When Is Your Dog Safe Off Leash?

Honey the Golden Retriever at Conley Park in Ithaca.

So glad some landscape architect planned a park that keeps my ball from rolling too far away.

Honey and I sat on the top step of our front porch like we had done dozens of times before.

I could feel her excitement. But I was stunned when she took off running down the stairs and out into the street.

Honey completely ignored me when I called her to return to me.

Luckily the street had no traffic. And the man she had run to carried a bag full of treats.

He was our trainer, Russ.

Sometimes Dying of Embarrassment Is the Best You Can Hope For

As you can imagine, I was mortified to see Honey run into the street. And relieved to realize that the worst outcome was my embarrassment in front of our trainer.

But embarrassment is a small price to pay compared to seeing your dog injured or killed before your eyes.

Usually Honey had a wonderful recall. I’ve been able to call her to my side as a squirrel ran by her. But that day I learned the hard lesson that no dog has a 100% reliable recall if she sees something more appealing than her person.

My big training fail forced me to work harder with Honey on her recall. And I’ve added many more tricks to make me more interesting to my dog.

But it also led me to rethink when it was safe to allow her off-leash freedom.

Deciding When to Go Off-Leash

Patricia McConnell recently wrote about her decision to allow Tootsie, the puppy mill breeder she adopted, to go off leash at a friend’s home.

I went through a similar process with Honey. I ask myself the following questions:

1) What are the temptations we’re most likely to face if Honey is off leash? And how hard would they be for her to resist?

From least tempting to most

  • squirrels
  • food left on the street
  • other dogs
  • interesting people

2) Am I likely to spot temptations before Honey does?

I don’t allow Honey off leash where she could be quickly out of my sight lines.

Honey the Golden Retriever walks near Cascadilla Creek.

If I go in one direction, I fall in the creek. If I go in the other direction, I run into a fence. I guess I’ll just walk with you.

3) Do I have tasty treats or a fun toy in my pocket?

Part of being interesting to my dog is having her never certain whether I’m pulling liver treats, a poop bag, or tug toy out of my pocket on a walk.

4) If Honey does run toward something tempting, can I corral her quickly and safely even if her recall fails?

The nearby gorge surrounding the Ithaca Falls provides lots of safety. We’re surrounded by steep, rock walls on three sides and I always keep my body between Honey and the gorge opening where another dog or person could appear. I also let her leash drag so I have something to grab if she tries to run by me.

And the gorge is set back from the road so we don’t have to worry about traffic.

I’ve found it helpful to ask myself these questions when I’m thinking about off-leash play time on a walk. That, combined with the extra training we’ve done, has made me feel more comfortable giving Honey some autonomy outside the house.

The Proof is in the Pudding Puppy

Yesterday I took Honey to play fetch in a nearby park. First I answered my four questions:

1) We went in the middle of the day when we’re less likely to see dog walkers or runners.

2) The park has some raised flower beds that Honey is too short to see over but I have a good view in all directions.

3) My treat bag was filled with liverwurst and I had taken one of her favorite toys to toss and play tug with.

4) The creek on one side cuts off Honey’s options (thank heavens she doesn’t know she’s a water dog). And I confine our play area to the side of the park where the flower beds create a container.

We had a great time.

And then I heard it. “Gidget, Gidget,” being shouted by the woman who had come out on her porch to smoke and whose ten pound dog was tearing across the street toward Honey.

I told Honey to wait as I walked over to grab hold of her harness. Honey stayed in place while the little dog sniffed her all over and we waited for the dog’s person to catch up to her.

I don’t know if Honey would have listened as well if the raised flower beds hadn’t blocked her view of the dog running toward her. But it doesn’t matter. Because we made choices that increased our likelihood of success.

Risk vs Reward

Any time we let our dogs off leash, we’re taking a risk.

Honey the Golden Retriever is on the scent near Cascadilla Creek..

If you really want to give me choices, why not let me sniff the way to McDonalds?

Heck, even having them on leash is no guarantee of safety. Under the right (or wrong) circumstances, any dog can slip a collar or pull a leash right out of our hands.

But, like Patricia McConnell, I believe dogs need freedom to make their own choices—at least sometimes.

Our responsibility is to decide whether the reward is worth the risk.

My last dog, Shadow, was never safe in an open space without a leash. She followed her nose wherever it would take her. It took us months of hard work and training to get any attention from her once her nose was occupied. And I’m sorry we weren’t able to give her more freedom in her short time with us.

