Off-Leash Dog Training: Tips for Reliability

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Most dogs love romping off-leash exploring the world. The freedom to run in a field or on a trail is exhilarating to our beloved canines. 

But it also can be very dangerous if your dog isn’t trained to be reliable when off-lead. Even well-trained dogs can literally run into trouble.

So how do you train your dog to be successful when he’s off a leash to be on voice control? It takes a lot of training, consistency, patience, and management.

I’ve trained many dogs to successfully be off a leash in certain circumstances. Many of my own dogs have been shown in competitive obedience. Numerous exercises require the dog to work off a leash.

Off leash training - dog sitting on mat with leash in front of him.

I’ve even been able to take my dogs to various distracting environments like fields where people are playing baseball or to shopping centers and practiced obedience commands like sit, down, stay, come, and even retrieving an obedience dumbbell.

I’m not going to kid you–it took a lot of time, training, and patience. But it was worth it because I could trust them in everyday situations too.

I am not a fan of just taking a dog on his regular walk without a leash, though. A regular, fun walk should allow the dog to look around, sniff a little and enjoy his surroundings. And it can be dangerous even if a dog is well-trained. 

In this article, I’ll describe how to train your dog to be off-leash. I’ll also talk about the risks of allowing your dog to be off-lead. And there are many to take into account when deciding whether you want to let him have such freedom. 

Even if you never plan to take your dog off-leash when you’re working with him, it’s still important to teach him to respond no matter what in case an accident happens. Someone may inadvertently leave a door open or a dog may slip out of his collar.

  • Training a dog to be off-leash can be very rewarding–to you and your dog. Most dogs love the freedom to play and explore that it provides. And you won’t have to worry.
  • But it takes a lot of patience, consistency, and training to achieve. And, of course, there’s always an element of risk involved even with the most well-trained dogs. 
  • In deciding whether your dog is a good candidate for off-leash work, there are numerous factors to consider. 
  • Examine whether your dog’s temperament is such that he can be off-leash reliably. And consider whether he has too much prey or herding drive to be trusted off-leash.

Consider Others and Rules

There may be local or city leash laws that require dogs to be leashed at all times. If they’re violated, fines or citations may be issued.

There may also be requirements that your dog have some type of identification, which is important even if there’s no rule requiring it. So have some type of ID on his collar in case he should run off or get lost so that he can be returned to you. 

Although a microchip may not be required, it’s good to have for your dog should he leave you. Make sure that his microchip has the most recent information and is registered to you.

Some people–including children–may be afraid of dogs. So, even if you have a very friendly dog, it’s not a good practice to have him rush up to strangers. 

And doing so can be harmful to him too because some people may injure him when they feel like they have to defend themselves. Or they may even report you and potentially have him labeled as a dangerous dog.

Basic Off-Leash Requirements for Your Specific Dog

In order for a dog to successfully be trained to be off-leash, he should be even-tempered. 

Of course, he shouldn’t be reactive or aggressive to people, other animals, or new objects or experiences. And he shouldn’t have extreme prey or herding drives. 

Also, he shouldn’t be noise-sensitive or he may flee when a scary noise occurs. If your dog is used to and loves wandering off, he may not be a candidate for off-leash work.

Even well-trained dogs have certain drives because of their genetics that may make it unsafe for them to be off-lead. And it depends on that particular dog whether he can be trusted to be off-leash. Even very well-trained dogs can be distracted when free.

When deciding whether your dog can be safe off-leash, consider his natural drives. If you have a terrier like a cairn, Scottie, or westie, he may be genetically predisposed to run after small prey like squirrels or rabbits. 

Or if you have a sporting dog, he may have a lot of natural drive to run after birds. Goldens and Labs often have this natural instinct–especially if they’re bred from hunting lines. 

And herding dogs like shelties, border collies, and Aussies may want to chase many things that move fast such as joggers and people on bikes or motorcycles. 

Of course, many of these dogs can be trained to be off-leash in certain settings. After all, goldens, labs, and some spaniels can be trained to flush out game or hunt waterfowl and return to their handler. 

But it may be more difficult to train a dog with such drives. And dogs with very strong natural instincts may never be reliable off a leash.

