To off-leash or not to off-leash a dog. That is the question.

By Saro Boghozian, Expert Family Dog Trainer

This is another sensitive subject when it comes to dogs and their owners. Most dog owners are offended when they are told to leash their dogs especially when their dogs are not well behaved off-leash. The fact is that dogs love to run around, play and explore. Dogs need that opportunity to do so but many dog owners make the mistake of off-leashing a dog that has not yet been properly trained or ready to be loose.

Dog owners recognize the fact that dogs need to be free and they often feel badly when they have to keep their dog on-leash because they feel that they are taking away the freedom that the dog needs. They shouldn’t feel that way. The leash should not be considered a cruel tool and a dog on-leash should not be thought of as an unpleasant experience for either the dog or the dog owner.

Dog owners do not take time to prepare the dog for being off-leash and they let them off the leash too young or too soon. When you off-leash a dog that is not ready, it is compared to giving a young person a car to drive. The young person loves the idea of driving the car but can’t really safely drive it.

Dogs and animals in general do not let their offsprings wander off when they are young, fragile and inexperienced. It could be a matter of life and death for them. This is why it is important to recognize how important and crucial it is to not off-leash a dog before he is ready.

A dog may seem to do well when off-leash but there are many undesirable things that are happening to your dog that you do not notice and after many repetitions they become bad habits or learned behaviours and in most cases, become out-of-control situations. Repetition of these learned behaviours causes dogs to display bad behaviours and many dog owners do not understand why it is that their dog suddenly displays an unfamiliar bad behaviour.  There are so many things that can make your dog unbalanced. The dog needs to be physically safe and mentally ready to be off-leashed. Following are several reasons why you need to keep your dog on-leash before he’s ready for the freedom of being off-leash.

1- Always consider safety first when it comes to off-leashing a dog. You need to provide safety for both your dog and for others. Your dog needs to be physically safe. By physically, I mean that the dog should be off-leashed in an environment that is safe and secure. Where the dog will not be injured by sharp objects nor will be out of your sight and also where the environment will not contain any poisons or dangerous materials.

Other dogs and even people may be a danger to your dog as well. You need to remind yourself that not all dogs are well behaved and most of the time uncontrolled and bad behaving dogs are off-leash in the hopes that they get exercised. So your dog will encounter those kinds of dogs and he may have a negative experience with them.

There are also people who do not like dogs and those people will do anything to shoo your dog away. Your dog may be friendly and approach a person or even another dog that does not welcome strange dogs in their personal space. Let’s be honest; not everybody likes your dog(s).

There is also the issue of wildlife that you need to consider. Is your dog going to chase the wild animal or would he come to you upon seeing one?

You should never jeopardize the safety of your dogs and others. You need to provide some form of safety for your dog so he will feel safe and secure while with you.

2- You need to be able to deliver correction. Young or inexperienced dogs when in public, especially in dog parks, unknowingly make many mistakes. Dogs must learn many things alongside the humans and in human society. It is your duty to teach them. You can only accomplish this by attaching a leash (short or long) on to the dog so you can guide and teach as you are introducing the world to the dog. You need to take the time to practice and limit the time and the places where the dog is allowed off-leash. It’s important to have a leash handy so that when your dog makes a mistake you are right there at the right place where the mistake has taken place and at the right time, precisely, when it took place.

For example; your dog is off-leashed and is bullying another dog (you will only notice this if you are able to read your dog’s behaviour) 80 feet away from you. You shout and run after your dog to stop that behaviour but your dog interprets it either as play or a challenge and takes off. Now you are chasing your dog and he is playing with you. Finally you catch up with him and you are so tired and stressed that you start to behave terribly towards your dog.

Your dog not only didn’t learn that bullying is not good, which was the reason you started the chase game in the first place; but you ended up correcting your dog for running away from you which had nothing to do with his bullying another dog. Also you reinforced a different bad behaviour which was; “you don’t need to come to me when I call you”.

If your dog was on-leash, he wouldn’t have had the opportunity to bully another dog in the first place and ultimately would not learn and practice any of those adverse behaviours.

3- If you’d like to be a leader and build leadership, this is the way. Although, I am not in favour of using the word “leadership” and would like to replace it with management, having a dog on-leash gives you the opportunity to manage your dog in a way that your dog feels you are able to control his responses in any situation and confirm that you are in control. That’s what a dog really needs. A human that is in control.

By managing your dog’s reactions and behaviours, you can create a more relaxed dog and a better behaving dog that knows the rules of being off-leash and follows them when he is actually allowed off-leash outdoors.

4- You can also build a better bond and improve the relationship. This is a very important part of having a dog on-leash because it helps you get to know one another better and allows you to work on things that your dog needs to improve. Most dog owners, as soon as they find an issue with their dog while on-leash, rather than correcting or addressing it, they let it pass or off-leash the dog so they don’t have to deal with it, incorrectly thinking that the leash is causing the unwanted behaviour. The leash is not the reason that causes unwanted behaviours but rather it is your lack of dog management, your reaction and your response to certain events and how you deal with situations at the time that reflect on the dog’s mental state and causes him to behave a certain way.

If you work with your dog on-leash, you will eventually create a bond between you and the payoff is far greater than you think as long as you take the time to repeat and practice and do not rush to off-leash the dog.

