Three Rules for Going Off Leash

You just brought home a new dog, and you start fantasizing of him freely frolicking through one of the beautiful parks here in Denver, Colorado. he’s sniffing the base of a tree, retrieving a ball, and lying in the grass while basking in the sun. The dog trots over to your side the moment you cheerfully call his name, he ignores the geese and squirrels, he only greets other dogs and people who come up to say, “hi”, and does so with a remarkably good-manners. You decide to make this dream a reality and you head off to Cheesman Park.  

It’s a bright sunny day, just like you imagined it would be, you step onto the grass and unleash your dog - it turns out he’s only interested in the ball you brought for the first half-second it’s airborne, at which point he finds a scent and begins to follow his nose. Next thing you knows he’s eaten three fresh goose turds, and shouting “no!” is doing next to nothing. After he’s done with his afternoon snack, he takes off towards that mud puddle, and yep, he’s now rolling in it.  Right when you think he’s heard your call to come back to you he catches sight of a squirrel and proceeds to run it up a tree, and the instant you’re about to catch up to him he bolts off towards a dog being walked on leash and gets growled and snapped at because he ran up on it too quick. A bit startled he’s running back to you to feel secure again, but on his way he spots a child trotting ahead of his mother pushing a stroller, he instantly changes course and sprints towards the kid, and in his all too friendly excitement he knocks the kid over into the same mud puddle he was just rolling in himself. Calling your dog’s name and saying, “come get a treat” has fallen on deaf ears, so now you must walk over and face the angry mom and listen to her tell you that, “you really should keep your dog on a leash.”

Hopefully, all this didn’t happen to you, and you lucked out with the dog that wants nothing more in the world than your praise and affection (these dogs are about as rare as unicorns). If this did happen to you, I’m sure you learned your lesson, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t hope for you and your dog to live the off-leash dream.

Going off-leash has its risks, you’re giving up the ability to control where your dog goes, and what he does when he gets there, but it also has its rewards. Dogs have a lot of latent, stimulus dependent, instincts that animate their character and can bring us a lot of joy to watch. Watching these instincts come online in a more natural, and unconstrained, environment is what we’re hoping to see we unleash our dogs, however most dogs don’t know enough about the human world to know where their instincts may get them, or us, into trouble. It’s up to us to share those boundaries with our dogs and reinforce good manners so that they can enjoy open spaces with the rest of us.

First things first, teach the “come” command, then teach it around distractions. Make sure your dog knows what “come” means. To teach the meaning, practice first in a low distraction environment, like inside the home. Be sure you’re rewarding the choice to come when called, so he knows he’s a rock star for doing it right. Make sure the reward something your dog values, most dogs work for treats and affection, but others are more motivated by comfort or play. Things they like will generally attract them. Once the dog knows what that means you can start practicing in a more distracting environment.  First try going in this order: the back yard, the front yard, an enclosed public space like a tennis court, then an empty part of the park. I suggest using a long line, which is a 20 to 50-foot leash, as you get started in each new space, so you can prevent your dog from running off and ignoring your command. Your dog may also require the use of an e-collar, at least for the beginning part of his off-leash life, using a  fair amount of corrective feedback in the service the goal of expanding your dog’s domain of freedom is you doing the right thing, not being mean. Experiment carefully to find a level that just enough so that it stops the dog’s improper action, in this case that’s movement in the wrong direction, then use your long line to help guide them in. Immediately praise the dog for movement in the right direction and give them a reward when he arrives. It often just takes a light e-collar sensation to tune the dog back into you, and off the distraction. By not providing a measured, but valuable consequence for a breach of the rule (come when called), in careful and scaffolded manner, then you’re limiting your dog’s true potential and freedom, or if you chose to unleash him in public anyway, you’re selfishly subjecting the dog and potentially everyone else to the ruthless consequences of misbehavior in the real world. You’re the good guy by taking the time and care to train your dog, and every living thing needs feedback to determine the boundaries.

Here are three rules to keep in mind for off leash success:

First, keep to your dog to yourself. A lot of people don’t appreciate being greeted by an unknown, off-leash dog.  This is especially true of parents with small children and folks walking dogs on leash. It doesn’t matter how friendly your dog is, it’s unfair to let an off-leash dog run up to a stranger.

Second, as we just discussed, make sure your dog reliably comes when called. This is key part of keeping your dog to yourself, but it’s also important for the dog’s own safety should their curiosity lure them towards a hazard. The off-leash world is filled with lots of interesting stimuli that’s worth ignoring a “come” command for, and if we want to give our dog access to the larger world, they must know the ground rules first. It’s worth mentioning that there are some dogs, even with a fair amount of training, that become hyper-focused on certain stimuli (scents, other dogs, critters, etc.), this level of focus effectively mutes your verbal commands, and technically they aren’t ignoring you, they’ve just unintentionally tuned you out, so if this is your dog make sure you have the means of getting their attention (again eCollars solve this problem elegantly). If you’re consistent, you can often train the dog to keep one ear open, so to speak, but you’ll need to go out and practice in the field, properly prepared, before this is one of your dog’s virtues.

Finally, even if your dog reliably comes when called around distractions, still make sure your dog doesn’t take off for other dogs, people, or critters at the mere sight of them. You simply cannot constantly manage your dog’s impulsivity because sooner or later something will demand your attention elsewhere, and that’s exactly the time your dog will bolt if they haven’t been taught to control those impulses and wait for your permission.

Letting your dog explore the world has a lot of benefits, but it does have its risks – just make sure both you and the dog are ready. It’s also worth noting that Denver has a leash law, so going off-leash at a normal park is illegal and could earn you a fine. In my experience, it’s only lightly enforced, and gets applied more readily to owners who don’t have control over their dogs. Follow the three rules above and you’re a lot less likely to run into problems.  Also, it’s worth noting that the city does have a few large off leash areas, such as the Cherry Creek Reservoir, where you can legally let your dog explore without the risk of fines.

Good luck and happy training!