When I brought Wyrm, a high-energy border collie, home with me 5 years ago, I knew that I would want to be able to walk him off-leash. When you have a dog that needs the amount of exercise he requires, things become much more convenient when you don’t have to do everything on leash.
The particulars of how we got to where we are in our off leash training could be an article all by itself, but it would be of limited use for most readers, as every dog’s path is different, and what works in one instance may fail in another. Suffice it to say that the process took about a year and a half of incremental daily training to get him where he is, and continuous ongoing daily feedback to keep him there. He is not by any means perfect, but off leash he’s better than 95% of the dogs we run into out there in the world.
This article was inspired by an incident we had today on public property. I had Wyrm on a leash (more on that below) and an older gentleman was walking two of his dogs off-leash. Both dogs charged at us, and I was only able to keep Wyrm safe by calmly interposing myself (and my trekking poles) between him and the two much larger, barking dogs that I have no doubt (based on their body language) would have injured him if I was not there to intervene. I was able to keep the dogs at a safe distance while the owner ran over and grabbed their collars and put them on leash. Nothing he said or did to his dogs was effective until he finally was close enough to put his hands on their collars. It was a potential disaster, and I’m thankful nothing bad came of it. It could have been much worse, but it wasn’t - only because of the strategies I use when on public property with my dogs that I will describe below.
We are blessed to have a 1000-acre parcel of state owned land nearby, and we walk there daily. Some of you are probably already thinking “Your dog should be on a leash on public property”. I don’t disagree with you. There is a leash law in our state (and most others), and I would not advise anyone to break the law. That being said, I walk about 40 miles a week, 99% of the time off-leash on public land, and I do it in a way that keeps my dog safe while protecting others from being bothered by him. Doing so is a simple matter of following a few self-imposed rules than anyone can follow if they want their dog to be safe off leash.
Choose your venue. Be smart about where and when you take your dog off-leash. How many other users are there? Weekends and afternoons tend to be busy. What other types of uses do you expect to run into? Remember seasonal changes, such as dates for hunting season. Respect other users. They shouldn’t be inconvenienced by someone running their dog off-leash.
Voice control. If your dog isn’t under voice control, you have no business whatsoever even considering walking him off leash on public property. Voice control does not mean that your dog listens to you sometimes or eventually. I consider my dog to be under voice control in a given situation when he responds to a single verbal cue 90% of the time including when presented with distractions that I could reasonably anticipate in that situation. Where we walk, that means wildlife, people, children, bicyclists, horses, other dogs (both on & off leash) and the occasional dirt bike. The most frequently used cue when off leash is the recall.
Situational Awareness. The distractions listed above are not enough to pull Wyrm out of voice control, but only to a point. As distances become close, it becomes more difficult for him to remain reliably under voice control. I must be paying attention to the environment (as well as watching Wyrm for “tells” that he’s noticed something) so that I can get him under control before those distractions become too challenging. I also cannot allow Wyrm to get out of my sight, either by going too far ahead or off-trail. I don’t use headphones or pay attention to my smartphone on walks as I can’t do those things while maintaining my situational awareness.
Control your dog. Every time we meet another hiker or mountain biker, we step 6’-8’ off trail and I put Wyrm into a down-stay. If there’s a group, he goes on leash. If there are kids, he goes on leash. If there’s a horse, he goes on leash. If there are other dogs, he goes on leash, doubly so if they are on a leash. I do these things as soon as I’m aware of the other trail user, usually before they are even aware of me. Whenever I have even the slightest doubt about my ability to control him or am unsure about the potential behavior of others, he goes on leash. His leash is brightly colored so that it stands out and other trail users can see he is on a leash. I don’t care if others say their dog is friendly, or wether or not they leash their dogs. The only time I let him off leash with other dogs is if he has met those dogs several times before and I am certain (or as certain as possible) that they are ok with each other. Yes, leashes change behavior, and most dogs have an easier time greeting off leash. Those facts don’t come anywhere close to being good reasons to letting him off leash. If your dog is off leash (especially in a place with a leash law) and anything bad happens, you’re going to have a tough time proving that you are not at least partially at fault. Every time you take off the leash you are putting your dog (as well as your finances) at risk. If you can’t handle that, you should keep him on leash. Managing risk intelligently means knowing when it’s not a good idea to expose yourself to unpredictable circumstances.
Protect your dog. When your dog is on leash, he can’t run away. When you remove your dog’s mobility, he is vulnerable. Do not let others (particularly other dogs) take advantage of this. If you do, you will find that your dog will not trust you, and will try to avoid being leashed. Step between him and other dogs if you are not comfortable with the way the other dog is behaving. Tell the other dog’s owners to get or leash their dog if necessary, particularly if there’s a leash law! I often walk with trekking poles or a hiking stick, which can be used as a barrier to block an advancing dog if necessary. If you’re not willing or able to protect your dog, the sad fact is you are likely to eventually run into trouble on public land, wether you keep your dog on-leash or not. Sadly, not all owners are as responsible as they should be.
Respect for others, awareness of your environment, and a realistic assessment of your dog’s training level are the keys to safely enjoying time off-leash. Most dogs are capable of learning the skills necessary to spend time off-leash, but you’ll need some discipline to set up the training and to maintain the right mindset.