Basic Commands Off-Leash Dogs Should Know

Training is important for all dogs. It helps us communicate with our dogs and inform them of our rules. Positive reinforcement training also furthers our bond with our dogs. 

But the reliable performance of certain commands even with distractions is crucial for the safety of an off-lead dog.

Training requires patience and consistency. Always end the training session on a positive note. And when training any command always mark the desired behavior by saying “YES!” (or with a click if you’ve used clicker training). 

I like to teach all dogs to respond to a verbal reward marker because we might not have a clicker on us wherever we are.

Attention and reinforcement from you needs to be more exciting and rewarding than any freedom he can get. 

When teaching all of the following commands, start without distractions in your home. Practice in different rooms and areas. 

After your dog learns the command well without distractions inside, start working on them outside in your yard. Then, after your dog’s reliable near your home, start practicing on your walks. 

Eventually, you’ll be able to practice in new settings like a field or hiking trail. But make sure that your dog’s reliable with lower-level distractions before moving on to higher-level distractions.

Use a long-line such as a cotton or nylon leash of 20 or more feet. At first, you want to hold onto it. 

Don’t let your dog run at full speed away from you so that he doesn’t get injured. Hold the line at various increments, letting more out slowly so that he understands his limits. 

You also may want to do distance work when he’s on a well-fitted harness that he can’t escape from. If you use a well-fitted collar, make sure that you don’t pull on his neck or that he doesn’t run away on it and become injured. 

Once you’re confident that he’s reliable on the long line, you can just have him drag it so that you can grab it if need be. Only do this in an area like a yard or field where there’s nothing that the leash can get tangled on.

Then, after he’s reliable on a regular-weight long-line, transition to a lighter (but still secure) line. Then, show your dog you’ve taken the heavier long-line off leaving just a lighter long-line on him. This will test whether he can be trusted for off-leash work.

Your training sessions should be short: five to 15 minutes. Just perform a few of each command during each session, always ending on a positive, successful note.

The whole point of this training is for you to get voice control of your dog when he’s off a leash.

When you train outside, make sure the area is safely enclosed with some type of barrier like a fence. Also, never train near a busy area with many people or where there’s traffic.

Pay Attention!

The most basic command all dogs should know is to pay attention to us. If they don’t, any other commands we give are useless. 

So teach your dog to watch you and listen. You can use his name and a “look” command. At first, hold a treat near your face, then tell him to look (“Fido, look”). When he looks at you, praise (“YES!”) and reward. 

Eventually, overtraining sessions, when he starts looking at you on the look cue, stop holding the treat near your face and just mark the behavior and give him the reward treat.

PRO-TRAINER TIP: Use VERY high-value reward treats for training your dog for off-lead work. Usually, high-value treats are cheese or meat. Treats should be about the size of a pea. He should be highly motivated to come to you. Always have special treats ready before giving the command. The timing is important. Praise and give the reward treat immediately after the dog performs the correct behavior.  

Reliable Recall

Another life-saving command is a reliable recall. For your dog to be safe off-leash, he must come to you no matter how distracting the environment is. 

Start in a distraction-free environment inside. Say his name and “come.” Praise (YES!! Good come!!) and give him the reward treat as soon as he comes. 

I advise you to give him a “jackpot” of treats when he comes. So give him four small treats in a row (not all at once). Giving a jackpot not only makes coming to you very rewarding, it also teaches him to remain with you longer.

What if he doesn’t come to you at first? Dogs aren’t stubborn. They may just not comprehend what we want or may not have been sufficiently rewarded when they come. 

Make sure that he understands what you want and make coming to you fun! Happily say his name and come. 

Take a few steps away from him when he looks at you, which can help a dog come to you and move faster towards you. 

If all else fails, first show him the GREAT treats you have for him. This lure is alright to use at first. But don’t let him become too dependent on it. 

As soon as he starts coming to you happily and regularly, stop showing the lure treat and just praise and reward when he comes.

Another reason a dog may not come is that he’s had something negative happen to him when he’s come to you. Coming to you should always be positive.

