I learned the hard way that my dog was not ready to hike off-leash during a trail run on an on-leash trail.
Sixteen miles into an 18-mile run, Sora and I came upon a group of senior birders on a single track trail. Sora, with plenty of energy reserves, was off leash and I was out of treats, useless in her eyes.
Two of the people in the group had dogs. The first dog was right up front and Sora went straight to that dog and went in for the lunge.
An echo of horrified shrieks rang through the birding group.
Sora spotted the second dog and made the same move.
The shrieks returned, along with several choice words about my rude off-leash dog.
I never let her off leash like that again and I still cringe when I recall that moment because I knew it was unfair to have my dog off-leash, especially since the trail required leashes.
Fortunately, I did learn from my mistake. I’m here to hopefully help you avoid the same embarrassing fate, if not something worse.
An unwanted encounter between two dogs can result in a fight and undo the hours of work and investment owners have put into their dogs.
It takes time, patience, and consistency to teach a reliable recall. If you want to practice good trail etiquette and enjoy off-leash hikes with your dog, then the effort is worth it.
How Do You Know If Your Dog is Ready to Go Off-leash?
Here’s an unpopular opinion: I don’t care if your dog is on-leash or off-leash, even if you are breaking the rules, as long as the handler is managing them.
What do I mean by managing?
I mean that the owner is not allowing their dog to approach other dogs or people without permission, chase wildlife, or destroy the environment.
The problem comes when owners let their dogs off-leash when they do not have reliable recall.
Yes, it is such a joy to watch them explore, sniff to their heart’s content, and just be a dog, however, it’s not so joyful for other users, especially those with reactive dogs who may not want your dog in their space.
Hiking with a dog off-leash is a privilege, not a right.
Unfortunately, it is widely abused by many dog owners, and it makes hiking incredibly stressful for people with reactive dogs or who simply don’t want your dog jumping all over them.
So, how do you know when your dog is ready to hike off-leash?
The common frustration from dog owners is that their dog doesn’t listen when they’re off-leash.
There are a few reasons for that:
- They haven’t been taught recall to fluency
- The owner has not worked to build a strong relationship with their dog
- The owner isn’t that exciting to return to
- There is no consequence when the dog chooses not to return
If any of the signs below sound like your dog, then you need to keep working on that recall.
Your Dog Doesn’t Know Their Name
If you say your dog’s name, what happens? Do they whip their head around and look at you? Or, do they ignore you? If they ignore you, there’s a good chance that they don’t even know their name!
I know that may sound ridiculous that a dog doesn’t even know their own name, but it happens and if it hasn’t been taught to them, then why would they know?
Remember that dogs don’t speak English, they speak dog.
So, let’s say that every time you ask for “sit,” you say, “Fido, sit.” Your dog might think that the “sit” command is actually “Fido, sit.”
Ok, so how do you teach a dog their name?
By making their name the best word in the world.
It’s super easy.
Start out somewhere there are few distractions, like your home, and wait until your dog is not paying attention.
Then, say their name, mark with “yes,” the second they look at you, and reward them with their food.
You want to make sure to make this game exciting so your dog thinks “Fido” = AWESOME!
Your Dog Don’t Come When They’re Called on Leash
Off leash practice starts with recall on leash.
If your dog won’t come to you when you call them on a leash inside your home, then you can bet they won’t come to you when they’re off leash where there are tons of smells and other distractions.
Teaching a dog to respond to “come” on leash starts indoors (are you seeing a theme here?) where there are few distractions.
Use the leash to your advantage by adding a bit of leash pressure when you call them, and then back away until they reach you.
Dogs like to chase things. Be something to chase! Go nuts when they start charging toward you.
You Can’t Recall Your Dog off of Low-Interest Distractions
While continuing to use the leash as you build recall, if you can’t call your dog off of low-interest distractions, like the pee corner they sniff every single day, then you’ve got some work to do.
This is why I love the e-collar for recall training. The stimulation gives them a little “yo!” so they refocus on you. Then you can release them back to that pee mail as their reward.
If you can recall your dog off the following *on-leash* then there’s a good chance that they’re close to becoming ready for off-leash privileges:
- Other dogs
- Cats/squirrels/other small creatures
- Toys, after they’ve been tossed
You Skipped over Practicing Off Leash Recall with the Long Line
The long line is KEY to building reliable recall in dogs and so many dog owners skip this part of the training or breeze through it.
When you use a long line, you will have a chance to see how well your dog does when you recall them from a distance.
Depending on the length of your leash (I personally like between 15’ and 30’), you’re essentially teaching your dog to stay within that distance from you when they do go off leash.
When you start using the long leash, practice in a secluded area of a park until you have some confidence that your dog will return. Next, you can try going to a forest service road or wide dirt path to see how they do.
Your Dog Doesn’t Check in With You
If you’re out of sight from your dog, do they care? Do they check back periodically to make sure that you’re still behind them?
If not, then recall them to you even more frequently, get even more excited when they come back, and reward them for choosing to come back to you.
They Approach Other Dogs and People Without Permission
Promise me you won’t be that person.
You know, the person who lets their dog off leash and then calls out “it’s ok! They’re friendly!” as they run up to another dog or person.
It’s not ok.
It can be dangerous.
Promise me that you will recall your dog every.single.time. you see another person or dog ahead of you. Pinky swear?
If you do it often enough, you just might even build an auto-recall, like Sitka has.
They are Reactive to Other Dogs and People
If you have a reactive dog, then you’re going to want to work on that before you let them off leash. Do yourself a favor and hire a professional dog trainer to help you.
It’s not uncommon for other trail users to tell people with reactive dogs that they don’t belong out on the trail. It’s absolutely not true.
However, if you are allowing your reactive dog off leash without recall then they are right. It’s stressful for you, your dog, and the other trail users, and it can be dangerous.
Put in the work and it will be 100% worth it.
Your Dog has a High Prey Drive
This one should be pretty obvious. If your dog is going to take off and chase other animals in the woods, then they need to stay on leash until they learn that that is not acceptable behavior.
Not only does this cause stress to the other animals, but if your dog takes off after a much larger, dangerous animal, like a deer, bear, or mountain lion, you may never see your dog again.
I have personally found that the e-collar works wonders for dogs with high prey drive, so it is definitely something to look into if you are struggling with your dog.
They Take off into the Woods as soon as You Let them Off Leash
I learned this lesson the hard way when I once let my dog off leash during a hike on a secluded trail and she took off–for 10 minutes!
Certain that I had just lost my dog, I was about to have a panic attack when she came tearing down the trail with her tongue hanging to the ground.
Needless to say, that was the last time I ever let her off leash.
Safe Places to Let Your Dog Off-Leash
While you’re practicing building your dog’s recall and testing out their reliability, it’s important to practice in a safe space where your dog won’t run away or have access to other dogs and people while you’re training.
Normally, I recommend that dog owners stay away from dog parks, but they can be useful when they are empty.
If you happen upon an empty dog park, you can take advantage of it to practice recall in a fenced-in area.
Since there are so many smells and places to mark, it will be a good test of your dog’s off-leash recall abilities with distractions.
I think Sniff Spots are genius. They are essentially private property that dog owners can rent out by the hours to provide their dog with a safe space to explore without worry of other dogs or people.
These are a fantastic option to practice off-leash recall with your dog.
During non-school hours, fields at schools make excellent spots to work on recall. They are often fenced in and have large fields so you can really test your dog’s skills.
Be aware that school grounds are often used as makeshift dog parks, so if that is the case for your local school, go to a different field, if possible, or try to go when other dog owners are not present.