As dog people, we all love watching our pups run freely through a field of tall grass or through the forest - bright eyed and bushy tailed, without a care in the world, tongue flopping wildly in the wind. And for most dog owners, this is the ideal walk - the best thing they can do for their pup! Yet most people don’t realize that letting your dog off-leash is a privilege (not a right), and there are several things every responsible pet owner needs to consider before unleashing their pooch.
THE IMPORTANCE OF LEASH LAWS
Picture this: you get into the car with your pup, drive 30 minutes to a local forest you’ve been dying to check out (who doesn’t love some good fall foliage, am I right?), and as you pull up, you see it - the “all dogs must be kept on leash” sign.
Usually these notices make people angry - “why should I have to keep him tethered to me? He should be allowed to ‘be a dog!’” Unfortunately, people have started to anthropomorphize their dogs, and while this can lead to a ton of bad things, one of the most harmful ones is feeling guilty for having to keep their pups on a leash. Even though we don’t like to admit it, leashes are important and they can even save lives! Leash laws exist for several different reasons, a few of which I’ll explore below.
Leashes keep your dog safe. This is probably the most basic reason for why pets need to be leashed - it’s just safer! If your dog is free to roam, they could get hit by a car, get into fights with other dogs, chase after wildlife and get lost, destroy public property… the list goes on and on. Keeping your pet leashed (and under control) makes it easier for you to ensure their safety, especially when they are young or still learning reliable recall.
Leashes keep OTHER DOGS safe. We’ve all heard those dreaded words before, as an unfamiliar, off-leash dog charges towards you on a hike: “don’t worry, he’s friendly!” It’s time to face facts - even if your dog is friendly, it doesn’t mean everyone else’s is. And even if they are friendly, not everyone has time for a meet and greet, and some people are working on training. Plus, on-leash trails are often frequented by people with reactive dogs who rely on the fact that other people have control over their dogs, so it is important to be respectful of others and their need for space.
Dogs can harm the environment/local wildlife. When my boyfriend and I visited Presque Isle beach for the first time, we were surprised to find that the beach only allowed leashed dogs. At first we were disappointed, but then we looked a little closer. The sign stated that Presque Isle was home to several bird species that liked to nest in the grasses, so dogs were required to be leashed to avoid disturbing their nests. Remember, you always respect native wildlife, and so should your dog!
LETTING YOUR DOG OFF-LEASH RESPONSIBLY
Now that we’ve covered the hard part, when is it appropriate for pups to be wild and free? There are two parts to this - location and training. Let’s start with the easy one first.
There are two kinds of spaces where we take our dogs: dog parks and dog-friendly parks/areas. The distinction between dog parks and dog-friendly parks or public spaces is whether or not the space was made for dogs, or if they’re just allowed to be there. Dog parks are usually fenced in, grassy or gravel-covered yards that have a double-gated entrance. Some dog parks are fenced and forested, but these are few and far between. Most gated dog parks are off-leash, meaning any dog inside the park is allowed to roam free (which can sometimes create issues when it comes to off-leash manners, but we’re getting to that). On the contrary, dog-friendly parks or other public spaces are places where dogs are allowed, but they typically have stricter leash laws. This can include places like national parks, local parks, and pretty much anywhere that doesn’t explicitly exclude dogs.
Although it’s obvious that dog parks are (usually) a safe space for your pup to be off-leash, I’m sure a lot of us can admit to having let our pups off-leash in on-leash areas before. Is this a problem? Yes and no. For owners who practice responsible and safe recall (discussed in the next section), bending the rules every now and again typically won’t result in any problems. But for the average dog, breaking the on-leash rule can set a bad example for others, and can also ruin other dogs’ experiences in on-leash areas. Though this isn’t typically an issue in crowded city sidewalks or in your local pet store, letting pets off-leash in on-leash parks can cause lots of problems for unsuspecting pet owners. For instance, people with reactive dogs may be unable to take their pets to off-leash parks, so they rely heavily on on-leash parks to provide their dog with appropriate exercise and mental stimulation. When they arrive at these parks only to find off-leash dogs, it can cause a lot of stress for them and their dogs, as they are now required to monitor other dogs’ behavior and manage their dog’s reaction, rather than enjoy their time out.