So don’t call him to you and have anything that your dog sees as negative. Most dogs don’t love baths or having their nails clipped. 

Although they should learn to tolerate these experiences, they don’t love them. So don’t call him to you and immediately after give him a bath or clip his nails. 

If he’s already learned that the command “come” means that something negative will occur when he goes to you, you’ll have to re-train the exercise using a new cue. 

The “come” cue has been poisoned in the past. But don’t despair. Just re-train using another word such as “here.” And, this time, make it a veritable party when your pup goes to you.

Another trick to help most dogs come is to run in the other direction while calling them–and even getting low on the ground when you stop (as long as you don’t have a dog that jumps on you). 

It makes coming to you more exciting. This can be used occasionally when training a recall and even in emergency situations if your dog gets loose before he learns to come to you reliably off-leash.

There are other fun recall games you can play with your dog.  After all, a dog will be more likely to respond to training that’s fun. 

Have recall games between two people. Play hide-and-seek in your home and fenced yard where you call your dog. Call him to you for his dinner. 

Whenever your dog comes, make it a party! Praise, reward, even play sometimes. Your dog should be excited to see what great things will happen when he reaches you.

When starting your recall session, use high-value treats that you use only for that exercise. And give him a jackpot during each recall. Try to avoid repeating commands.

You can even play other recall games such as calling your dog from a sit or down stay (assuming his stays are solid). Or you can send him after a toy like his ball and call him back. Then the game begins again. 

You can even add some advanced training exercises like teaching him to target to a dog food cover plastic lid at a distance and call him back to you. 

Or you can teach him to circle around an object like a small empty plastic trash can or cone. First, lure him around it and move the treat to come back to you in a u-turn. 

Eventually, you can move further away and use your hand motion for the luring to have him make a U-turn back to you. 

You can even do some fun canine nosework of having him find a treat or toy you hide, then call him back to you. 

First, show him where you hide it and tell him to find it. Once he gets the idea, you can hide the treat or toy without him seeing where you put it. After he finds the object, call him to you and praise and reward!

I also teach all of the dogs I train to perform an emergency recall. There are many ways to teach it. 

One way my students really like is to teach your dog what the word “treat” means. Standing in front of your dog, you would first say the word treat, then give him a treat. 

Do this a few times in a row each training session. Then, after you’ve done this for a few days, happily say your dog’s name and “TREAT, TREAT, TREAT!!” 

When he comes to you, praise his behavior of coming and give him a jackpot of treats.

When practicing, do random recalls throughout the day, so that he learns coming to you is always fun and rewarding. 

Call him to you while you’re folding the wash or paying the bills or on the computer. You get the idea. 

Remember: reinforcement is more than just praise and treats. It’s whatever your dog finds to be rewarding, including play. 

So when I have my Aussie mix Millie come to me, we sometimes play tug or fetch as she finds these to be as rewarding as treats. 

You want to get to the point where even if you don’t call your dog, he will often check back with you. 

My Lhasa apso Ralphie has learned that checking back with me is very rewarding. When he comes back to me even when I don’t call him, I praise and highly reward him. 

Behavior that’s rewarded will repeat itself. I even play a game on leashed walks with my dogs where I’ll suddenly move away a few steps and call my dog to me. By doing this, he’s used to turning around and coming to me no matter where we are.

Leave It!

The “leave it” command is very important for all dogs to know. But for a dog who’s off-leash, it can literally save his life. 

When a dog’s at a distance from you, you need to be able to tell him to leave anything on the ground, an animal, or even a person, and for him to respond immediately. 

It’s also important to train your dog to drop any item that he’s picked up. So teach him a “drop it” command too.

Loose-Leash Walking

Loose-leash walking is important for all dogs to learn so that they don’t pull. But for a dog to be allowed off-leash, it’s crucial that he remains with you when you tell him to. 

Start training this on leash. Once he walks next to you while he’s on a leash, it’s time to advance his training. 

How I transition to off-lead work is going to a light-line. Have two leashes on your dog and a lighter leash that’s still strong enough for your dog.

Then, to test whether he’s ready to be off a leash, let him see you remove his regular, heavier leash. Then continue walking. 

