Off-leash dogs, holy grail or deadly liability?

There is nothing more beautiful than watching a dog and their human work or play in tandem where the dog is almost an extension of their owner. Two souls sharing love and commonality. It is like they are reading each other’s minds and anticipating their every thought. They move together, look out for one another and keep each other safe. As a trainer and dog lover, I don’t think there is anything more magical or heartwarming to see the strength of that bond and the depth of the fun that type of team has together. This is the holy grail of dog ownership!

I had the
pleasure of witnessing this type of dog-owner bond, on several different levels
on a hike this weekend. We also watched as other hikers struggled with their
less well-behaved dogs barking at us and failing to recall.

The unfortunate reality is that while many want this relationship with their dog they expect it to be easy to achieve and assume the dog comes pre-programmed to be this way…” just unclip the leash, they will be fine.” Not necessarily the truth! Just like any relationship worth having, it takes work, time and dedication. Too many people want to skip steps and it can be deadly for your dog when this happens. Are you willing to take that liability with your best buddy?

The dilemma is real:

As trainers, too
often we have people just starting to train their dog or puppy whose single
goal is for their dog to be off-leash. They are very quick to unleash their dog
(or never try to leash train in the first place!) and hope for the best. That’s
like going from kindergarten to college and trying to skip the steps in
between!

Often these people end up seeking training because that desire for an off-leash dog ended up in a brush with death or their dog escaping. Pick up any social media account, on just about any day and you will see the headline of “LOST DOG,” “my dog ran away from me and is missing, ” or “my dog ran away from me again.”

For the people who make it past these dilemmas who come to us for help, we take a giant step backward with them. We go back and start at the foundations of training a dog. There are steps needed to teach your dog to be a learner, to ensure health/wellness prevails and most importantly, teach them how to help their dog focus, even in the face of distractions.

There are a lot of people who fail to be a good leader for their dog and have not given their dog a real reason to want to stay by their side. Dogs are inherently packed animals (just watch them in groups if you don’t believe that!) that thrive in a structured environment with a leader to help guide them. If you skip that step you risk building your relationship with your dog on a shaky foundation. That shaky foundation is challenged when your dog encounters stressors in the world of distractions that are meaningful and fun to them. Those challenges could lure your dog down a dangerous path of running away from you, chasing wildlife, getting hit by a car, running to play with a dog or seeking human attention from one that doesn’t dog-friendly. The stories of painful events and terrible endings are heart-breaking and crushing to owners. Ultimately, is it really worth the risk of losing your dog?

Please, for your dog’s health and wellness, put your time and energy into working with a trainer on:

  • foundational obedience
  • socialization, leash work
  • loose leash walking
  • heeling
  • stays and waits
  • place command
  • downs

Become skilled at these commands long before you unclip your dog’s leash and set them free. If your dog or pup does not respect and listen with the on-leash work you do with them, especially around distractions, why do you think they will listen when you unleash them?

Instead of trying to start with it, phase into and build up to safe, off-leash work. Build a strong foundation, mature into a trustworthy relationship with your dog, learn to use safety tools…do the work rather than exposing your dog to harmful situations or a potential death sentence. Do the methodical work to safely build that holy-grail relationship with your dog as you maneuver whatever life throws at you…then go have fun safely on many fun adventures together.