So although location matters and should impact your decision of where to let your dog off-leash, it is equally important to understand when you should let your dog off-leash, and a huge part of this comes from appropriate training.
Training reliable recall is imperative to allowing your dog off-leash, and it takes patience and persistence to get right! Allowing your dog off-leash is a privilege that is earned, and training is incredibly important when it comes to giving your dog freedom to roam. Below, I will cover some of the basics your dog should have covered to be a well-mannered, off-leash doggie citizen.
OFF-LEASH MANNERS 101
1. Come when called… always. The hard part about recall is that it has to be “reliable.” You shouldn’t let your dog off leash if they can’t come back to you amidst a world of ever-changing distractions. Wild animals, other dogs, people, etc. are all incredibly interesting for your pup, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay for them to ignore your calls and venture off on their own to investigate. The toughest part of recall is teaching your dog that you are the most exciting thing in their world, but it’s worth it.
2. Respect personal bubbles. Although we often bring our dogs to parks to let them sniff, roam, and explore on their own, it’s important to remember that not all people or dogs who visit these parks want to be greeted by other owners or their dogs. Teaching your dog to stay in your eyesight is great, and teaching them how to heel off leash is even better. Remember to always call your pup back to you when you see others approaching, especially if the other person’s dog is leashed.
3. Know how to “leave it.” Wherever you are, I can almost guarantee that there will be something on the ground you don’t want your dog eating. So before you decide to let your pup off leash, make sure they know “leave it” or a similar command so you can still limit what goes in their mouth despite not being able to physically remove them from the source of temptation.
4. Be the “nice guy.” Unfortunately, dogs that have a history of picking fights with other dogs or that are very reactive to other dogs or people should likely not be off-leash unless lots of precautions are taken to ensure the pup will reliably return to the owner when necessary. Long lines can be useful to allow the pup to explore, but also allow the owner to maintain control.
TIPS FOR BETTER RECALL
Lots of owners love letting their pups off leash because it gives them the freedom to explore, but it’s important to ensure that you are keeping them safe (as well as others) by having solid recall before removing the leash. Here are some ways to work on improving your pup’s recall!
1. Make coming back fun. The two things that go hand in hand with this are NEVER scolding your dog or calling them to you for something unpleasant (i.e., baths, nail trims), and ALWAYS rewarding them and praising them when they come back. If you need your dog for something they won’t like, it’s best to go and get them rather than using your recall command. You want them to associate “come” with good things - not unpleasant ones!
2. Start small first. For any pup, the outside world is super exciting and full of distractions. Recall can be very tough to train if they are overwhelmed by new sights and smells that are arguably more exciting than you! Start in a simple environment, likely your home, and practice recall with very few distractions. Once your pup’s recall is solid in one environment, add some other distractions gradually. When you move outdoors, use a long line to reinforce your pup coming to you when you call. Always take it one small step at a time!
3. Be firm, consistent, and don’t repeat yourself. Pick one command and stick to it, and remember to only say it once or twice! Repeating a command over and over can reinforce “selective hearing” and may make your pup think it’s okay to ignore your commands. Sometimes when my pup doesn’t listen the first time, I will say “hey” or “what did I say?” - and 9 times out of 10 he responds! If they’re not listening, they were likely too distracted or not ready for that level of training - just take a step back to where they were successful last and go from there!
4. Quit while you’re ahead and switch up the rewards. Keep training sessions short, engaging, and successful. Working until your pup ignores you will make recall boring and uninteresting, so be sure to only train for as long as your pup’s attention will allow. Additionally, try switching up the reward from time to time to keep it interesting - reward with toys, treats, or even by showering your pup in affection!
5. Consider using training tools if necessary. For dogs that can be flight risks, or that are more independent, sometimes using a training tool like an e-collar can improve dog-handler communication and greatly improve recall. Typically, a button is pressed that makes the collar emit a slight vibration that stops once the dog performs the correct command (i.e. coming when called). If you are considering this as a training aid, definitely reach out to a professional trainer for help on how to properly use this tool!
In the end, it’s important to recognize that letting your dog off leash isn’t as simple as it seems, and actually requires a lot of care and attention on your part to be a safe and responsible dog owner. Working on reliable recall with your own dog not only keeps them safe, but also keeps other people and pets safe as well.