – lots of play, trust, warm eye contact and training in a fun way.

3. Lots of training on a 50-foot rope (wear gloves!). If the dog doesn’t come when called 99 percent of the time on the long lead, then I definitely wouldn’t remove that lead.

4. Use the dog park as an off-leash test.

5. Allow the dog to drag a 6-foot leash around a bit while you work on more training (don’t do this at the dog park though). A Flexi leash can even come in handy at this stage (I know, I said it!) to practice what “off leash” might be like.

6. Consider the individual dog – his scent drive, prey drive, willingness to please, willingness to be with his pack or his person.

7. Toy drive is a huge factor. If the dog is nuts over a toy or food, he’s more likely to stick around.

So, how about the rest of you? How do you decide when a dog can be trusted off leash?

Related posts:

Off-leash hiking with your dog

How to train your dog to be off leash


Monday 12th of September 2016

Sorry meant "ignores treats" and "exercising in an ENCLOSED area"


Monday 12th of September 2016

It's a bit confusing for me, having consulted two different trainers. My golden retriever bitch is 15 months old. We did basic dog training (in Uk, via The Kennel Club). In an eclipsed area she'd do sit, stay, down, "paw", let me through first on entering any door/gate. We got our "Beginners" Certificate. BUT.... She won't do ANY of it if there's something better to take her attention ie. Dog, ball, people so, letting her run at the park is nigh on impossible. She loves to play with her ball and toys at home but outside she's more interested in her surroundings. We walk with another dog and friend; this dog is totally fixed on her ball (it's wonderful to see!). My girl chases her ball....catches it....drops it and wanders off ignoring grates and whistle. It's so sad because she has lots of energy, is hugely sociable and wants to play but I can't trust her.

We sent her away for a minth's residential training but the trainer just said "I think this is one who MUST" always stay leashed. So, it cost me £1,600 to be told he couldn't help!


Sunday 11th of September 2016

What happens when your pup's main drive is to be with other dogs rather than food or toys?

Lindsay Stordahl

Sunday 11th of September 2016

It's like when a dog would rather chase a squirrel than eat a piece of bacon. It doesn't mean it's impossible to train them not to chase a squirrel, but it sure can be challenging! Does your dog do well as long as there are not other dogs around? Building that solid foundation can help and then very slowly increasing the challenge over time. Like, working around other dogs from a great distance or behind a fence, then a little closer perhaps with a long rope. I know, not saying it's easy at all. It's very challenging!


Sunday 11th of September 2016

Yes, Frank - I'd love to know the answer to that one!

Paul W

Sunday 19th of January 2014

I have two that I have no problem with off leash, and one that will never be let off leash. Nala has way too much prey drive. She won't listen in a fenced in area if she is chasing a squirrel. She was living on the streets when the rescue found her, so that may have been her food for awhile. That drive seems impossible to break.

Lindsay Stordahl

Sunday 19th of January 2014

Yeah, I tend to think it is nearly impossible to break that instinct with some dogs. At least for me.

Chris and Charlie

Saturday 18th of January 2014

Charlie is sometimes so good off Leash, I get a false sense of security. I'll turn my eyes away and there he is jumpinon sometimes car!