Looking for ways to add some variety to your dog’s daily routine? You might want to try some off leash exercise. Although it might sound intimidating at first, off leash exercise is great for many dogs—including reactive dogs—and great for owners, too!
The benefits of off leash exercise for dogs
There are many benefits of off leash exercise, for humans and dogs alike. They include:
Physical health: Being off leash lets your dog exercise in ways that aren’t possible when they are on a leash. They may be able to run freely, swim, or hike. These activities can offer higher intensity exercise than most leashed walks or runs with your dog, and can be important contributors to your dog’s health.
Mental health: Off leash activities give your dog the freedom to roam, explore, and sniff new things, all of which give your dog much-needed mental stimulation.
Building trust: Choosing to do off leash training with your dog means taking the time to teach them cues that will ensure their safety, such as “sit,” “stay,” and “come.” This training builds trust between you and your dog, ultimately leading to a closer relationship.
Before you start
Be aware of the risks: There is no way to guarantee complete safety with off leash exercise. Because nearly all outdoor environments are unpredictable, you can’t be completely sure that your dog will never be in harm’s way. However, you can mitigate these risks by choosing the right environment and doing lots of off leash training, which we’ll get to later.
Set the right expectations: This point is more for you than for your dog. Ask yourself: what do I expect of my dog in a given environment, and how do I expect to train him to do these behaviors?
You should also manage your expectations around how quickly your dog will learn these new skills. Be aware that training takes time, repetition, and lots of patience. You will probably be teaching your dog multiple new skills, and she will have to employ them in new and distracting environments. This is a lot for a dog to learn, and will take some time!
Establish good behaviors (for your dog and for you!): Just like setting the right expectations, establishing good behaviors requires you to do some thinking ahead of time. Ask yourself what good behavior will look like for your dog in an off leash environment. Your list will probably include things like excellent recall, paying attention to your cues, and (in some environments) staying close to you. These will become the behaviors you teach your dog during training.
In addition, you’ll need to think about what good behavior looks like for you. Think about what you want to accomplish with off leash training and outings, and how you want to respond to your dog in various situations. Dog training can be difficult and slow moving, and is not a one-time activity, but a lifelong process. Decide how you want to respond if the training is not going how you expected it to go, or if you feel yourself getting impatient.
Get to know your dog: Before you start off leash training, it’s important to step back and think “what do I know about my dog?” You’ll want to think about things like body language, temperament, and triggers. Think about what makes your dog nervous, what makes her happy, and what she likes to “work” for (such as toys or treats). Be sure to keep in mind what triggers your dog, such as loud noises or strangers, and what her body language looks like when she is triggered vs. when she is calm. These are all important things to keep in mind when you begin your training!
Get the right gear: Off leash training doesn’t require any expensive purchases, but you’ll want to make sure you have a couple of things on hand:
Other considerations before getting started:
Choose the right location: Eventually, you’ll work your way up to training your dog when distractions are present. However, in the beginning, you need a space that is safe, secure, and as quiet as possible.
The training process
Beginner training: There are a few behaviors that are key for any dog that will be in an off leash environment:
To train these behaviors, you’ll need to use positive reinforcement, meaning your dog gets a reward when she does what you ask. Use a clicker or a word like “yes” to mark the moment when your dog correctly performs the behavior.
Here’s how to train your dog to come when called:
A fun way to practice recall is to use Chirag Patel’s counting game, which uses counting and lots of treats to teach your dog that it’s fun to come when called!
Although a lot of repetition is involved, try to limit your training sessions to 15 minutes so your dog doesn’t get tired or overwhelmed. You may have to do several sessions. Remember, patience is key!
The process for training your dog to “stay” is similar, but with a couple of key differences:
Again, you will probably have to repeat all steps of the process several times, and may have to have several sessions with your dog before they fully understand.
Here’s how the trainers at Dog’s Day Out recommend training your dog to “leave it”:
As your dog gets better at this, you will advance to tossing the low-value treat a few feet away and teaching them to “leave it” in order to get the high value treat.
And finally, here’s how to teach your dog to “check in” with you:
Intermediate training: For each behavior, gradually increase the number of distractions in the environment. This may mean moving from indoors to outdoors, or from your own familiar backyard to a Sniffspot!
For the “stay” cue specifically, gradually increase the amount of time your dog has to stay, and the activities you do while your dog stays. For instance, once your dog has mastered “stay” while you’re looking at him, advance to briefly looking away while your dog stays, and rewarding him when he does.
