A lot of dog owners love letting their dogs off leash. Off-leash time can provide opportunities for our dogs to run free, sniff, roll, dig – to be dogs. It’s fun to watch your dog fully engaged in enjoying the moment.
However, letting your dog off- leash without a reliable recall, in an uncontrolled environment, with no way to get control of your dog, can have a lot of unintended consequences that you may not be aware of.
Unintended consequence No. 1: Your dog rushes up to leashed and/or reactive dogs
Until you’ve been the owner of a reactive dog, it’s easy not to comprehend the consequences of your super friendly dog bounding over to a reactive or leashed dog. But reactive dog owners will tell you that your shouts of “don’t worry, he’s friendly” do nothing to help them.
Reactive dogs are often on leash so that the owner can maintain control of their dog for safety. Or perhaps they’re purposely in an on-leash area so that they don’t encounter off-leash dogs. Regardless, off-leash dogs approaching a reactive dog triggers those dogs.
This results in increases in stress, negative impacts to behavioural modification work and could even put your dog at risk if they don’t keep their distance when they reach the reactive dog. Reactive dogs do not have a “flight” option in stress response when on-leash and therefore are only left with their fight response.
Unintended consequence No. 2: Harassing wildlife
Dogs are not a part of the ecosystem where wildlife flourishes. They are a part of our human ecosystem.
It’s unrealistic to expect dogs to never chase a squirrel or bird.
However I’ve seen or been told of, multiple occasions of off-leash dogs chasing wildlife such as deer, moose, rams and bears.
This may seem harmless to us, but here are some devastating outcomes that have happened from those situations:
1) Dogs get maimed or killed.
2) Dogs bring back the bears to their people who then get attacked.
3) Dogs chase the wildlife for so long that the wildlife ends up dying or struggling for the remainder of the winter because of loss of critical energy with little ability to replenish and stay warm.
4) Dog gets hit by a car while chasing wildlife into the road.
5) Entire areas of parks are closed to dogs following multiple incidents in on-leash areas with wildlife (we know this consequence all too well locally).
Unintended consequence No. 3: You’re making your recall even more unreliable
What really happens when you try to recall your dog and it fails? You’re inadvertently teaching your dog to have an incredibly unreliable recall. Yep. It’s true.
When we recall our dog and they ignore us, we’re teaching them that our recall cue means nothing. You’re essentially working towards having an even worse recall.
So what can you do if you want to let your dog off-leash but you don’t have a reliable recall?
First things first, get a harness and a long-line. A long-line is a leash that should be at least 20 feet but ideally over 30 feet for this type of situation. You’ll attach the long line to the back-clip of a harness. Never attach a long-line to a collar. This can result in injuries to your dog. Now, you’ve got a 30-foot safety line. You can either hold it and let your dog run around like that, or you can drop it and if you see a dog or wildlife in the distance, you go and step on that leash so that you can keep your dog from going over there.
Next, you work on building your recall. Recall training takes time. It needs to start in a low-distraction environment and you will need to build up until you can recall off dogs and wildlife. Recall training should utilize motivators that are specific to your dog for the best results.
Reliable recalls are a must for off-leash dogs, but regardless, please don’t let your dog off-leash in on-leash areas. I know it may seem like a victimless crime, but it’s often not the case between the stress caused to other trail users, wildlife and the consequences to access.
Have any dog training or behavioural questions? Send them my way at email@example.com and I’ll do my best to post responses in this monthly column.
Lynn Gagnon is a certified professional dog trainer for Stoked Dogs.