Of Off-leash walking can be fun and rewarding for both you and your dog. Off-leash walking is simply an extension of on-leash walking and it is important that you tackle the on-leash walking skills before you begin unleashing your dog. First and foremost, it is your responsibility to choose off-leash locations that are safe and legal. Here in southern California we have lots of hiking trails, bluffs, and beaches where off-leash walking is legal. When looking for a safe space to walk off-leash with your dog consider things like roads and traffic, how large the off-leash space is (it needs to be large enough that your dog can’t run past it’s boarders), and any other hazards your dog might encounter.
After finding a safe and legal space to begin your off-leash training, simply unleash your dog and start walking. If you are not 100% sure that your dog is ready for this step, try leashing them to a 15 or 20-foot lead and let them drag the lead behind them. This will slow them down if they decide to take off and give you something to grab if needed.
Begin by walking away from your dog. Most likely, your dog will run ahead and appear to be unaware of you. Begin by walking away from your dog. Most likely, your dog will run ahead and appear to be unaware of you. If your dog does this simply change direction, walk away and wait a minute or two for her to return. If you don’t see her racing back towards you, try calling her name and asking her to come. The message she gets here is the same as before, you are moving and it is her responsibility to follow. If she understands this basic tenant of walking she will not have gone far and will have a need to double back and check on you. If you think she went too far before doubling back, change directions more often and try hiding so that she has to come back and find you. With most dogs you can hide in plain sight by simply moving behind a tree or stepping a couple of feet off a trail and standing still. I did this exercise so often with my dogs that they turned it into a game. They would go ahead just out of sight and wait about 10 seconds for me to hide. They would then come racing back down the trail skidding to a halt as soon as they either saw me or caught my scent. We played this game for many years with me finding better and better hiding places and them improving their tracking skills.
Once you know that your dog is indeed checking on you at regular intervals, you can add another exercise. In this exercise, anytime there is an opportunity to decide between one trail and another simply go whichever way your dog doesn’t go. This will force your dog to circle back and go in your chosen direction. Do this enough times and you dog will stop and wait for you to decide whenever you come to a crossroads.
I love walking off-leash with my dogs and they love it just as much as I do. I love to watch them running, jumping, chasing scents and always returning to me. As my lab has aged, she is now 13 ½, I’ve had to stop throwing the ball for her to chase. Instead, during our off-leash walks I began chucking it into bushes or tall grass so that the game of fetch morphed into the game of find it. I loved watching her dive in after the ball and then pop her head up to locate me every 15 seconds or so. As long as I was standing there, she would continue searching until she finally triumphantly emerged with the ball.
While off-leash walking can be extremely enjoyable, you do have to keep an eye out for nature’s creatures. Snakes, skunks, fleas and ticks, even alligators and/or bears if you live in certain states, can be natural hazards. Keep these in mind when choosing off leash areas and keep an eye on your dog as you go. There are literally hundreds of games you and your dog can develop and play while enjoying off-leash time.