When I was a teenager, I was consumed by thoughts of autonomy and independence. Oh, to make my own decisions without the rules and restrictions of parents, teachers, or other authority figures. Later, as a parent of teens, I found out that independence is just as desirable on the other side. Oh, to have children grow up and make good decisions on their own without the need for my constant guidance!
Alas, we have all seen the results when teens are given too much freedom too soon. It’s not that they’re stupid, in most cases, but that they simply don’t have the adult-level ability to make good judgment calls in difficult situations. I give my daughters a little more freedom and a little more responsibility at a time. Parenting is, after all, continual preparation and coaching with the goal of teaching a child to make good decisions all on their own. Eventually, we trust them to run their own lives.
Like teenagers and the parents of teens, dogs and dog owners long for freedom, too. Dogs want to run, and we want to let them. They usually come back to us, and they’re friendly with other dogs, so why shouldn’t we allow them to leave behind the cumbersome control of the leash?
Let me tell you why. It’s a matter of training and behavior. Because unless they have developed the ability to make good judgment calls in all situation that might occur off leash, letting them go is no different than going on vacation while letting a 16-year-old watch the house. Of course there are parents who believe that their little angel with straight A’s would act responsibly in their absence, but most of us know better. The temptations are too big, and the ability to resist is too small.
Dogs who have not been thoroughly trained for off-leash life will eventually make bad judgment calls. They will approach people and dogs who don’t want to be approached. They will ignore their owner when asked to return. They will jump up on small children, chase bike riders, or chase something straight into traffic. The consequences can be a minor annoyance for others — or death for your dog.
If you’re not convinced of the seriousness of this issue, let me tell you what happened to my colleague just this week. She was out walking her two dogs when an off-leash dog approached, and a fight ensued. The owner had no idea what to do, so it was up to my colleague, an experienced professional dog trainer, to stop a full-on dog fight between three large dogs. I’m not sure that the average dog owner would have fared as well in this effort.
Nonetheless, my colleague, one of her dogs, and the attacking dog sustained considerable injuries. It could have been worse, but it was bad enough. The most frustrating part of all this is that it was preventable. Had the other dog been on leash, none of it would have happened.
Obviously, the off-leash dog was dog-aggressive, so maybe you’re thinking your dog would never do this to another dog, therefore it doesn’t apply to you. But what if the owner of the aggressive dog was responsibly walking him on leash? I have been that person with the reactive dog, making sure we’re walking in an on-leash area, and I am always upset to find people who are not following the rules and allow their friendly, untrained dog to roam free. If your dog approaches the wrong dog, you could be in this same situation as my colleague was. And you know what? It wouldn’t be the reactive dog owner’s fault.
So, how do you know if your dog is ready to be off-leash? Before you allow the ultimate freedom, be sure that your dog can do all of the following, in many different environments with lots of distractions.
1. Respond to name
Any time you say your dog’s name, regardless of the location or what your dog is doing, she should immediately turn her head and make eye contact with you. You should not have to repeat your dog’s name to get her attention. This should really be the first step in any training. It will improve your ability to train everything else. Does your dog know her name? If not, please read What’s in a Name? Teaching Your Dog a Reliable Name Response.
2. Come when called
Once you say your dog’s name, and he is looking at you, you should be able to say, “Come!” one time and immediately see your dog running to you. It is imperative that you are able to call your dog to you quickly and reliably in any circumstance before you ever think of letting him off leash. If you need help with teaching your dog to come when called, check out Recall Training: Getting Started.
3. Heel off leash
It’s one thing for a dog to know how to heel, which is to walk right by your side while on leash, yet it is entirely another for a dog to be able to resist temptation and stay close to you when she has the choice to leave. On or off leash, there are times when walking a few feet away and sniffing around is fine, and there are other times when a dog needs to remain close in order to pass small children, dogs, or bike riders. Heeling, like most trained behaviors, should start at home in a low-distraction area. Once your dog understands the concept, you can move to more distracting environments such as the back yard. Until your dog has mastered the art of heeling, along with the above behaviors, he’ll need to practice on leash in public areas.
4. Be safe and friendly with other animals and humans
If your dogs are nervous about young kids, as one of mine is, they must not be off leash in public parks where children might be present. If your dogs are reactive to men in hats, for example, or people wearing sunglasses, or fast-moving things like bikes and skateboards, they are not good candidates for being off leash in a busy public area. Certainly, if your dogs are not completely safe with other dogs, they should never be off leash where other dogs are present.
Can all of these things be worked on? Absolutely! Just remember that the work has to be done before your dog is allowed to be off leash.