But Honey is a very different girl. And while I need to guard against being overconfident (luckily she creates just enough mischief at the most embarrassing moments to keep me humble), it’s important to look for safe places to allow her to explore off-leash.

I choose when Honey eats and when she goes for walks. I choose what we do each day. I choose her toys. I choose her bed.

I’m happy to give Honey the choice to return to me when she’s off-leash.

But that doesn’t mean I won’t stack the decks in my favor.

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  1. You are so wise to consider that we can’t be 100% sure of the recall when they are off leash. I also think it must be such a wonderful feeling for the dogs to get the chance to be off leash, to go as fast or as slow as they want, right or left, or whatever. We often bring Kelly and Brooks to a baseball field. It’s not completely fenced in, but there is a sort of fence surrounding the outfield and a backstop behind home plate, so it gives us a little protection. Brooks has proven reliable at his recall because he loves to be near us and seems mostly oblivious to animals in his surrounding. Kelly is much less likely to return, but I let her drag a long leash so she can run free, and I’m right there to make sure she doesn’t get caught or tangled.

    • It’s nice you’ve found a relatively safe place close to home. You’ve said walking Kelly and Brooks is problematic because of loose dogs in your neighborhood.

      I’m sure Kelly is glad for a bit of freedom.

  2. It’s great advice.

    When I first saw the title of the post my instant response was : never. Let’s face it we’ve all heard the stories of the slipped collar or leash. On Sunday when I fell on our walk, I dropped Sampson’s leash. That could have been a disaster if he had been paying any attention whatsoever to me.

    Delilah is totally unreliable. She will return time and time again and just when you think she’s got a great recall, she will blow you off. Which is why her off-leash time is monitored very closely. Each time she blows off a recall, that area is off limits to her off-leash. Does it make me feel bad? Yes it does, because we have a great area for off-leash walking. But it doesn’t make me feel as bad as I would if she got hurt, or hit by a car or lost.

    You are wise to stack the deck in your favor and know when to off-leash and when to not.

    • It’s smart that you recognize the challenges for your dogs. No dog is reliable off leash 100% of the time and some dogs aren’t reliable off leash even 20% of the time. I’ve had two of those.

      I guess it all comes down to knowing your dog. But it certainly seems like there are an awful lot of wackadoos who think they’re dogs are dependable off leash when they really aren’t.

  3. Drats I am no way allowed off the lead out and about unless we are in the park. I am not even allowed to go down Pussycat Alley as I nearly rip the peeps arm off. I once chased a fox and peeps had to run after me and grab me whilst I tried to get it. The fox ran over peeps foot and she got me. Drats again. I am fixated on a small wood and that is my SHQ (squirrel HQ). I am allowed to go mad there and in the rest of the park. Peeps says I am better now but as a puppy I was a monster. Have a terrific Tuesday.
    Best wishes Molly

  4. Great blog post. It is a tricky one. Especially with dogs like me who aren’t reliable recallers. I’m good when no one’s about but if another dog is on the horizon I’m off like a shot to make friends. And not all other dogs or their owners are dog friendly… Needless to say I don’t get a lot of off-leash time sadly.

    • You come from a long line of independent dogs. Your people are probably smart to keep you close.

      But I bet when you get older they’ll find some situations where you can get some freedom and they don’t have to worry about you. :)

  5. I have one dog who’s as close to 100% reliable off-leash as a dog can be, and one who hovers around 60-70% MAYBE if there’s not something better going on. He’s fine on long hikes and outdoor walks because he’ll always stick close to the group in an unfamiliar area, but once he gets comfortable that he knows where “home base” is, he gets a lot more adventurous and then it’s adios reliable recall.

    I think it’s my fault though. The first dog is my competition dog. We have the kind of relationship, built over years of daily work and training, where it almost feels like a telepathic connection sometimes. With the other dog I don’t have nearly as close a relationship — he earned a beginner title and then I retired him because he wasn’t enjoying the work and neither was I — so that profound connection is just not there. And without that, he has an okay recall, maybe better than average, but it’s nowhere near where I want it to be. And that’s on me. If I want a snappy recall, I’ve got to be willing to put in the work to build it.

    • I’m curious about your 60%/70% recall dog. Do you think he’s capable of a reliable recall with lots of training?

      Like with people, I suspect dogs can always get better with training. But I’m never sure we’re all capable of meeting every goal we set.

