How to Train A Dog to Be Off Leash

Two months after we adopted our dog Baxter, I took him on a walk across our farm with no leash.

As we reached the corner of the field, he turned left when I turned right, and within minutes he disappeared into the woods.

I couldn’t see him or hear him and no amount of calling enticed him to return.

My very stubborn husband spent an afternoon tromping across the countryside. He eventually returned home with Baxter—on leash.

After that, we made sure to keep him on leash, but that wasn’t the life I envisioned for my dog on our 129-acre farm.

I’ll share my personal experience with Baxter, but first, here are my tips for training your dog to be off leash:

My 5 tips for how to train a dog to be off-leash:

1. Strengthen the bond with your dog through obedience. You must have a strong foundation of respect and trust before you start off leash sessions.

2. Start small in a controlled area.

3. Drag the leash. Tie a long training line to your leash to help define your dog’s comfort zone.

Long dog leash

4. Join an off-leash group. The pack factor makes a huge difference when your dog is off leash. Plus the human pack can encourage you. And if you all share the same philosophy about dogs and training, they won’t blink when they trip over the leash your dog is dragging behind him.

5. Be patient and persist. Leash dragging may last longer than you think. You may have bad days. You may have to go back to basic on-leash lessons to reconnect with your dog. The effort it takes to achieve good behavior off leash is worth it when you see the joy it gives your dog.

Also see my post: Off-leash hiking tips for dogs.

How to train a dog to be off leash

Our story – Learning to be off leash

Being able to be off-leash was my top goal when we started training classes.

Thanks to a lot of work and our great trainer, Baxter and I now go off-leash hiking every week. He’s not perfect, and I still get anxious sometimes, but it’s a tremendous improvement over where we started, so Lindsay encouraged me to share my experience.

First, I have to give credit to our trainer. I attended lots of obedience classes (without Baxter) trying to find the right fit for him and for us. The class I attended with this trainer was her final session—and it was an off-leash hike.

Every dog in the group was off leash!

I was astounded. It was exactly what I wanted for Baxter.

Our trainer uses a method that I didn’t find with other classes. All of her sessions took place out in the world—busy downtowns, conservation areas, city parks. She absolutely does not treat train. And the lessons aren’t so much about basic obedience as they are about bonding with your dog.

We went through the basics—loose leash walking, sit, stay, down, come, patience, agility—but they all happened in a unique way.

Loose leash walking was taught by jogging in and out of a line of trees and helping our dogs learn that they needed to pay attention to avoid getting tangled.

Sitting happened in an empty parking lot, asking the dog to sit on each line as we walked through the parking spaces.

The lessons focused on building respect, trust and a bond between us and our dogs.

How to train a dog to be off leash - Tips on how to train your dog to be off leash by starting out slowly in a controlled environment. #dogtraining #dogs #hikewithdogs #boxermix

Letting go of that leash!

It wasn’t until the tenth class that we let go of the leash.

We were in a quiet laneway with a pond on one side and a fence on the other—a controlled environment with few escape routes.

All of the people and dogs in the class walked down the lane as a group. Nonchalantly, when Baxter seemed to be in tune with us, we dropped the leash.

We walked for a few more steps and then turned around to head back to the start. Baxter didn’t notice—or didn’t care—that we turned around. We called his name, and he followed us back to the start where he got lots of scratches and “good boys.”

Next we walked along the path as a group. Again we dropped the leash, but we didn’t turn around. If Baxter got too far ahead, we stepped on the leash, just to get his attention.

Dog training and hiking class

Baxter is a confident, independent dog, which I love. But a drawback is that he has a very large comfort zone.

For one exercise, our trainer had my husband and I walk down the lane with Baxter. When we dropped the leash, Baxter stopped walking. He’d figured out that we were going to come back along the same route, and he didn’t see why he needed to walk out only to retrace his steps (he’s also very lazy).

It was a bit of a battle of wills.

We needed Baxter to respect that we were setting the route, not him, and he needed to follow us.

We kept walking, not looking back, until we were around the curve out of his sight. Then he started to follow. We kept walking until the end of the lane. When Baxter came around the curve, we squatted down and opened our arms encouraging him to come to us. He took a really, really long time (slow, meandering, sniffing) but he eventually came.

Obviously, we had more work to do in the bonding department.

Note that while our trainer absolutely does not train with treats, you may want to consider carrying a treat pouch with quick access to high-valued treats when you are working with your dog on off-leash training and coming when called. Totally up to you.

