The Beginner's Guide to Off-Leash Training for Dogs

by K Marie Alto June 16, 2022 9 min read

The Beginner's Guide to Off-Leash Training for Dogs

Maybe you've seen it before. You're walking down the sidewalk or along the trails, and someone else comes along with their dog beside them. You're expecting a curious pooch straining at a leash, so you give them space to pass without interrupting their day. If you're out walking your own fur baby, maybe you stay extra far away, just to make sure the two don't get tangled up.

Then you notice it. That other dog isn't on a leash!

You're prepared for a hazard. What if the dog is aggressive? What if they run into the street unexpectedly, or what if a squirrel in a field across the way catches their attention, and they lunge after it?

What if they're just really excited to see your furry friend and want to come say hi?

Then, nothing happens. The stranger and their dog pass without incident, neither one making eye contact or causing any issues whatsoever. You might wonder, "What kind of sorcery is this, and how can I learn it?"

The truth is their pup didn't get that well-behaved by accident. It requires careful training and lots of patience. We’re going to get into how to off-leash train your dog in this post, but before we dig in, let's talk a bit about the legal ground rules that you have to follow before you take the plunge into the off-leash training world. 

Are There Leash Laws For Off-Leash Dogs?

While it may be impressive to see a dog fully in control of their own behavior, capable of staying at your side no matter what is going on around them, it may not be fully legal where you live.

There are no federal-level leash laws, but two states have them (Michigan and Pennsylvania), and many counties, cities, municipalities, and even properties have their own leash regulations.

Off-Leash Dog Image by Toe Beans

Before you decide to let your dog off the leash, no matter how well-trained they may be, make sure you aren't doing something that can get you in trouble with the law. The last thing you need is for your fur baby to be taken away because you didn't have a piece of string tying them to you!

If you're certain you're in the clear, though, having a dog that stays by your side can be a wonderful thing. To get there, you need dedicated training for your fur baby, so let’s get into how it works.

How Do I Get Started with Off-Leash Training?

Off-leash training is not just a single behavior. Dogs are clever and intelligent, but they aren't automatically going to grasp the subtlety of "stay with me" and all of the implications of such a command. Instead, you need to train several different, distinct behaviors into them, preferably starting at a young age.

In a previous article, I wrote about dog recall training, which is getting your fur baby to come to you when you give them the right signal. Recall training is one essential part of a comprehensive set of commands and behaviors that will need to be trained before considering going off leash. You also want to train your fur baby to:

  • Walk and behave with a loose leash, your pup shouldn’t pull when on a leash. You should be walking your pup instead of them walking you.
  • Heel (stay at your side, on command) both on-leash and off-leash.
  • Recall, as mentioned above.
  • Emergency recall, which is a specific, rarely-used command that they are trained to obey immediately and at all costs.
  • Leave it, to stop trying to interact with something you know they shouldn't.
  • Drop it, to put down something they have in their mouth.
  • Stay, to sit or stand in one spot until given a command otherwise.
  • Look, a "watch me" command that focuses your fur baby's attention on you, rather than just their physical presence. This is great for helping them ignore distractions.

All of these behaviors are trained in pretty much the same way as recall training. You assign a specific command to the behavior, and start to work to associate that command with the behavior.

Getting Started With Off-Leash Training Image by Toe Beans

The general process looks like this:

  • Watch your fur baby and monitor for the specific behavior you want them to perform.
  • When you see them perform the behavior, quickly speak your command, and offer a treat to reward them.
  • Once they recognize that the treat is associated with both the command and the behavior, start using the command to initiate the behavior rather than in reaction. Reward them when they do it properly, but be sure not to reward them if they don't perform.

For some behaviors, like a recall, dropping something they have in their mouth, or the emergency recall, this is easy to associate. Others, like sticking close to you in a heel, can be more complex.

One key to this is to always have treats on hand and reward your fur baby when they spend time next to you. You want them to associate staying in your presence with value, whether it's treats, praise, or pets. Critically, you don't want to reward them if they aren't sticking near you; that muddies the waters and makes it harder to keep them focused on a specific behavior.

The "look" command can be exceptionally hard to train. Dogs are, by nature, curious and explorative. They want to look and smell and experience the world around them. And really, who wouldn't? The world is an exciting place! There's adventure around every corner.

The key to the "look" command is permission. Your dog wants to explore, and you want to let them. But, you need to train them to look to you for permission before exploring, whether it's encountering a new person, seeing an exciting new animal, or just running off to the bushes to see what's in there.

Off-leash training, like most new activities has to be in a safety-first mode. If your pup has mastered the skills noted above on leash or in your backyard, the next step is to get a long lead and move to a larger space.  A good 30-foot leash allows your pup to get the sense that they are roaming free, but it gives you the control in the event s/he doesn't respond to your commands.

Check out this 4 min video on using a long leash for training:

What Are Some Tips for Training an Off-Leash Dog?

If you're hoping to reach a point where your furry friend stays by your side through thick and thin, sickness and health, you need to be really dedicated with your training.

Here are a few must do tips when working on off leash training:

  • Always practice in a safe environment. This means beginning in an enclosed space and one that it not full of distractions.
  • Practice practice practice. I think people are getting away from saying practice makes perfect, because obviously nothing is perfect, but practice does reinforce a behavior, so it becomes second nature.
  • Always use positive reinforcement. A study has shown that positive responses to a desired behavior are more effective than negative alternatives.
  • Stay patient. Not all dogs will learn at the same pace and getting frustrated with setbacks or slow progress is only going to delay the process further.
  • Learn your pup’s motivation. While treats tend to be a great incentive for most dogs, some dogs may prefer a favorite toy or loving pets and praises. See what works best for your pup and use that motivator during training.