      On the other hand, having a reliable dog on a long hike sounds like a lot of fun.

      • With lots of training and a little more maturity, yes. He just turned 2 a week ago, so there’s a lot of puppy in him yet! 😉

        But yes, I’m pretty confident I can get it with time. I’d be less sure if he were a nose-obsessed beagle or a super independent husky, but he’s an Akita mix and he’s reasonably people-oriented, and (this is important!) we have a small dog park nearby where I can get lots and lots of practice recalling away from off-leash dogs, which is his #1 trouble spot. He’s shown enough progress in the practice sessions I’ve done with him that, for this particular dog, it’s clearly just a matter of building the habit.

        However, as Patricia McConnell likes to say, “simple is not the same as easy”…

  6. The only time I let Silas completely off leash is at my in-laws’. They have a huge chunk of property that’s fenced on two sides and bordered by a deep (but not dangerously steep) ravine in the back. At my parents’ house he at least drags his leash. Too many free-ranging dogs in their neighborhood, and I’ve learned that he won’t come back from that. Here in town, he is on leash everywhere, all the time. Too risky to let him go, not to mention that our parks are never completely empty, no matter when I go.

    • Sounds like Silas has lots of reasons to enjoy visiting your in-laws. I’m glad he (and you) have a safe and fun place for him to visit.

  7. I always have a treat bag attached to my leash so as to reward a recall. But that is not a fail-safe method. My guys both have a strong prey drive and any wild critter is worthy of a chase in their eyes. I can call them off of bunnies and squirrels because they know from experience they aren’t going to catch them. But a few deer running by trigger that herding instinct and the boys only listen if I see the deer first…at a distance.

    It’s definitely a hard choice when to allow off-leash freedom. I can find plenty of places that are relatively safe from cars, but then getting lost chasing a deer poses another risk. Wish I had a 20 acre, fully fenced yard…………

    • It really comes down to knowing your dogs.

      My first dog Christie also had a high prey drive and I never found safe places to allow her off leash in Philadelphia. One squirrel comes along and she’d be off like a shot.

      I’d love to borrow your pups to “herd” the Canada geese in our lakeside park. They leave a royal mess and could use a Corgi showing them where to go. :)

  8. Interesting post! The only time my boy is off-leash is when he’s either inside my house or in my own fenced in yard. Having a pit mix and strays that run around my neighborhood all time, is certainly not worth the risk.

    • If we still lived in Philadelphia, Honey wouldn’t get to go off leash other. It wasn’t a good setting.

      Luckily for her, Ithaca has some pretty rural areas right in the downtown. And loose dogs are pretty unusual.

      So I guess knowing your setting is at least as important as knowing your dog.

  9. this is a super important post and I thank you! You listed many of the reasons that I don’t allow Dakota to be “off-leash” when outside

    • Safety first.

      And some dogs and places are riskier than others. Honey is the first dog I’ve had with a low enough prey drive to even consider allowing off-leash.

  10. You know I read Patricia McConnell’s piece too and found it very wise…I will say that with all the hiking we do it’s important for me to be able to trust my dog off leash so I work for that from the first…Our hikes would not be as much fun if I had to worry about a leash and Gizmo would not be able to enjoy the freedom of running on a trail…I test him often and he is solid…he will return even if he’s on the scent of a bunny or armadillo …I do think “continuing education” is vital…he needs to remember that stop means stop and come means come and i remind him of that every time we’re out

    • Since you hike regularly with Gizmo, you get lots of chances to reinforce his recall.

      McConnell’s piece about teaching a “stop” and now you’re mentioning it here reminds me that this is something for Honey and me to work on.

  11. Really great post. Thank you so much for sharing your thought processes. It’s a tough call to make for many of us as we want to socialize our dogs and give them a chance to run but we also need to keep them safe. As you might know, I have worked on our recall pretty much constantly and it has been a large source of stress. One day she will be perfect and the next will act like she’s never heard her name before as soon as they leash is off. It drives me crazy! My goal is to be able to call Shiva away from everything in the environment with at least 95% reliability. After almost four years, I am almost there. Our one big distraction remains edibles. I just can’t find a way to make the food in my hand better than the food on the ground.
    Luckily this has not put us in dangerous situations, even if it has been a source of great annoyance on the agility course!

    • I’ve also had days with Honey where her brain falls out. The day we took her Canine Good Citizen test comes to mind first.