Always a work in progress

In my opinion, obedience is just part of training. Things work much better when your dog wants to do things with you. So we focused on respect and trust and bonding.

When we were introducing off-leash exercises, we started class first with the basics on leash: loose leash walking while changing direction and going over obstacles, sits at any moment, stays in busy areas. Exercises that were interesting helped him pay attention to us and reminded him he had to do what we wanted.

Teaching your dog to be off leash

Once he was off-leash, if Baxter wandered off to do his own sniffs, we’d call him back. If he didn’t come, we went and got him and put him on leash. We kept him on leash to show there are consequences for not paying attention.

As Baxter was learning, so were we.

One lesson for me was that my definition of off-leash changed to be leash dragging.

We dropped the leash rather than unclipping it. Eventually, we got a 10-foot training line that Baxter dragged behind him. Feeling it behind him seemed to remind him to pay attention to us. Stepping on the leash every so often helped to reinforce the boundaries of our comfort zone. Plus, in worst case scenarios—and they did happen—it gave us something to grab.

Off-leash hiking group

At the conclusion of our training classes, we joined our trainer’s off-leash hiking group.

See our posts:

Off-leash hiking with your dog.

More safety tips for off-leash hiking

At every hike for a year, Baxter dragged his long training line behind him. Most of the time it was more about my comfort than his obedience, although every so often his confident, independent, sniffy sides came out. As my confidence grew, I eventually let him go completely leash free.

Dog off leash hiking group

Worst-case scenario

Our training was tested a few months ago when my worst-case scenario happened. A deer bounded across the path while we were hiking. Three dogs took off, Baxter among them.

Baron the German shepherd came back in less than a minute. Kaylie the border collie was back in 5.

Baxter was gone for 15 minutes. A very looooong 15 minutes.

But, he came back!

Baxter at his training class

On a trail he wasn’t super familiar with, he found his way back to where he’d left me. For me, that showed the strength of the bond that we’ve built … and that we need to continue to work on obedience and recall.

We’ve become regulars in the hike group, and Baxter loves hiking with his friends. He bounds to the car, stares fixedly out the front window as we roll along and whines as if to say, “Are we there yet?”

His joy is incentive enough for me to keep working at our off-leash training.

OK, how about the rest of you?

What have been your challenges with off-leash training?

Any tips to share? Let us know in the comments!

For more info on dog training: see Lindsay’s dog training ebook, “50 Dog Training Tips: Your Training Problems Solved Now.”

Dog training ebook

Julia Thomson maintains the blog Home On 129 Acres. Read all posts from Julia here or follow her on Twitter.

Related posts:

What to do if your dog runs away

Stop your dog from pulling on the leash

Reasons to buy a dog backpack

How to train your dog to be off leash

44 thoughts on “How to Train A Dog to Be Off Leash”

  1. I would love to do this with my dogs; I can do this with Sydney and used to be able to do it with Rodrigo when we just had two dogs and walked with a pack, but now Rodrigo has to stay on leash, because he wants to greet everyone. With four dogs, if one takes off the other two follow (Sydney stays with me).

    I want to be able to walk in the woods around our property with the dogs off leash. I’ll start searching for a local trainer who can help me, because this would be amazing. I really like what you had to say about building trust and a bond.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      That would be awesome if you could walk all four off leash or at least separately off leash!

      I’m so fortunate Ace (like Sydney) just naturally stays close. I really didn’t have to train him at all. I just reinforced what he already did. Some dogs are just shadows.

      1. I had one that was an almost natural , I worked with her a bit and then I got another puppy and in the 10 years I had her I was never able to have her off leash, she took off on me 2 weeks before she pasts 🙁

  2. Agree with so much of this article. Off-leash on 19 acres is our goal. Thanks for outlining step by step the method you used.

      1. Steve Cimmarrusti

        I got Mari when she was 8 months old. My wife was out of town for another week before she was able to meet. Mari. I feel like because she arrived one week later, Mari is confused about where my wife is is the pack. In addition, my wife doesn’t really follow the same routines of training and consistency which i believe confused Mari even more. I’ve noticed that she gravitate’s to consistency so when I’m out for a while Mari becomes more nervous and excited.
        Having said all of that, Mari is almost two now. A friend told me to hang in there and about two years old, Mari would be the dog i want. I am amazed to find this to be true. The consistency I’ve shown her has paid off. Now we are working on ” off leash ” work and she’s coming along wonderfully. We still have a ways to go of coarse but she’s getting better every day.