I met a couple who had adopted a dog who was aggressive towards other dogs. I‘d see them every day on my daily walks with my own dogs. They stuck to the plan and followed the steps that they had been told, obviously by a professional. It took months before the dog could walk without reacting to other dogs. I raise my hat to them and cheer this couple. They have changed the outcome of their dog’s life by persevering and sticking with the plan and ended up with a dog that is not reactive and can now live a more relaxed life. This dog became more connected to his owners, developed a better relationship with them, trusts them and displays more confidence.

5- You can always improve the walk when your dog is on the leash. There are many dog owners who find it impossible to walk their dogs on-leash so they off-leash them. Just because you have not taken the time to learn or practice the walk on the leash with your dog, does not mean that it is an impossible task. You need to consult a professional and learn how to walk your dog on-leash especially if you live in a city where you need to be able to walk your dog on-leash in many places. Learning and improving the walk on-leash will help you, yourself, to enjoy the walk.

These are the most important reasons why you should keep your dog on-leash and there are even more but the most important is you should keep your dog on-leash initially to prepare your dog for the fun of being off-leash. Let me explain what I mean by your dog must be ready to be off-leashed.

There are rules when it comes to a dog being off-leash and it’s important that an off-leashed dog follows these rules in our society. Not many dog owners know these rules. They assume that if the dog is having fun that is all that matters.

Here are some of the rules:

  • The dog must be under control. That means if you ask your dog to come, he has to come to you 100% of the time no matter what he is doing.
  • The dog should stay within 10 to 20 feet from you.
  • The dog should not be misbehaving.
  • The dog should not run off.
  • The dog should not attack or bark at other dogs.
  • The dog should not attack or bark at people.
  • The dog should not be jumping on people.
  • The dog has to come to you if it sees wildlife or strangers.

If a dog is not ready to follow these simple rules then he is not ready to be off-leashed.

Your dog must be mentally ready to be off-leashed too. You shouldn’t off-leash a sensitive, reactive dog that is afraid of, let’s say, “men with hats”. Firstly, you never know when you are going to come across a “man with hat”. Secondly, you need to know what your dog’s reaction is going to be upon seeing a “man with hat”. And thirdly, you need to work on your dog’s socialization skills by having your dog on-leash and exposing him to hundreds of “men with hats”, ultimately, with positive results.

It terrifies me when I meet dog owners who own a timid dog or a sensitive dog and he is off-leash. What’s the first thing a timid dog is going to do if it’s frightened? Flight.

I was hiking my beagles one day and we met some ladies. As they greeted my beagles they mentioned that their dog was ‘somewhere’ nearby (mistake number one – not knowing where your dog is). Their dog eventually, very cautiously, approached us and as he was getting nearer, suddenly, he took off again. My beagles, thinking the dog was playing a “chase game” started playfully chasing him at which point one of the ladies said “Can you stop your dogs? My dog is frightened of other dogs”. (Mistake number two – timid dogs should not be off-leashed). Now, I and my dogs were the bad guys as far as these ladies were concerned and in their own dog’s eyes, all dogs are evil. The dog couldn’t even trust his owners for safety and security. If they knew that the dog is sensitive and is afraid of dogs, they should not have the dog off the leash in a dog park in the first place. They need to work on the dog’s social skills first, build confidence in the dog and then allow him off-leash. They can never achieve these rules by off-leashing the dog first. Luckily this story had a happy ending. They managed to catch the dog even though his collar was pulled off his neck and all three women had to hold on to him.

Timid dogs, newly adopted dogs and most young dogs, including puppies in general that have not been leash trained, should not be off-leash. A dog needs about a year to learn and earn the off-leash privilege. Your dog must listen to you, obey you and behave appropriately while off-leash as it would do when on-leash.

I always consider off-leash time as a reward for the dog even though he may be well behaved and perfect. My rule is, you should start the walk on-leash and reward the good behaviour with some off-leash time then end the walk back on the leash. In most cases I suggest dog owners follow this simple formula: 80% on leash and 20% off leash (10% on-leash + 80% off-leash + 10% on-leash = balanced walk).

The ways that you can improve the off-leash experience for your dog are:

  • Start with basic obedience training
  • Socialize your dog with everything and everyone.
  • Take your time to get to know your dog well. This may take a year.
  • It takes a year to build trust by training and working with your dog.
  • Use a long leash before off-leashing your dog completely.
  • Do not rush to off-leash your dog. Take your time.

There is actually nothing wrong with having a dog on-leash. Many dogs actually love the comfort, security and the attachment to the owner and some dogs get stressed and nervous when they are obligated to be off-leashed. They seem to get into protection or survival mode when put in an off-leash situation.

Many dogs have gone missing for days, months or perhaps never been found because of not being ready to be off-leashed. Most dog owners think they know their dogs but the reality is they usually don’t. Dogs can be spooked simply by a jogger passing by, a biker on the trails or even an unfamiliar sound and their owners didn’t know their dogs would negatively react to those events even though they’ve lived with them for many years. These dogs did not have a positive relationship with their owners in the first place and did not learn the important socialization skills needed for when a jogger or biker passed by. Their first reaction was to take off or ‘flight’ instead of going to the security of their humans.

Take your time and teach your dog everything they need to know before they go off the leash. It may help save your dog’s life.

[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’][/author_image] [author_info]Saro received his expert dog trainer certification from The College of Canine Behavioural Science and is also a member of the Canadian Association of Professional Pet Dog Trainers and does volunteer behaviour consultation with a number of dog rescue organizations. Saro’s play, praise and reward training classes are always in high demand as are his private one-on-one training sessions. Rather than using treats or gimmicks like shock collars, Saro’s training methods help owners understand how to use a dog’s natural intelligence to achieve success.[/author_info] [/author]