      I can’t tell when it’s going to happen. But I’d swear it has to do with the weather. It’s usually on a particularly crisp, sunny day.

      Needless to say, on those days, the leash stays snapped no matter what.

      As for agility course zoomies, YouTube only exists to show every third dog doing the same thing. :)

  12. A very interesting post and a good reminder that no dog is 100% reliable on their recall. Since we found Buster as a stray I can count on one hand the number of times he’s ignored me calling him. It’s nothing I taught him – he’s just very programmed on us. (Perhaps from being abandoned in the middle of a city by his previous owner?) Ty, on the other hand, can’t be trusted off-leash. I imagine he thinks he’ll find himself a better situation just around the next bend, with a cushier bed, better tasting treats, and one less brother!

  13. Georgia just came home her walk in Mort Bay where fishermen are now even at the little beach where she and her friends play. They used to only be at the piers. No more off leash for Miss Scavenger there. In fact, maybe even no more Mort Bay.

    We discovered something interesting during our holiday. We were careful not to let Georgia off leash in new surroundings and to leave her collar on, just in case she did a runner. But to our surprise, she stayed really close to us on all our walks. She has some sense of self preservation after all!

    • Sorry to hear the fishermen are taking over one of your favorite beaches. As someone who goes barefoot from June through August, I wonder why people don’t make as much fuss about fish hooks on the shore as they do about dog poop. Stepping in dog poop is much less painful than stepping on a fish hook.

      I’m not surprised to hear that Miss Georgia stayed closer to you in a strange setting. She wanted to make sure you weren’t going to high tail it to the car without her. :)

  14. Fantastic post! And a very good point about never having a 100% recall.
    After working long and hard, Nola now has a solid recall. I’m currently working with her on an emergency stop cue.
    Nola’s Mom

    • Yes, it is hard work. But isn’t it worth it?

      I haven’t yet taught Honey an emergency stop cue. Maybe it would be a good post for you to add to the Train Your Dog Month Challenge? I’ll be putting up a linky list here for one week starting January 31 and I’d love to learn more about how you’re teaching it.

      Besides, one of the people who posts in the challenge will win a $25 gift to their favorite animal charity and a prize back for their dog. I bet Nola would love it.

  15. Houndstooth says:

    I think you’re wise to point out that no dog is 100% reliable. Every time we run into an off leash dog, they completely ignore their humans. I don’t think that most people have a realistic view of what their dog is really like on their recall. Ours aren’t off leash unless we’re certain we can get them back and they can’t take off.

    • I find that many people in the dog parks also ignore their dogs. :)

      When we’re at the dog park, I’m always watching Honey. But I’m also constantly moving. She never knows where I’m going to end up so Honey looks up regularly to see where I’ve gone. I know she wouldn’t do that if I sat at a picnic table chatting with people.

      I also call her to me every so often and release her to play again so she doesn’t think every time I call her she’s going home.

      You’re right about how many people have no clue about their dog’s recall. I’m amazed that they take the risk.

  16. Your questions are perfect and makes you think. BJ had been 95% recall. About a year ago he began having selective hearing. He ignores me when I call him and he doesn’t want to stop what he was doing. Most of the time he comes if I say, “Wanta cookie.”

  17. Woof! Woof! Soooo TRUE. I’m 11 and mom still gets nervous when I’m off leash because she knows when I see something interesting I go for it (such a retriever). On the other hand, I am so different when I am off leash with my dad. I do COME right away if there’s treats. Golden Thanks for sharing this. Lots of Golden Woofs, Sugar

    • Isn’t it funny how things are different with the mom and the dad? Honey acts very differently around the two of us too.

      If you ever want to explain it to me, Sugar, I’d love to hear why. :)

  18. I don’t get many opportunities to be off-leash. My bipeds have to be very confident to allow me to be loose because my breed has a tendency to go off and investigate the slightest noise we hear. My potential exits have to be restricted for them to be comfortable!

    • And that’s the difference between a dog bred for generations to guard huge flocks on their own and a dog bred for generations to retrieve things for their people. :)

      Glad your people are smart about keeping you safe.

  19. I’m a huge fan of walking dogs off leash if you’re in an area where this is safe. We have three dogs and I do most of the walking; walking all 3 on leash is a pain. We started by leaving Sydney off leash, because she stays close to us. Once Rodrigo developed a stronger recall (95%) then he was off leash. When we adopted Blue, he just fell in line and never stays too far.