Does he stay by your side? If so, you can probably try some off-leash walking in a safely enclosed area. If not, keep practicing on leash. 

When performing loose-leash walking, make sure that you have just a little slack so that your dog can’t roam all around. Also, don’t have a tight leash or he won’t get used to walking without being bound to you (and, many dogs will fight against a tight leash). 

You can also teach your dog a technical heel command, in which he remains exactly next to your left side whether you are moving or standing still.

Stay!

Of course, any off-leash dog should also know how to stay in a sit or down position. I also believe that they should be taught an emergency down command that the dog performs wherever he is when you tell him to lie down. 

In teaching this, at first train your dog to lie down quickly when near you. Once he understands the voice command, tell him to down a foot away from you. Eventually, add distance as he’s able to handle it.

Touch: Hand Targeting

Having your dog know a “touch” command to target your hand with his nose is another way to get him to pay attention and come to you.

Once you’ve achieved reliability in known settings, you can take your show on the road with your commands. Try it at enclosed dog parks when they’re empty at off-hours or on trails when they’re empty. 

Of course, I recommend doing this on a long line. Just be careful that neither you nor the dog gets tangled in the line. Use a long line with caution.

Train in various locations as your dog becomes reliable. Go to fenced playgrounds when they’re empty (and if you’re allowed to use them). Parks, trails, beaches, and friends’ yards can provide new training opportunities. 

You want your pup to generalize that he has to perform all his commands wherever he is.

Important Considerations When Deciding Whether Your Dog Should Be Off-Leash

You know your dog. If he has a lot of prey or herding drive or has wanderlust, off-leash training can be dangerous. 

It can also be very risky for dogs with noise phobias or those who are excitable, reactive, or aggressive towards people, animals, or new things. 

Of course, you can try it first in a safe setting such as a yard enclosed by a fence, adding distractions when he’s able to handle them.

Of course, there’s always a risk when letting your dog off a leash in any setting. But a dog who is well-trained in any setting and without the above issues is more likely to be successfully trained to be off-leash. 

And dogs who are well-socialized to new people, dogs, and settings are more likely to be successfully trained off-leash.

Dogs without a history of running away or getting lost are more likely to be successfully trained off-leash because they haven’t been self-rewarded by such freedom.

What NOT To Do: Don’t Try This at Home

Don’t use harsh methods to train

Some people use shock collars (also called e-collars) to train dogs for off-leash work. I believe that they are cruel and unnecessary. They can also have unwanted effects such as having a dog become aggressive to what he sees or is near when he receives a shock.

No matter what DON’T PUNISH your dog…

…when he doesn’t come or doesn’t come immediately. When he finally does come, still profusely praise and reward him.

You don’t want him to avoid you the next time you call him. And dogs have good memories and will remember any negative interactions with you.

Even if you had to catch him, just be matter-of-fact and don’t correct him. Instead, set him up to succeed next time. 

Have fewer distractions…

…or have him closer or show him the treat lure again. Then re-train the recall.

FAQS

How do you train a dog to be off-leash?

At first, train important commands like attention, loose-leash walking, and a reliable recall on a leash without distractions. Eventually train your dog on a long-line for distance work. Add distractions at each level when he can handle them and be successful. And have a lot of patience.

Can every dog be trained to be off a leash?

Not all dogs will achieve reliability in all settings when off a leash. It really depends on your individual dog. A dog that’s reactive, aggressive, too noise sensitive, or has too much prey or herding drive may not be able to be reliable when off-leash.

How long does it take for a dog to be trained off-leash?

As is true with all training, it depends on the individual dog and how his handler trains him. For real reliability with various commands and in distracting settings, it can take weeks or months for reliability.

Final Thoughts

Training a dog to be reliable off-leash takes a lot of training, patience, and consistency. But it can be successfully accomplished for some dogs. 

When deciding whether your dog is a good candidate for being reliable, take into account his temperament, natural drives, and history. 

But all dogs should be trained to learn to come off a leash in case an emergency occurs. Just don’t push your dog beyond what he’s able to handle.

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Off Leash Dog Training: Tips For Reliability - dog with leash in front of him.

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