Dream of taking your dog on a long hike in the woods off leash or for a run on a beautiful beach? He stays close to you, comes when you call him right away, and you are both having a great time. Sounds fun right? Well for many dogs and their owners this could happen with training and a great relationship. However, here’s the real scoop on off leash control: not all dogs are appropriate to be trained and worked with off leash. Individual dog’s temperaments, training and maturity all play a role in a dog’s behavior.
To some extent, common sense is involved, dogs that have a history of exhibiting aggression to people or dogs really don’t belong off leash in areas that are not physically fenced in and they also don’t belong in dog parks or other similar uncontrolled settings. It’s not responsible to put other people and other dogs at risk and it’s a liability to boot.
Maturity plays a big role when it comes to off leash control. Because adolescent dog behavior is difficult to predict, most dogs between the ages of 6 months and 2 1/2 really cannot be trusted off leash – not even if you are a fabulous trainer. I often have puppy owners tell me, hey my 8 week old puppy is wonderful off the leash. Well, yes, at 8 weeks even independent breeds like huskies tend to stay close. Don’t assume that your dog is going to behave the same way at 4 months, 5, months or age 1. Young puppy behavior and adolescent dog behavior are two completely different things!
Genetics plays a big role in off leash behavior as well. Sight hounds, terriers and nordic breeds may not always reliably come when called when there are distractions like deer, rabbits or other similar things. This does not mean you should not train your independent breed not to come when called, in fact the opposite is true. You will want to work on training your dog even more in case you accidentally dropped the leash or your dog managed to get out of your yard. All dogs should be trained to come when called, however, if you have a breed or individual dog who may not come when called don’t put your dog in an unsafe situation.
Now I can hear clients in my head “but I knew a Jack Russell Terrier that always came when called when off leash in the woods.” Yes there are exceptions to every generalization made about a breed. But the key word here is these individuals are the exceptions.
Even if your dog is a member of a breed that tends to stay close, that does not mean that your individual dog has the right temperament characteristics to safely hike in the woods off leash. There are a wide range of temperaments within each breed. Some individual dogs may be able to be worked with off leash safely with relatively little training while others may require years of ongoing training. The owner’s willingness to spend time training the dog, genetics, individual difference and the environment are all important factors in off leash control.
Some owners resort to harsh tools such as electronic collars. I routinely receive calls when dogs ignored the shock and chased the deer or dog anyway. I’ve even worked with members of “easy to train” breeds who ignored an electronic collar correction in the face of a very strong distraction. Additionally, there are behavioral risks to using shock collars and dogs that are appropriate to train for off leash control can be effectively trained to come when called via reward based methods without taking a behavioral risk.
Remember that your relationship with your dog is what is most important when it comes to off leash behavior. In fact, the dog I grew up with, Inky, was nearly always off leash and I did not formally train him. He had a naturally low-key temperament and was very closely bonded to our family. He did not actually come when called that well, but he never left far away from us either. His tendency to stay close to us was more a result of his genetics and our relationship, than it was a reflection of training per se.
Of course, do obey local leash laws. In most public places in Northern Virginia and the DC metro area dogs are not permitted to be off leash. Also choose your locations carefully, just because your friend’s farm is a great place for your dog to run off leash, if there is a lot of wildlife, it might just be too risky. No one has 100% control of their dog. Ultimately, as you think about working your dog off leash, keep in mind that your dog’s safety is what is most important, dogs can have lots of fun on a long leash and in fenced in areas too.