  3. Nancy Pumphrey/ Ridgeback Momma

    Great post. When my Rhodesian Shaka was a new puppy I fed him his lunch in the back yard. He worked for every morsel. He learned all his commands off leash: sit, down, stay, come, leave it and take your mark. We also did puppy classes. In the front yard we used a 30ft training leash to strengthen his accuracy on recall. My husband and I stood about 25 feet apart and called Shaka. He never experienced a taught leash. He learned to respond without a tug. We walked him with his leash dragging, and graduated to draping it over his back. I walked in a zig zag pattern so he learned to watch my leg and stay out of my way or turn to stay with me. I agree that the pack mentality helps. First time off leash at the beach was with a group of 16 dogs. What a party. He couldn’t think about straying because he would be leaving all the action. We rescued Bella a Rhodesian/Red tick Coonhound mix in December. She was already good off leash. It’s pretty awesome to have two scent hounds that can be off leash. I have to drive to legally have the pups off leash. Our city charges $500.00 off leash fines. Fortunately we have a designated off leash state park with hiking trails in the mountains about a 15 min drive from us.

  4. Clyde is the first dog I have ever owned that I cannot let off the lead. He is a cross husky/German Shepard and he really needs to have the freedom to run. He’s a good dog, amazing at agility but if out walking and he see’s something like a rabbit, fox,deer other dogs he is off and it is the only thing that he will focus on. He’s okay if we are with friends. There’s no off leash parks in this country which is a shame. I need to be able to get his attention when he goes on focus/chase mode. We do the lead drag as well and he is so good until he see’s a bird etc.

    1. You may find one on Meetup.com – I’ve found a Boxer Meetup Group who got together every Sunday at a local Dog Park in the D.C. area. You also have the option of starting your own group.

      1. Lindsay Stordahl

        That’s where I found a Weimaraner meetup too. It’s not an off-leash hiking group necessarily but they meet for hikes, dog park visits, walks, beach visits, etc.

  5. I love your dragging-the-leash tip and that you found an off-leash hiking group. I can see how being together with a group of like-minded individuals can be extremely helpful in training endeavors. My girl Missy is definitely more of an adventure pup and loves to explore on her own…I’ve found that putting a backpack on her keeps her much more focused on me and less interested in taking off. While we have made improvements in her off-leash training, it is still a work in progress. Besides the backpack, I’ve also used a 50 ft long leash as a safety net, so to speak.

  6. Obviously I don’t know where you are but I’d love to join a group like that. You don’t mention it but dogs learn from each other and being in a group would surely help

  7. I have an Australian Cattle Dog and she was right by my side always. It
    has been wonderful. When I hike the rail trail, she loves being with me.
    Bikes, walkers, runners come by and she doesn’t mind but aggressive
    dogs are the problem. It has gotten to the point whenever a dog comes
    down the trail she feels that she has to protect me. I love to walk every
    day but feel that I can no longer bring her. I don’t know how to break her
    of this.

  8. Great article but I have doubts applying it to my Patterdale terrier. She is very quick and runs off into dense woodland for miles and I worry about her getting tangled up with the leash especially if she is out of sight. I think your comments on bonding with the basics is very valid as she has never really responded fully to the “come” command and is very stubborn. I will go back to some basic training first

    1. I have two small size standard poodles. Levi is 2 & Joy is 10 months. I do the drag leash trick all of the time as if Levi runs off…Joy follows. I am making my New Years resolution to clicker train them both to come. I have a friend who can whistle real loud and they come every time. I can’t whistle so I will “CLICK”.

  9. I would love to this with our Bandit, but as smart as he is, he is a rat terrier and doesn’t always come when I call him. He is 9, and we got him as a puppy. I’m curious if any of the fellow off-leash hikers have terriers. We have two acres surrounded by farm ground so he gets to run free a ton, but he becomes blind to everything at the sight of a rabbit or scent of a mouse.

  10. I think that dogs should have off leash training for those situations where they might accidentally get separated from you and may be in danger so not relying on the leash would or could be a lifesaver. I like the concept of off leash training in areas where there is free space and no others. I am a firm believer of dogs being leashed in public.

