How do you know if and when your dog is ready to be allowed off leash? Many people want to be able to take their dogs hiking off leash but aren't sure how to know when they can trust their dogs. Regardless of whether you plan to allow your dog off leash, it's still a good goal to work toward in the unfortunate circumstance that your dog does get off leash accidentally.
I am working with Romeo toward off leash reliability (February 2011). Since we live on acreage along a busy road, most of our walks are on our property. If we want to walk off our property, we have to load up in our vehicle and drive somewhere. Since our property is not securely fenced in, I want to train Romeo to be reliable enough that I can walk with him on our property without needing a leash. I also want to be able to hike off leash with him when we are in areas where it's appropriate.
One thing you need to work on to accomplish off leash reliability is a very reliable recall (come). If your dog takes off, will he come back when you call him? If not, your dog should not be allowed off leash.
The other important piece is training your dog to keep track of you and want to keep you close. If your dog does not keep track of you, then it's likely if he's allowed off leash that he will take off and not be concerned whether you are near.
When getting started, all walks need to be done on leash. In order to begin giving your dog more freedom, a long line is the next step. It gives your dog a chance to stray farther from you but allows you a safety net in case he is not keeping track of you or responding when you call him.
I have done a lot of work on a long line with Romeo on our property. Yesterday, I decided to test how well he was keeping track of me. He's pretty good when he's attached to me via a 20 foot long line. So I disconnected the long line from me but kept it attached to his harness. He normally is required to return to me and check in if he hits the end of that line. His job is to remain within that 20 foot radius without straying to the end. With the line no longer attached to me, he did not hit the end of the line once he got 20 feet or more away from me.
Unfortunately, he was too busy tracking bunny and deer smells to notice that he'd strayed farther than he should. I think he assumed I was at the end of the line. I turned and walked off behind the scrub oak out of his sight. He kept going. This tells me that he's not ready to be off leash yet because he's not paying enough attention to where I am. I don't mind if he follows tracks and explores – as long as he's still paying attention to where I am.
On the upside, he did respond right away when I called him. That bodes well for our off leash goal. But I need him paying more attention to me when I am not calling him before I will give him more freedom. We still have more work to do!