Safety and reliable recall are the two most IMPORTANT factors when training your dog to be off-leash.

You’re taking a walk in your local park when a dog suddenly appears out of nowhere, running full speed after a low-flying bird. Then you hear someone whistle. The dog immediately turns around and runs as fast as she can back to a man standing 40 yards away. How did he get her to do that?

Letting your dog off-leash is fun and exhilarating for both of you. But there are a lot of distractions and potential dangers lying in wait for off-leash dogs. For example, unexpected loud noises such as backfiring trucks, wailing sirens, or exploding firecrackers can cause a dog to bolt. So if you’re going to let your dog run free, you need to be able to control him, so he’ll stay safe and come when he’s called.

1. Make sure the environment is off-leash safe

Setting up an environment that’s safe, not only for you and your dog but for other people and animals as well, is the most important step in all training.

  • Off-leash training is just like school. It starts at kindergarten, then progresses to grade school, high school and finally college level reliability. To have a dog turn on a dime while chasing after a rabbit or squirrel is PhD behavior. So the first and best environment in which to begin off-leash training is in your house and backyard.
  • Before letting your dog off-leash anywhere beyond your yard, carefully survey the area to ensure its safety. Look for possible hazards such as broken fencing, busy roads, garbage, or animal burrows that could cause serious injury to a running dog. While I was visiting my brother in Arizona recently, we went to a park about the size of a soccer field where his dogs could run to their hearts’ content. The field was clean, with no broken glass, holes or wild animals to contend with. It was ideal.
  • Consideration has to be given to local laws and regulations. Find out if and where dogs are allowed off-leash in your area.

In my part of the country, it is illegal to have a dog off-leash except in designated areas.

2. Motivate your dog to listen to you

If Mother Nature is sitting on your dog’s shoulder whispering, “Chase the bird!” and you’re dozens of yards away yelling, “Come back, I have a biscuit!” – who is he going to listen to? That’s your competition. In order to get your dog to choose you over Mother Nature, you have to first convince him you’re worth it.

Science has proven that triggering “I love you” feel-good chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin improves motivation and memory in both dogs and people. And in dogs, nothing triggers those chemicals better than the following:

• Fun play, including a giddy attitude on your part.

• Hunting-type activities such “find it” games, agility, chasing balls and Frisbees.

• Using Mother Nature herself as a reward, such as allowing your dog to chase a squirrel (with caution, of course), or saying hello to another dog. Keep in mind that training is often like a Zen koan: “In order to say hello to that dog, Grasshopper, you must first turn away from that dog.”

• Certain foods, especially meat and dairy proteins, also activate these feel-good chemicals.

In the beginning, the quickest way to have your dog form a positive association with you is to liberally use highly-valued treats (e.g., chicken, cheese) and play, so that he sees you as the best provider of fun things ever. He learns what to do to get you to give him what he wants, like treats, toys, games, freedom to play with other dogs, and saying hello to people he likes. In fact, fun and games is another term for training.

3. Teach reliable recall

Compare behavior to a tomato plant. It takes time for a tomato plant to take root, grow, spread out, and produce fruit. The process is similar to neural pathways growing in a dog’s brain during training. It takes time, fertilization (great rewards) and cultivation (consistency and repetition) to get results. To get your dog to choose to follow a particular behavioral pathway, such as to come when called, instead of the pathway Mother Nature is growing, like chase the bird, training must begin early and be repeated often. It must also start at a non-distracting, capability-appropriate level at which both you and your dog can be successful.

The most important behavior to teach your dog in preparation for being off-leash is “come”. There are a few ways you can do this.

• Here’s something I advise everyone to do from the first day they bring a puppy or newly adopted dog into the home. This is pure Pavlov. Instead of ringing a bell and giving your dog a treat, you’ll say a word and give your dog a treat instead. Pick a word like “treat”, “here” or “bingo”, and stick a treat in his mouth within one second. You must be close enough to the dog that the treat gets right to him; you don’t want him walking towards you. Do this every day for the rest of his life.

Think of it this way: by doing this exercise, you are putting money in your savings account so that if an emergency hits during an off-leash walk in the park, you can make an emergency withdrawal. Is your dog running at a skunk? Make an emergency withdrawal and say the word you used during training.

When my four dogs went out in the yard in the mornings, they’d run around and bark for about ten minutes. Then I’d say “That’s it”, which was their signal to stop barking. If they didn’t stop immediately, I’d say “Here”. All four dogs would immediately rush into the house as fast as possible.

It is important to let your dog’s neural pathways grow without interruption. Do a test after the first 30 to 60 days of initiating this particular training. Watch him playing and suddenly say “Come!” If he doesn’t immediately stop what he’s doing and come to you, do not repeat the word. Continue your daily practice and try again in 15 to 30 days. Make it fun, and be consistent and precise with signals. Start at a kindergarten level and gradually add more challenges with various distractions and increased distance and duration.

• Many trainers use the word “touch” to have a dog touch something with his nose. I use the same idea to teach “come” by saying the word and having the dog touch my hand. If my dogs see my hand move down to my side, even from 100 yards away, they know it’s the hand signal for “come” and will respond by returning to me.

Start by first rubbing a little chicken (or other treat) on your hand, then put your hand one inch from your dog’s nose. As soon as he touches his nose to your hand, click and/or exclaim “Yay!” or “Good job!” and reward with a highly-valued treat. Once your dog figures out that touching your hand gets him a reward, add the vocal cue “come” and present your hand. Gradually add distance, a foot at a time, until he comes all the way across a room to touch your hand. If he gets confused, go back to the point where you were successful. When he starts responding within three seconds, and does what you ask three times in a row, progress to the next level. When you take it outside, start again from a distance of one inch and work up until you are across the yard. Gradually add more challenges in the form of various distractions and increased distances.

• Play the “look what I have” game. Get a friend to a hold a treat and show it to your dog. Stand right next to your friend, say “come”, and put your hand an inch or so away from the dog’s nose. If he turns his head away from the treat to touch your hand, get your friend to immediately reward him with the treat.

Gradually progress to moving further and further away from each other, even to the point where you’re out of sight, using the “come” cue to get your dog to move from your friend to you. This is important because you want your dog to respond not only to your hand signals, but also to the sound of your voice. Once again, it’s like a Zen koan: “In order to get the treat, Grasshopper, you must move away from the treat.” If a dog won’t turn away from a piece of chicken, he will never turn away from a squirrel.

Not all dogs can become off-leash reliable, due to their health, age, previous training and history. But if you start consistently training your dog from an early age, and keep safety and responsibility in mind, you’ll be able to let him run free without worry.

For more information, watch a video at review/116614259/87dcefb4d9.


Paul Owens began training dogs in 1972. He is a professional member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and The Pet Professional Guild. He has long been a leading proponent of force-free, non-violent training. He authored the best-selling The Dog Whisperer and The Puppy Whisperer books and is featured on the new DVD, Welcome Home! Ultimate Guide for All Newly Adopted Puppies and Dogs. Paul is director of Raise with Praise Professional Dog Training, and founder/director of the children’s after school violence prevention program, Paws for Peace.