    We love it and the dogs love it and I hardly have to bring treats. We trained them with lots of love when they return (because I kept forgetting the training treats). So when they come back, sometimes they come in for their hugs – LOL.

  20. So smart to choose a situation which stacks the deck in favor of success. :)

    I wish that I could trust my crazy pups off leash. Bella’s Beagle nose takes over and she tends to forget everything else when she follows it. Tavish has crazy bursts of energy – while he’s mostly a good listener, the sight of a squirrel makes him forget everything else. Sometimes I wonder if I am too paranoid (we’re compulsive gate-users in this house), but I figure better for me to be too paranoid than the alternative!

  21. We are very lucky with Mort – if you have a toy, that’s better than anything else in the world: other dogs, food, squirrel, even me (I only rank when the toy is out because I can throw it, and that makes me fun – three cheers for interactive toys!) I have to put the toy away in order for him to even notice the environment. It was a great tool for stopping his over-arousal at seeing other dogs on walks – and now of course that obsession has been transferred full-force to the toys.

    Another “tool” I’ve noticed for recall is a slight lack of confidence. Tigger is incredibly dependable off-leash, and will even fetch and recall Mort if she feels he has strayed a bit far or we call for him when he is out of sight (she looks at us “oh you want him? yeah I can’t see him either, let me go get him for you” and she will literally push him back to us). When we are out on off-leash hikes, she largely sticks behind my leg other than the odd sniff. “Ohmigod where’s Tig? Oh… in my blind spot behind my leg as always” However, she cannot be off-leash at our local field where we play fetch with Mort on a daily basis… because she is so comfortable there she feels she can chase the squirrels in that park, and shouldn’t listen to listen to us (it does not matter what we might have in our deck of cards – squirrels near our house will be chased), but then will trot back and nudge our hand after she lost the squirrel up a tree. My best guess is the difference in her level of comfort, and that it’s her – I think it could be her thought process saying “no, it’s OK, I have this under control: I know this spot and my genetics ask me to take care of vermin at home, don’t you understand?”. Our off-leash hikes include fields littered with vermin-holes, but the dogs only ran after them once – and they both returned to me when I called them (shrill and urgent!) So my best guess is a change in confidence level, “home base” vs “environment we go to on occasion”. Vermin at “home” bad and must be taken care of, vermin farther away are interesting but less important. It could be a question of genetics vs her recall training – genetics will overrule training.

    Of course there is also the slightly aversive training that plays right into the statement of making the human the best thing in the world – you make the thing they want to chase something they don’t want to be near anymore, and you might just leave and they are alone with that now-scary item. The setup and timing is pretty critical. Apparently it can be pretty dependable if you have a life-and-death recall problem, but only appropriate for last-chance dogs I feel.

    Last note I have is – frequency of practice in real-life is absolutely key in a solid recall, but don’t waste your efforts when playing against genetics (it could reduce your recall elsewhere). And make sure you always posture backwards and move away from the dog when recalling – never towards the dog.

  22. Because we don’t really have any good areas for Elka to be off-leash, I confess I haven’t been as stringent with recall training as I could be. We do work on it, frequently, and the few times she has pulled a leash from our hands or something similar she never even left the yard, for which I am thankful.

    At Christmas, I turned her loose in my grandparents’ HUGE backyard and was very happy with her attention and responsiveness, and yes her recall. So maybe there is hope, should the occasion ever arise.

  23. I can’t tell you how happy I am to read this article. Very insightful, and I have to admit that it makes me feel less like a horrible dog owner! Penny does NOT have good recall skills–she knows we are calling it and will even turn around to acknowledge that we’re calling her, but she won’t always come. It might be the Great Pyrenees in her, but I feel so badly that I can’t let her off leash for hikes and what not. She is so athletic and the pure joy she gets out of running is amazing to see. We don’t have a fenced-in yard, so we can’t even let her off leash when we are at our house. We’re thinking of installing the last bit of fence (three sides are fenced in, thanks to my neighbors) this spring, just so she can run and play freely–supervised, of course.

    We’re patiently working on recall and know it’s not something that will come magically. This post gives a little more insight into off leash issues though, and I’m glad I stopped by!

  24. I like your approach to it. There is no ambiguity to the questions and it gives you a clear way to say, yes or no, this is a good time to let off a leash. It’s a hard descision to make though. I take Charlie in the woods behind my parents house all the time, and never run into a dog. But than 1 day I did and Charlie didn’t listen in the slightest bit!