  11. 3 days after adopting our 1.5 yr old chow/husky mix we let him off leash. It was amazing how he always stayed near us but never was a shadow. We hiked and camped all over with Rusty.

  12. I love the idea of leash dragging … but I live in the bush … lots of trees and bushes wouldn’t a great long leash get continually snagged and caught up?

  13. I use the leash dragging technique with my adopted shepherd mix, Roux. Even though he’s been great staying near us, I’m still uncomfortable unhooking that leash. We’ve gone to a short (about 2 foot) leash that hangs but doesn’t drag. He’s learned the command, stay here. Which means you’re cool to be loose but you’re not cool to run off to the neighbor that just pulled up. I started with a looong tie out lead, easy to grab if he decided to take off. Then went with a regular length, 6 foot leash until recently we just clip on the 2 foot leash. Off leash takes time and patience and also depends on the dog.

  14. Where is this magical sounding trainer and are there more like them? Is there a name or category for that type of training?

  15. I have a 2 year old fox hound, Tate. He I’d a very well behaved dog except on walks. I pulls and strains against the leash constantly and absolutely can’t be off lead. Is it the breed, the dog or me?

  16. My last dog (Lily) was a mix between collie & black lab, she was an off leash dog but not that I trained her to be, it just happened on its own after years of lots of “no”, “good dog, or pulling her away with that embarrassing “Sorry about my dog”. She went on lots of camping trips with trails & socializing with family dogs & other pets. She got to the point where she could sleep outside the tent, no leash, on guard. One trip I heard a noise & shined the flashlight out the tent & there was my Lily standing face to face with a deer. Eventually it ran off & she stayed, looked at me & wagged her tail with a smile (we were excited together). I believe the main goal is building a respectful bond & love. Dogs do anything for love.
    She past 2yrs ago (another moment filled with love), last week we got a Blue Heeler pup (her name is Journey). We’re taking her to Big Bend National Park in Texas in a couple months, so I’m looking forward to trying this method in hopes my new pup will be just as obedient and leash dragging sounds more safe on hikes, just incase. Thank you for sharing!

  17. I get very nervous when I see a dog out that is not on a leash.. even when the owner is nearby. Please understand that not everyone is comfortable around unleashed dogs. It actually scares me a lot. And know that just because your dog is obedient around you that doesn’t mean that they are well behaved when you’re not around. and people have been attacked/killed by leashed dogs. Dogs are animals and owners need to remember that.

    1. Off leash dogs scare my pit mix
      I walked into the hallway of my apt building and Lucy was off leash, urge elvator door opened and I a second she charged the dog inside, she didn’t hurt, a nip on the ear, Lucy got 3 bites in her shoulder and leg …my poor judgement for that hallway moment and now Lucy has to wear a leash on the property or we get eveicted, the owners of the other dog, called security and management…no second chances (pit!)
      So off leash is scarey

  18. My dogs Cody and daisy are great off leash, well daisy is all she is interested in is her ball, cody is great until he sees or smells another dog at which point he runs full pelt towards them to say hi, which is sometime terrifying especially if I don’t know the dog he is running towards (he’s been attacked before) I’m sure it’s scary for the other dog walkers too cuz he is a big dog but wouldn’t hurt a fly, anyway I have found that having a specific command help for instance with Cody if I see another dog coming before he does I give to command “on the lead” he will then come over and sit until I put the lead on him, if he sees the dog first and starts running I call him and say the command but a lot sterner for example, Cody on the lead now! He has come to realise that when he goes on the lead I will walk him over to the other dog to say hello and if the other dog is also friendly I let him off again and let them play

  19. Rebecca Williams

    I have a pack of my own with my 4 beautiful dogs. Out oldest almost 11 is a Wheaton Terrier and Standard Poodle cross. We also have Meadow who is 10. She is a beautiful mix of great Pyrenees and gold retriever. Next up is Willow our little bundle of independence (sort of) she is an almost 3 year old Bull-pei (English Bulldog and Shar pei). Lat and certainly not least is Shadow our Borador (Border Coli and black lab). She just turned a year this past boxing day. Shadow is the only one we let off leash when not in a fenced in area. We would love to even have the 2 younger ones reach a point for us to be completely comfortable off leash. This will help….Willow will need the most work. Shadows name suits her perfectly 90% of the time…other than if the chance to chase or herd things comes along…

  20. My 2 goldens are great, we played hide n seek and still do, I do that now with my papillon and he is very good off leash, they do chase rabbits but come back quickly. Right now I avoid the forest, ran into rattlers, it’s a bad year for those guys and I’m very concerned about my pap getting bit.

