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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?

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