‘Off The Leash’ will help you decide when to let your puppy run free, and show you how to let your dog or puppy off leash without him running away.
We also look at differences between different dog breeds when it comes to off leash training and safety. And you can watch a helpful video of Pippa’s puppy learning to be off leash at nine weeks old.
Letting your puppy, or a new dog, off the lead for the first time can be scary!
What if my dog runs away?
What if he won’t come back?
What if my puppy gets lost?
These are all normal worries and concerns.
Fortunately with very young puppies they are mostly unfounded because small puppies are inclined to stick close to their grown up.
We’ll look at small puppies in a moment. But older puppies and adult dogs can be a very different matter
When can I let my dog off the leash?
If you are bringing an older puppy or dog into your life, you need to take some sensible precautions before letting your dog run free
There is a very real risk that the rescue dog you bought home last week, will run away if you let him off leash in an unprotected area today.
As the bond between you grows, this risk diminishes, but there is much you can do to ensure your dog’s safety.
The first step is to get your dog focused on you and make sure he is able to pay attention to you, even when there are interesting things going on around him.
Building a training bond with your dog
Teach your dog to look at your face in order to get what he wants.
Once your dog is paying you attention and can manage these basic skills you can progress to letting him off leash outdoors, under the following conditions.
- He is wearing a training leash, and / or
- He is in a secure off leash training area
You can progress to full off leash freedom once you are confident he will obey you.
Using a training leash
When you first allow your dog to run free, an ideal interim step is to have him wear a well constructed body harness and attach a training leash to the harness.
Unless your dog has a history of absconding, you should let the training leash trail along the ground most of the time.
Only pick the end up if you think something may be about to distract your dog
Or if you want to take him into an area of high distraction where you think he may be tempted to ignore you.
There is plenty of information about training your dog to cope with distractions in these two articles
Off leash dog parks
Some well-fenced and secure off leash dog parks can be a good way of getting started with free running for an older, confident dog.
If he is difficult to catch, even in a confined space, then have him drag a training leash too, so that you can prevent him ignoring your recall.
Busy dog parks are not ideal for small puppies or dogs lacking in confidence, especially at peak times. Though you may be able to use one at unsocial hours.
Off leash trails and public footpaths
In the UK where dogs can be off leash in most parts of the countryside, it’s important to have your dog wear a training leash until you are confident of your recall.
Chasing rabbits and deer is a common problem in many breeds of dog and you need to be alert to avoid problems of this nature getting started.
The same applies to off leash trails and open country in the USA where there may be less traffic hazards, but where predators and dangerous terrain post an additional risk to a dog chasing wildlife or running about unsupervised.
Off leash beaches
Running free on a beach, where permitted, can be ideal for place for a dog to stretch his legs.
There is usually less risk of the dog chasing wildlife, and chasing seabirds is less of a problem because the dog never gets the reward of catching one.
Beware of beaches with fast currents or mud flats. A dog running loose can quickly get into trouble. Again, the training leash, and plenty of interaction to hold your dog’s attention, is your friend.
When to let your puppy off leash
The best time to let a puppy off the leash is from the very beginning. Provided that you are in an area where your puppy cannot be molested by strange dogs
Far too many people are sold a puppy without being told of the importance of letting puppies off the lead from the very start.
Why you should let your puppy off the leash now
Small puppies have a strong desire to remain very close to their ‘grown ups’ and will normally follow any adult very closely when put down on the ground.
This desire may persist for longer in some of our very co-operative breeds. Including gun dog breeds like Labs and herding breeds like Collies. But is present in all small puppies
This is a ‘safety response’ designed for their protection.
Once a puppy is over four months old, this desire to cling to your legs diminishes with every passing week.
New puppies can with a little common sense, be safely allowed to run around off the lead.
They will automatically follow their owner around. At this age it is wonderfully easy to get the beginnings of a simple recall established. As this video illustrates
By eight or nine months of age, most Labrador puppies have bucketloads of confidence and little need for your protection on a minute by minute basis.
This is not a great time to let a dog off the lead for the very first time.
Towards the end of the first year of your dog’s life you should be putting the finishing touches on his off-lead recall, not just beginning to teach him how to come when he is called.
Obviously you need to have access to a ‘puppy safe’ area to let your puppy off the leash at a very young age.
A place where your puppy wont be at risk from catching a disease from a strange dog, or from being attacked by one. If you can arrange this, it is well worth the effort.
Oh dear, is it too late?
If you have made the mistake of keeping your puppy on the leash for several months, and if your almost mature pup has never run off lead, it is not too late to begin.
Dogs can be taught to come when called at any age.
Don’t forget, you’ll most likely need to use a training leash on your dog as an interim measure, whilst training him to recall.
Best off leash dog breeds
If you haven’t yet brought a dog into your life, you may be wondering if some breeds are better suited to being off leash than others.
It is true that some breeds are easier to train off leash than others.
We’ve already touched on the co-operative nature of our herding and gun dog breeds.
These groups of dog generally make very trainable off leash dogs.
It’s also true that it can be harder to train a recall in dog that have been bred to chase other animals, including sight hound breeds like whippets and greyhounds.
But almost all dogs can be trained to respond to their owner off leash, if they are started at an early age.
And most older dogs can be trained to be obedient off leash if enough time and commitment is given to teaching them
You can find more information on recall training in our in depth guide “Teach Your Puppy To Come When Called“.
You might also find this article helpful: Why dogs run away, and how to stop them
I have also written a complete recall training programme Total Recall to help you establish a great recall with your puppy or older dog.
The Labrador Site Founder
Pippa Mattinson is the best selling author of The Happy Puppy Handbook, the Labrador Handbook, Choosing The Perfect Puppy, and Total Recall.
She is also the founder of the Gundog Trust and the Dogsnet Online Training Program
Pippa's online training courses were launched in 2019 and you can find the latest course dates on the Dogsnet website