  21. Thank you so much for sharing this with us. This has been a long time problem for me and my 8 year old Shitzu- Lexi. As she gets older (and I do too) she needs to run more to keep the extra pounds off. But she would take off and be long gone. Even her little short legs can leave me in the dust. We are using this method and so far….so good! Excited that I can give her more freedom and ensure good exercise and reduce my anxiety. Great article!

  22. These are great tips! Another thing to look into is asking your trainer about ecollars. It’s like a safety belt in the car, once they understand the language of the ecollar 99% of the time you may never need it but it just takes once for something to be more interesting then you. My dogs go off leash walking/hiking everyday, and the ecollar gives them that freedom. The only thing I have to worry about are other people’s off leash dogs that are not trained. I carry a squirt bottle to keep strange dogs away. I’ll call mine and put them in a sit and step ahead to block the incoming dog!

  23. These are great tips. I hike with my dogs offleash in the mountains (National Forest Land), but I always drag the leashes as they are fast and I am not. They check back and actually better off leash than on leash, but I work on recall as they have been known to be distracted by cows and moose. My border collie mix tries to herd moose. My aussie is just a silly guy when confronted with cows. We obviously still need to work on recall with distractions. I am intrigued about the methods of your trainer. Does her method have a name? I have limited access to trainers here in rural Wyoming but would love to learn some of her loose leash methods. Thanks for the great blog.

  24. I played hide n seek with my 2 goldens, if they chase a rabbit or herd of antelope I just wait and they come back, yes it is a looong time. I don’t let my papillon off leash, I do drop the line or even attach his harness to a buddy. There are javalina, coyotes, mountain lion, birds of prey even eagles where we live.

  25. Great article.

    I rescued my dog. He is very attached to me. I let his leash drag on trail walks. The first time he took off on me I searched for 44 mins. I decided to backtrack to where I lost him. Started Calling his name. Heard him barking. He was sitting by the car…..

    I just worry that when he does take a little jaunt off the trail chasing something he sees that his leash will get caught on something.

  26. I also worry that leaving the leash or line on might get caught on something if he dashes out into the brush. The idea is great if it is an open area though.

  27. Darlene Appling

    we try to run our dogs off leash every chance we can.there is an area near where,we live and no one goes there. They have a blast.
    And my son takes them with him when plays,disc golf. Its,a local park and all the disc golf people know,the dogs. They listen pretty good except for a few times,with our youngest one. She got away once chasing 3 deer! Some people in the park found called the office and the sheriff took her up front. So We Had To Go To Get Her Up Front. The cop was,real nice about everything.she was in the back of the cop car. She was so scared! Since then we work with her a little more now. We gotta,get her a tracker.

  28. I have a severe issue with people and there dogs off leash I live in MA and there is a leash law that dogs are by law supposed to be leashed when off your property. I walk on a trail in my neighborhood in the woods and both my dogs are always leashed numerous people get in the woods and just let there dogs run freely. Well I’ve had multiple encounters with these people and dogs which have resulted in altercations which have led to my dog now having an injured leg. It’s just disrespectful and ignorance on the owners part. You are not the only one out there with your dog. How would you react if you with strolling through the woods and someone comes running up to you out of nowhere and gets in your face. You’re either gonna run or fight think about that when your dog is just running around free. Have a little respect for everyone else .

  29. Maybe I missed it, but can you please put in here to also remember to follow leash laws of the area you’re in? Most hiking trails, and even the entire city (an off-leash class would NOT be permitted in our downtown) are leash-only. Obviously not everyone follows the rules, but then when (it’s not a question of if, it’s always “when”) a fight breaks out between 2 dogs, it’s the owner who’s dog was not under leash control to pay for the injuries. Our city does have 3 or 4 really great dog parks for letting them off leash. A couple are fully fenced. And one is fenced on one side; the other 3 are surrounded by the river and a large cut from the river.

    Also, be sure to check local hunting groups before taking your dog off leash, even where it’s permitted to have them off leash. Double check the trapping season, as some places permit traps set just 20 feet off marked trails. (Of course, some will not follow these rules…I’ve SEEN traps just steps from trails, and I’ve seen dogs get trapped in off season by poaching traps, so that’s always a risk going off leash).

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