    Off-Leash Dog Walking Image by Toe Beans

    So now that we’ve covered what you should do, let’s talk about some of the most common dog training mistakes. They include:

    • Not training enough. Dog training is a constant fact of life; you can't turn it off when you're at home, and it's never "done." It needs to be reinforced constantly.
    • Being inconsistent. This can be a tough one because you may only focus on commands when you’re out and about and not so much when you’re relaxed in the comfort of your own home. During relaxation time, give your dog the command to sit or lay down so s/he continues to look to you for direction.
    • Punishing your poor fur baby for mistakes. Punishment, whether it's physical swats, alpha rolls, yelling, or even stare-downs, can have a detrimental effect on both your fur baby's attitude and their behaviors. Positive reinforcement is much better alternative.
    • Using commands for negative purposes. If a child does something wrong, you can call them to you and then discuss it, dole out punishment, or scold them. People have the cognitive capacity to recognize the context. Dogs, not so much. So if your dog is averse to something like nail trimming or taking a bath, if you use the "come" command for it, they'll experience a negative consequence and won't want to come when you call anymore. 

    Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes, though, is not paying enough attention.

    When you're trying to train your dog, you need to be on the ball. When they perform the right behavior, you need a near-immediate audio cue (a command or a clicker) and a treat shortly thereafter. This firmly associates the behavior with the reward.

    If you wait too long after it, your fur baby may have forgotten what they did or just won't associate the two. Instead, they'll associate the reward with whatever they were doing when you rewarded them, which may not be the behavior you want to reinforce.

    What is Behavioral Proof and Why Is It Important For Off-Leash Dog Training?

    In behavioral training, there's a concept called "proofing" behaviors. It may sound tricky, but it's actually pretty simple.

    All it is is testing your dog's training and obedience in a variety of circumstances. The challenge level of those circumstances should be kept appropriate for the level of training your dog has received.

    Cementing Off-Leash Training Image by Toe Beans

    For instance, if you're training your new puppy to come when you call, you don't want to take them to a crowded dog park right away. There will simply be too many sights, sounds, smells, and other distractions, and they'll never notice you calling for them.

    Instead, start with an isolated, calm environment, like your living room. Once they have that down, graduate to a more chaotic environment, like your backyard, where smells and sounds can be distracting, but there isn't much directly available to interact with. Once they're reliably coming when you call in your yard, you can add distractions like having another person around, scattering toys around, and so on. Eventually, you can bring them to new environments and try it there, and gradually introduce them to the most chaotic places like a dog park.

    The tricky part here is that you need to continually proof your fur baby's behaviors, and you need to keep up with it consistently throughout their life. It's most important when they're young and first being trained, but you want to keep on top of training no matter how old they are.

    Is It Ever Too Late for Off-Leash Training?

    Many of you reading this may have an older fur baby you want to train. You've heard the adage that "you can't teach an old dog new tricks," and you're concerned; is that true? Are you stuck?

    The truth is, you can always train a dog, pretty much no matter how old they are.

    Elderly senior dogs may not be trainable, especially if they're suffering from health issues or cognitive decline, but healthy adult dogs are perfectly trainable; it just takes more work and more dedication.

    Old Dog Off-Leash Training Image by Toe Beans

    Training is always going to be a lot of work. With puppies, you have an energetic new kid to work with, and that's a whole set of challenges of its own. With teenage dogs, you may have behavioral issues to combat, but it's always possible. Even with older adults, you can still train them, and their calmer demeanors may even make it a little easier. After all, the novelty of chasing a squirrel wears off the 500th time they've failed to catch it, right?

    Are There Problems or Dangers with Off-Leash Dogs?

    Now that you know how to train your fur baby to stay by your side, you have one more question to ask yourself.

    Is it a good idea?

    The truth is, leashes exist not just to control a dog, but to ensure the safety of you and your fur baby. They also exist to help protect people, animals, and property around you.

    Problematic Off-Leash Dog Image by Toe Beans

    Unrestrained dogs can do a lot of unintentional damage, including:

    • Scare wildlife away from nests, which can be devastating, especially to endangered species.
    • Leave waste behind in areas where it can contaminate produce or form a health hazard.
    • Put themselves or you in danger, even unintentionally, if they get in the roadway or encounter a larger predator.
    • Pick up parasites, ticks, and other nastiness from the environment.
    • Grow scared, confused, or stressed and snap at or bite another dog or a person, even if they're normally well-tempered.
    • Eat something that can be dangerous to their health, like a toxic plant or contaminated water.

    If nothing else, letting a dog run around without supervision can be disrespectful to others in the area. Some people dislike or even have phobias of dogs, and an unexpected reaction can cause many problems.

    Now, I'm not saying you need to never let your dog off their leash. I'm just saying that it's usually safer to keep them on one, just in case, even if they're trained well enough to never leave your side without permission.

    Tell Me Your Stories

    Off-Leash Dog Sitting Image by Toe Beans

    Have you ever successfully trained a fur baby to stay by your side, regardless of a leash? If so, I'd love to hear your stories.

    What training methods did you use, and what did you find most effective? What was the biggest challenge, and how did you overcome it? I don't mean to make this sound like homework or a job interview, though. Just share your experiences with your fur baby in the comments below! Additionally, if you ever have any pet-related questions, I'd be more than happy to assist you however I possibly can!

    K Marie Alto
    K Marie Alto

    K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer, and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 30K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-).


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