Transitioning to off-leash freedom can be a very challenging experience for many dog owners and I feel that the current dog culture encourages dogs to be off leash far too soon in their training process and far too often.
Dog owners can sometimes feel pressured to let their dogs off leash on the well-intentioned but confused advice of other dog owners.
I am not one of those advocates. I firmly believe, practise and teach that dog owners should always carry a leash and poop bags with them on a walk. Allowing a dog off leash (even along off-leash trails or parks) should only be allowed when there is no concern that the dog might disrupt the enjoyment of other trail or park users.
There is nothing wrong with leashing a dog when you know you have no control over it and are trying to prevent it from impacting another person’s life negatively. What it says is, “I am a responsible dog owner and realize that my dog requires more training.” It is admirable, not shameable. Yet there is an empathetic line that is crossed in an off-leash (or on-leash) area with an off-leash dog when the owner refuses to control the dog and creates a situation that impacts another life in a negative way. Frankly, you people who continue to do this are really pissing me off! You are intentionally ruining a wonderful outdoor experience for other people and their dogs when you let your dog harass them due to your own immense ego and arrogance. Grow up and stop it!
Now, on to training and more positive experiences with our pooches.
So when is the right age to begin to let a dog off leash? Well, there is no “right age.” It has far less to do with age than it does with a dog showing reliable behaviour. For example, my German shepherd Zumi began to show reliable behaviour when she was five months old. This means that when she was on leash, she would automatically want to stay close to me. She never strained on the leash to get ahead of me and her obedience was spot on. She could sit for 10 minutes if I asked her to in the midst of absolute chaos without taking her eyes off of me. That is exceptional behaviour and for a five-month-old dog, it’s highly unusual. But genetically she was created with personal protection, loyalty and fearlessness in mind. Genetically, she had the capacity to be reliable beyond reasonable expectation. She was allowed off leash very early and has rarely been on leash her entire life because she is so ridiculously reliable.
Now let’s take my German shorthaired pointer as an example. He was not allowed off leash for any great length of time until he was almost two. Why? Well, genetically he was created to follow his nose until he located the scent and stay at that spot and point until someone found him. Given that description of his genetic makeup, you can see the potential problems of letting a scent hound off leash anywhere. There were times I tested his ability to stay close to me and let him off leash only to find myself hollering his name at the top of my lungs as I heard him bounding though the forest in the opposite direction after a deer!
It took more than two years of leash training and short off-leash sessions with low distractions along our walks before he became reliable. Even to this day, when I see his nose pointing skyward and his nostrils flicking at a scent, I immediately leash him.
The biggest problem with allowing a dog off leash too soon is that it encourages unwanted behaviours that are really difficult to fix once they have been self-rewarded.
A reliable recall in puppy school is wrecked when the dog does not come when off leash and instead plays with another dog.
Dogs jump on people and will continue to do so because it gets attention, even if it is negative attention. Basically all the really icky behaviours that people don’t like about dogs are reinforced when a dog is allowed off leash too soon.
In my next column, I will discuss the steps to off-leash training, focusing on meeting people along trails.
Joan Klucha has been working with dogs for more than 15 years in obedience, tracking and behavioural rehabilitation. Contact her at email@example.com.