Be sure not to move too quickly. Once your dog has mastered a basic skill, it may take several sessions before they can move on to performing the behavior with the addition of distractions or longer durations. Increase the difficulty of each behavior as gradually as possible. If you advance to the next step and it seems like your dog doesn’t understand what you want from him, that means you need to back up and go more slowly.
Advanced training: Add even more difficulties and distractions! (Again, be sure to do this very gradually.) You might take your training to an area that’s much more distracting, like a dog park or dog beach (as long as your dog isn’t reactive to other dogs). Mastering a skill in a dog park or on a dog beach is a whole other level! (Note: if you take your training to a dog park or beach, do not use treats if other dogs are present, as it may cause food aggression in some dogs.)
For the “stay” cue, in addition to training your dog to master it in distracting environments, practice having him stay while you do other things at home: watch TV for a few minutes, cook, etc.
For all stages of training, make sure to go slowly, have patience, and reward your dog every time he performs the behavior you want—no matter how long it takes him to get there.
Special considerations for reactive dogs: A reactive dog is one who responds to stimuli with an abnormal level of intensity, according to Applied Animal Behaviorist Karen Overall, M.A., V.M.D., Ph.D.
The key to training a reactive dog is to know what his triggers are. For instance, some dogs may be reactive to other dogs, to strangers, or to skateboards. When doing off leash training with a reactive dog, restrict access to these triggers as much as possible, especially in the beginning.
If your dog is reactive to other dogs or to people, you will need to think seriously about what off leash exercise will look like for him. Make sure you never put your dog in a position where he can hurt himself or others. A private Sniffspot is a great place for dogs with these triggers, while a dog beach or hiking spot likely is not.
Off leash training programs: You might want to consider having a trainer work with you and your dog on their off leash skills. Dog trainers can be a great option, especially for dog parents who are new to training.
Managing off leash training on an ongoing basis
What to do if your dog runs away: If your dog gets away from you in an off leash environment, remain calm. Using the happiest voice you can, try to use your recall word (“come” or similar). If that doesn’t work, brandish any high value treats you have on you, and call your dog again in a happy voice.
If you dog gets away from you and you cannot find her, what you do next will depend on the environment you’re in. If you are in a confined area, keep searching and offering treats. If you are in a larger or unfenced area (such as a hiking trail) and cannot find your dog, you may need to bring in the help of a ranger or other official.
In all cases, continue to offer treats and to sound friendly. Make yourself as appealing as possible with treats and a happy voice. Try not to let on that you are scared or angry. You want your dog to come back to you at all costs.
ID tags and microchips: Before you begin off leash training, you’ll need to make sure your dog is microchipped and that the chips information is up to date. A microchip is a tiny electronic chip that is implanted into a pet. The information encoded into the chip is readable by a scanner. If you adopt a dog from a shelter or rescue group, your dog might come with a microchip already implanted. If they didn’t, make an appointment with your vet to get your dog “chipped.” After the chip is implanted, you’ll need to register the microchip number with the appropriate database, which varies depending on the company that manufactured your dog’s chip. You can search the Pet Microchip Lookup to find the company that manufactured your pet’s chip, then register your information with them.
Your dog should also always be wearing an identification tag that has his name and your phone number on it. This is true for all dogs, but is especially true if you are going to be engaging in off leash exercise outside your home.
Learn how to safely break up a dog fight: We all hope our dogs will never get into a fight, but you’ll want to be prepared just in case. You need to know how to break up a dog fight without getting bitten by one of the dogs. Dr. Sophia Yin, DVM, MS, says “the number one way to avoid being bitten is to avoid trying to grab the head or neck area.” Instead, grab your dog by the rear end or by their rear legs (in a “wheelbarrow” pose), and pull them away from the other dog.
You can also try distracting the dogs using a spray bottle, loud noise, or a cue that tends to get their attention, such as “let’s get in the car!”
Although exercising your dog off leash comes with some risks, it’s a great tool for dogs’ mental and physical health, and can be especially good for reactive dogs under the right circumstances. It’s important to know the risks, set the right expectations, and to have a thorough understanding of your dog’s tendencies and triggers. Do your research and commit to your off leash training, and you can have a lifetime of fun, safe, and rewarding off leash experiences with your dog. And when you are ready, book a spot near you!
Trainers that reviewed this article
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These is the trainer that reviewed this article:
Owner - Dog's Day Out, Ballard, WA
Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA)
Licensed AKC CGC Evaluator
NW Coordinator, Doggone Safe