Can You Let Your Dog Off the Leash?

Female dog walker walking dogs at dog park
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Dogs love to run, play and explore the world without the hindrance of a leash. However, letting your dog off the leash can be dangerous for your dog and disrespectful to your community depending on the circumstances. Is it ever a good idea to let your dog off the leash?

In general, it is not recommended to let your dog off the leash unless you are in an enclosed area and your dog is well-behaved. In the absence of local leash laws, it may be acceptable to allow your dog off the leash. However, your dog must be properly trained to behave well off-leash and stay right by your side or under your voice control at all times. If your dog is in excellent health, is very well-trained and even-tempered, has a minimal prey drive, has never shown signs of aggression towards people or animals, and does not have “wanderlust,” then there is a possibility that letting him off the leash will not backfire. Before letting your dog off the leash, please consider the following factors very closely:

It Might Be Illegal

Most cities and towns have leash laws. These laws are in place to keep everyone safe, so it’s in everyone’s best interest that you follow them. This is a basic part of being a responsible dog owner. Make sure you know the local laws before you let your dog off the leash. If you choose to break the law, be prepared for fines and citations at the very least.

If your dog is accused of causing any damage while off-leash, there’s a good chance you will be held responsible. For example, someone may claim your dog jumped on them and tried to bite. Even if the accusations are false, you may have trouble proving it if your dog was witnessed running loose. If the authorities get involved, your dog may be quarantined for rabies (this can happen in most states even if your dog is current on a rabies vaccine; if your dog is NOT current on rabies, the quarantine may be much longer and your dog may even be destroyed). In the end, your dog may also be declared a "dangerous animal" and have restrictions placed on where he can go.

Your Dog Could Get Lost, Be Hurt, or Cause Harm

Even the most well-trained dog can get distracted. A loose dog may see another dog or a prey animal and run after it out of sheer instinct. Or, a loose dog may become spooked by a loud noise and run off in fear. Once your dog is out of your sight, even if only for a moment, he is potentially in danger. Or, your dog may end up being the one causing trouble. Your dog could have one or more of the following happen:

  • Become lost or stolen
  • Get hit by a car or other vehicle
  • Ingest a toxin, such as antifreeze or rat poison 
  • Get bitten by a snake
  • Get attacked by a wild animal
  • Fight with another dog
  • Injure another animal (such as a cat or a bird)
  • Damage property
  • Cause a car accident
  • Get shot (especially in areas where hunting takes place)
  • Get picked up by animal control
  • Become injured by some other hazard 

Your Dog Might Bother Other People

Some people are afraid of dogs. Others may not particularly like dogs (yes, that’s hard for us dog fanatics to imagine). How fair is it to force your dog on others? At the very least, letting your dog off-leash may seem rude and annoy people. Even if your dog remains right by your side, other people may see that he is off-leash and become nervous or afraid. Some dogs can even sense this fear and may react in an unexpected way. You never really know how your dog will act in a situation until faced with it. What if a child screams and runs away from your dog, then your dog's predatory instinct kicks in and he chases the child? This type of thing happens all the time. Dogs are animals with natural instincts and no concept of morality. If this happened, it would not be your dog's fault; it would be your fault. Don't say it could never happen, because you cannot know for sure. The fact is that when your dog is off-leash, you have no physical control over him. 

Your Dog Could Be In Danger from Another Dog

Say you are walking with your dog off-leash. He sees another dog and tries to say hello (or, the other dog might have come over to say hi first). Your dog may be a perfect angel and do nothing to deserve it, but those two dogs might start fighting. Some dogs simply do not get along with other dogs. Some dogs specifically feel threatened by off-leash dogs (especially if they are on the leash and the other dog is off-leash). When one dog is on a leash and the other dog is not, there is a high risk of a dogfight happening. If both dogs are off-leash in an enclosed area, the risk of a dogfight is still there, but it is a little less likely with the playing field leveled. If both dogs are on leashes, then both owners have physical control over their dogs and can separate them if needed.

It’s true that some owners are irresponsible and let their dogs roam free, sometimes resulting in those dogs terrorizing other dogs. Having your dog on a leash will not protect you from a loose aggressive dog. However, it may allow you to swiftly move your dog away if the loose dog is not actively pursuing your dog. If you are concerned about loose dogs trying to engage your leashed dog, you may choose to carry citronella spray, and air horn, or a similar aversive. This type of item may distract an approaching dog long enough for you and your leashed dog to get away.

On or off the leash, your dog may one day end up in a dogfight. Just in case this happens to your dog, it's a good idea to know how to safely break up a dogfight.

How to Train Your Dog To Behave Off-Leash

There is no way to guarantee your dog’s safety if you choose to let him off the leash. However, advanced training can help decrease the chances of your dog getting in harm's way. Your dog can enjoy running free and exploring his environment but he must understand the rules. It's important that your off-leash dog either stays right by your side or can be called to your side easily. Begin by establishing a training foundation. Clicker training is an excellent way to train any dog, but it can be especially valuable if you plan to eventually let your dog off the leash. First, your dog should have a mastery of basic commands. Your dog must excel in the following:

Next, your dog must learn that it is highly valuable to stay close to you. It is in your dog's nature to explore, but as stated above, wandering can lead to danger. If your dog stays close and can be trusted to obey recall commands, you can let him run within your sight. Your dog should also learn to value you above any distractions. Ideally, you will teach your dog to look at you (and to check in with you) any time a distraction comes along. It will help to practice "look" while your dog is on the leash around a lot of distractions. In addition, you should always try to reward your dog for checking in on his own (if he looks at you or comes over to you). If you use clicker training, try to capture the desired behaviors.

Regularly practice training commands with your dog off-leash in an enclosed area. Gradually add more distractions. Practice"look" off the leash and keep rewarding natural check-ins. When you are confident that your dog is ready, try letting your dog off-leash in the safest area possible for short periods of time. Look for an open area that has some kind of natural boundaries, like water or houses. Make sure you are not close to a street with high traffic. Carry high-value treats or another high-value reward. Work your way up to more challenging environments. NOTE: It is never recommended to let your dog off-leash in crowded public areas or around traffic, regardless of the leash laws in that area.

Make sure you understand your dog's tendencies and limits. Some dogs will never be able to resist certain distractions, especially those with high prey drives. Dogs with the following tendencies are especially high-risk for danger when off the leash:

  • Squirrel chaser (or other small animals)
  • Car-chaser
  • Noise-phobic (afraid of thunder, fireworks, a car backfiring, etc)
  • Dog reactive or hyperactive/excited around other dogs
  • Wanderlust (dogs that try to run away to explore and ignore just about anything you say)

Training can help minimize some tendencies, but rarely will they completely vanish. If you know your dog cannot resist a response to certain stimuli, then you must understand the risks when he is off leash. If you have doubts, it's best to just keep him on the leash. Consider a long lead to give him room to explore. Take him to fenced in areas where he can safely play off-leash. Remember, it's always best to put safety first.