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.
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.
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.
Related article: How to teach your dog to come when called reliably
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.
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.
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 long training leash 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:
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.
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!
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!
- What to do if your dog runs away
- Stop your dog from pulling on the leash
- Reasons to buy a dog backpack
Julia Preston writes for That Mutt about dog behavior and training, working dogs and life on her farm in Ontario, Canada. She has a sweet, laid-back boxer mix named Baxter. She is also a blogger at Home on 129 Acres where she writes about her adventures of country living and DIY renovating.
Wednesday 30th of November 2022
Don't allow your dog off leash while hiking especially in wildlife areas. Where I live, leash laws explicitly state wildlife in area. Keep dogs on leash. I trained my dog off leash at a very small off leash dog park very early in the morning. I walked and she eventually followed. If there is a deer or coyote, she would take off. She is on leash at these locations. I take her a a 3 mile off leash area.
Sunday 21st of November 2021
I can’t do it. I consider off leash danger unlikely after training but danger factor is so high I can’t do it. I’m not using a shock collar and calling it something it isn’t.
Wednesday 16th of June 2021
This was super helpful! Thanks for sharing!
Thursday 13th of June 2019
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).
Wednesday 27th of March 2019
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 .
Wednesday 27th of March 2019
Sorry to hear your dog was injured.