How to Teach Your Dog to Be Off Leash

To keep your pup safe while off leash, you must teach reliable recall. Here’s how.

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Here in Colorado, people love going on adventures with their dogs. And adventures with dogs typically involve them running around off leash. Like many states, we have off-leash areas and trails, with the general expectation that pups will listen when called, not just run around and wreak havoc on everyone and everything. But how do you get to that point? It may be hard to imagine that your dog, who gets distracted by every little thing on just a walk, will ever be able to go on an off-leash hike. But it’s easier than you think!

Practice at home first

It’s not a good idea to just turn your dog loose on the trail and see what happens. Besides being potentially dangerous should she stumble across something like a wild animal or even a road, your pup isn’t going to learn to listen to you by not listening to you. So practice at home first.

Start training your dog to come when called by teaching her to look at you when you say her name. Call her name, and when she looks, be happy and reward her with a treat or a toy.

Next play hide and seek in the house. Hide and call your dog, and when she comes toward you, be happy and reward her. Continue being happy and excited until she gets all the way to you. You want to reward your pup for coming all the way to you, not part of the way.

Once your dog reliably comes when called (at least eight times out of 10), then move to the yard. If your pup does not come when called, do not keep calling her name. Say it once or twice, and then go closer to your dog. Wave a treat under her nose, and then have her follow you for a few steps so she still is coming with you.

Move to the long line

Once your dog is reliably coming when called at home and in the yard, move to the long line (it’s like a leash, but generally 20 to 50 feet long). A good place to start with the long line is your front yard, or you can go to a local park. Start with a quieter section of the park with less distractions. And do the same thing you’ve been doing — let your pup go a few feet away, and then call her name. If she looks at you, start getting excited and happy, which will encourage her to keep coming. If she ignores you, do not drag her to you with the long line, but use the long line to inch yourself closer to her. You want your dog to make the choice to come to you, not be forced to come because you are pulling her toward you.

Once your dog has mastered a low distraction environment at the park (again, at least eight times out of 10), bump up the distractions.

Dog off leash by Shutterstock.
Dog off leash by Shutterstock.

Move to the trail

Now your dog should be ready for off leash on the trail! Even though my pup are reliably trained to come when called and have earned their off-leash privileges, I always take special treats with me. We only use these treats on the trail, and I call my dogs back to me every so often just to remind them to stay close and to reward them for listening.

Always take your leash just in case, and if you are in a particularly busy area with lots of people and dogs, it’s polite to keep your pup on leash, even if it’s an off-leash area (unless your dog is really disciplined and stays by your side).

Things to keep in mind as you train your dog to be off leash:

  • Get your dog’s attention before taking off the leash. Denver-based dog trainer Claire Connolly, who regularly takes clients and their dogs on off-leash adventures in the mountains with her company Backcountry Buddies, suggests getting your pup’s attention before turning her loose. If your dog is already distracted, you are setting her up for failure from the beginning.
  • Always be positive. No matter how long it takes your dog to come to you, no matter how annoyed you are, sound happy. Smile. Make your pup want to continue to come to you because it’s a positive experience, not because she is afraid of the consequences if she doesn’t.
  • Don’t overestimate your new puppy or new dog’s love for you. A dog may follow you around the house, and may even happily follow you around on the trail. But what happens when there is a distraction? Your pup’s allegiance may change quickly. That’s why it’s so important to practice in a variety of environments before going out on the trail.

Top photo: Woman hiking with dog by Shutterstock.

Abbie Mood, Dip. CBST

Abbie lives in Colorado with her dogs Daisy, Sadie, and Buster, and can usually be found outside with one of them. She is a dog trainer and freelance writer who loves to explore environmental and animal rights issues. Find out more about her at and Follow her on Twitter @abbiemood and Instagram @abbiemood.


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