It’s the idyllic fantasy many dog owners are after: taking a leisurely stroll through an open field or through the woods, their loyal canine companion padding along quietly by their side, taking in nature together. Unfortunately for many dogs and dog owners, this fantasy may never be a reality. Some dogs are just not meant to be off-leash. For an unprepared dog and owner, being off-leash can be perilous. While your dog may not be a danger to anyone or anything else, its freedom may pose a danger to itself.
NOTE: Please understand that by taking your dog off-leash in open areas, you are knowingly putting your dog in hazard’s way by allowing it to roam freely. Unleashing your dog is an inherently risky affair. This article was written to minimize those risks, but no excursion is going to be 100% safe. Unpredictable things can happen in all environments, and you must take responsibility when they do.
First and foremost: know the leash laws in your area. Some places have no leash law, some require your dog to be physically leashed, and some require your dog to be “under control”, which can include verbal control. Have your dog registered with your city if necessary. You want to be in compliance with all laws. Aside from local laws, consider the contract your dog came with from the breeder or rescue organization, if applicable. Some contracts state the dog may never be off-leash! If you’re going to make the decision to unleash your dog, know that you may be committing several legal infractions.
There are certain types of dogs that are recommended to never be off-leash. These include hounds of both types: sighthounds (like greyhounds, whippets, etc), that will chase after any animal they see, and scenthounds (such as beagles and bloodhounds) that would follow a scent for miles if it pleased them. Huskies are another breed meant to be physically contained, as they would run until they were tired and then run some more. These aren’t the only breeds recommended to be off-leash only in closed areas, however. Please don’t hesitate to research if you’re curious about your own breed. Working dogs of these types need to work off-leash, but are often equipped with a GPS collar or other tracking device. If you have no way of tracking a driven dog that’s prone to wandering or taking off, and even if you do, keep it leashed unless you’re in a confined area.
If you have a dog that you think might be a good candidate for an off-leash romp, seriously assess your own dog’s behavior. If you suspect that your dog has been or may ever be aggressive towards any person, dog, or other animal, your dog must never be off-leash in an open area. If your dog is known to be dog-aggressive, your dog should never be off-leash even in closed areas where dogs frequent. I cannot emphasize this enough. To protect your dog and other dogs, you must always have a way to control your animal.
Even if your animal is a loving, social, friendly guy, you need to honestly evaluate the obedience level of your dog. The dog may listen in a controlled environment, such as the backyard, but off-leash at the beach with many distractions could lead to a pup with very selective hearing! Your dog’s recall should be completely and totally reliable before trusting them in any open area. The other basics are absolutely a must, too: sit, stay, lay down, and leave it are invaluable controls for an off-leash animal.
Think about if your dog is prone to chasing animals or running up to strangers or strange dogs. Chasing a squirrel or other animal can be dangerous even in a remote area. Anything could happen while your dog is out of sight in any environment. Your dog may be friendly, but unfriendly dogs need leashed outside time too, and your dog could suffer an attack if it says hello to the wrong dog; it’s the off-leash dog that’s at fault in such an encounter. In addition, many people are afraid of dogs, particularly dogs running loose! Your dog may experience an unprovoked attack by a person who feels threatened. Have a plan in place to control your dog in these sorts of situations. Be proactive. Be aware of your surroundings. Be aware of how your dog is reacting to the environment. Be ready to leash your animal if you feel uncertain about your dog’s reaction to an upcoming stimulus.
Dogs should always be leashed when meeting or walking in close quarters with other leashed dogs, as a courtesy to the strange dogs and their owners. A leashed dog around off-leash dogs can create anxiety or even panic in the leashed one; a dog knows when its reactions are physically limited by the leash and that knowledge is stress-inducing. If you see a leash on a strange dog, leash yours. If you’re both leash-free, hope that the other dog is friendly!
It’s reckless to think your dog fits the bill without first testing the waters. To prepare for off-leash adventures, purchase a long line—a 15 or 20 foot leash. Do NOT purchase a flexileash for this purpose. Bring the dog to open areas on the long line and evaluate their behavior. Does the dog seem prone to running after things? Is the dog attentive to your location? Does the dog appear to stay within a certain radius? Is the dog more interested in the environment than in what you’re communicating to it? It will become apparent whether your dog is a candidate for off-leash time after a couple of outings on the long line.
The long line can also be used to train recall. When they’re far away, give the recall signal/command. If the dog doesn’t come when you first call them, reel them in. Reward them with food when they’re at your side, whether you had to force them back to you or if they came on their own volition. Send them back out to play immediately afterwards. There are many other methods for solidifying recall, but they should all have this in common: recall should be fun and rewarding every time, and should not signal the end of playtime. With enough practice, your dog’s recall will get closer and closer to bulletproof. Even if your dog should never go off-leash, a solid recall is a necessity and a safety measure in everyday life.
Take the proper last-resort measures to guard against losing your dog if it were to run off. Have a collar with tags and, if possible, a microchip registered to your current information. An identification tattoo works well, too, but it should be in a visible place. Microchips can migrate, so ask your vet to scan for it at every visit to ensure that it is working as expected.
If you’re confident in your dog’s ability to react predictably and reliably and in your ability to be vigilant and to prepare and respond to risks as they present themselves, then you may be ready to hit the field with the leash in your pocket. Be smart and be responsible, and be safe as a result.